We have broken two wine glasses in the past two days.
Karen: I think this is God’s way of telling us not to drink so much.
Paula: I think this is God’s way of telling us to drink from the bottle.
We were both joking, of course – but secretly, more often than I’d like to admit, I find myself trying to interpret the stream of events in my life as signs getting beamed to me from the great unknown. Six red lights in a row on the way to the train station: I am a bad person in need of punishment. Finding an all-day free parking spot in downtown Menlo Park: kiss my ring, world, I have been singled out for greatness. Sunrises, hummingbird visitations, finding the silhouette of a wolf in the stucco of my bedroom ceiling… all these things make up a collective compass that is guiding me through a scripted and meaningful series of acts. And superstitions: I love them. Just pennies alone… I have spent countless hours wondering what the terms and conditions of “Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck” are. Is “all day long” 24 consecutive hours, or just until midnight, or perhaps nightfall? Is it lucky only if you find the penny heads up? (I find nothing in the scripture to support this, but still… I don’t touch the tails pennies.) What if it happens to be your own penny that you find, in your own house, but in an unexpected place? I think the equivalent of the Talmud could be written about this simple verse.
I started to wonder what makes this harvesting of signs and signals so attractive, if a little embarrassing. Superstition has a negative connotation to most people – the stuff of simple-minded, uneducated Old Country women. But say “I believe everything happens for a reason” in the quiet ceremony of an interpersonal dynamics T-group or a first date, and the response is likely to be a solemn and respectful nod and an appreciation of your spiritual depth. We’re all looking for a logical trail of breadcrumbs that leads to exactly where we are today, whether there are black cats, or bad people turning into pillars of salt, or yoga retreats along the way.
If you Google “why are people superstitious”, you’ll come across a Web MD feature on the subject, based on an interview with Stuart Vyse, PhD, and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition:
Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an explanation for why things happen. "Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what much of the research suggests," says Vyse.
This sounds about right to me. I’m good with false certainty; after all, mindset is an important element of well-being and happiness, and having an explanation for things helps me feel that the next thing that happens to me may be good, or bad, but at least it won’t be random (and therefore entirely out of my control).
But I think there’s more to it than being a control freak. I think we all want to get to the end of our lives and find that our autobiography is a rich and meaningful story – one that ultimately had not just a sense of purpose, but an actual purpose. We are constantly attuned to the circumstances around us that might somehow be our cues. And we are worried that if we wave away the oddity of two broken glasses in a week, we might be missing something: perhaps the one cue we’ve been waiting for to pivot from our current trajectory and discover our true reason for walking this earth.
Well, actually, the wine glass thing was just a really funny conversation. We got a lot of mileage out of it on Facebook (my source for personal validation.) But it did get me thinking about this topic, and then writing about it. And the next time I turn a corner and come face to face with a giant, orange moon hanging just above the horizon, I will think to myself: I am destined for greatness.