Friday, May 1, 2009

Knock Wood

In the last couple of weeks, I've been told twice that I should knock on wood. Once was when I said that I don't think my husband will get laid off, and once was when I said that I am reasonably sure that I don't need more than one backup doula for the two births that I am scheduled to attend in early May, because the only possible reason I'd need two backups is if I got run over by a bus. On each occasion, my interlocutor (a different person each time) said, with a sharp intake of breath and a strongly disapproving tone, "You BETTER knock on wood after saying THAT." The way they spoke suggested that I had been exceedingly, unwisely brash and that I had better make immediate restitution for my stupidity.

I guess the controlling idea with knocking on wood is that by naming and scoffing at a worst-case scenario, one is inviting that specific scenario to actually occur - whether by the machinations of Fate or fate or God or the gods or some other sentient aspect of the inner workings of the universe. It's similar to hubris, where the most surefire way for a hotpants-clad Greek muscleman to guarantee that he will be devoured by a monster is to proclaim that there is no way in Hades that he could ever, ever be bested by such a puny, pathetic little monster. Once he's said those words, there's no need to continue reading the story - you know what's coming.*

The sharp chastisement I received on both of the knock-on-wood occasions described above made me feel as though I had been very, very imprudent. (I did not, however, actually knock on wood either time, feeling that doing so would somehow undo the last vestige of my dignity.) However, in hindsight, I don't see anything wrong with what I said. The thing is, while I am certainly an anxious person with an overactive imagination, I am not at all superstitious. When I was a child, my parents neither practiced nor preached any superstitions or any other culturally-approved irrationalities. Thus it was that I never truly believed in God or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I never truly believed in rabbits' feet or lucky pennies or 13, I never worried about hats on beds or umbrellas opened in houses, I never prayed, and I never knocked on wood.

All that is to say that, while I recognize that it was distasteful of me to name the particular possibilities I named, and that I will feel foolish (also broke or dead) if either of them does occur, I absolutely cannot believe that my naming them actually made them any more likely to occur. The corollary, of course, is also true - I cannot believe that not naming unpleasant possibilities makes them any less likely to occur. Indeed, it seems to me that this is the real nub of superstition - not that certain actions result in ill luck, but that refraining from these actions results in good luck. So if you don't break a mirror, you are preventing misfortune for seven years; if you don't put your hat on the bed, you are warding off death; if you don't number the thirteenth floor of a building, you are permitting prosperity to enter. Superstitions, then, allow you to experience a higher degree of control over your circumstances than you actually have.

I'm not sure what it means that I reject the illusion of control that comes with superstition. It may be because I simply can't accept that kind of responsibility on top of all the other responsibilities that life has brought me. I can do my best to be informed, judicious, thoughtful, data-driven, kind, generous, flexible, reasonable, organized, well-groomed, and clean (though those last three areas are admittedly not my strengths), but I do not have the psychological energy to take responsibility, via arcane behavioral guidelines, for the quality of my fate on the grand scale. I'm not saying that I take this approach because I'm a great person - it's probably due more to sheer laziness as well as my aggressively rational upbringing than to any personal strength - but I do sometimes wish that more people would share it. I wish that more people would pay more attention to living rational, responsible, and compassionate lives and less attention to outlandish and irrelevant rules of conduct meant to somehow simulate the likely result of living rationally, responsibly, and compassionately. So I will, in the future, bring more consideration and restraint to my discussions of what-ifs, but even if I fail in this goal, I refuse to knock on wood, because I know it won't make a difference.

*Not to make light of the Greco-Roman mythological tradition, which was the very bread-and-butter of much of my childhood, and which I am seriously considering getting back into. For whatever reason, The New York Review of Books has had a long run in the past months of classical-scholarship-related articles and reviews, which have made me want to dive with ferocity back into Aeschylus or Virgil, for example, the only problem being that I am considerably hampered by my four jobs and toddler.

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