I am not superstitious. I want to get that out of the way right up front. My words, thoughts, or actions do not directly affect outside events. No ritual, no matter how perfectly or faithfully performed, is going to alter anything that I would otherwise be unable to change through my own efforts. I am a rational, analytical, and logical being.
On the other hand, my gums do hurt.
About twenty-five years ago, a dentist told me I should have my wisdom teeth taken out. I went to another dentist, a family friend, for a second opinion. He advised me to leave them alone, which I did. Our daughter had all four wisdom teeth extracted several years ago, and our son went through the same procedure just last month. We were standing in the kitchen recently, talking about who still had their wisdom teeth and I told the story of the two dentists. Then I said, with astounding foolishness, “I intend to keep mine for the rest of my life.”
The next day, my wisdom teeth answered back: “We heard that!” It was as though they had been listening through the wall. I felt a weird pain in my gums on the upper right side. Three days later, the pain switched over to the upper left. Nothing excruciating. Just an insistent pressure and an occasional twinge. I think my wisdom teeth were scolding me: “Don’t you ever tell us what to do. We’re all the wisdom you’ve got.”
I’d heard that voice before. In fact, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t discuss my health in any detail, with anyone, ever. When my doctor asks how I’m feeling, I tell him it’s none of his business. Because here’s what happens. Someone I know is sick. He has a cold. He’s whining and dripping and sneezing his head off. He says, “Don’t you hate having a cold?” And I pause for a second or two, thinking. Then I say the words I should never say: “I can’t remember the last time I was sick. I haven’t had a cold in I don’t know how long. Years.” Later that week, I’m whining and dripping and sneezing my head off. Now you may be assuming that I caught the cold from my friend, that he was spreading his germs everywhere and I was in the line of fire. But no, that’s usually not what happens. I’m talking to the person on the phone. He’s miles away, maybe hundreds of miles. It’s either a strange coincidence or my own declaration of health is making me sick. I prefer to believe it’s a coincidence.
But what about my back? I ruptured a disc in 2005. That pain was excruciating. Sometimes my knees would hurt, while other days it was my thighs or lower back; frequently, it was all three. I couldn’t sleep on my stomach or stand up straight. If I coughed or yawned, it would end with a scream. I tried physical therapy, a chiropractor, acupuncture, heating pads, cold packs, medication, swimming, walking, curling up in a fetal position, and whimpering. Eventually I realized the health care system held out no hope beyond the exercise I got while changing position in front of the X-ray machine, or trying to put on my socks. I decided to find my own solution.
My wife bought me a portable jacuzzi for the bathtub. However, the powerful bubbling action promised on the package failed to appear. I could have filled the tub with ginger ale and gotten the same effect. For my birthday, I received a pair of blue vinyl massage boots that attached to an air pump; the boots covered my feet and legs to just below the knees, and alternately inflated and deflated, simulating a deep muscle massage. Not only was the pain still there, but when the boots inflated and squeezed tight, I could feel my eyes popping out of my head.
One day, about ten months after the initial injury, I was walking from our son’s bus stop back to the house. I said nothing, but thought to myself, “Hey. I’m walking straight. And it doesn’t hurt!”
That afternoon, I picked up the metal cage holding our two dwarf rabbits, Sophia and Loren. As I moved in one direction, the rabbits hopped across the bottom of the cage in another, shifting the weight. That’s all it took. I felt a hot bolt of lightning streak up my spine, and I was on my back for another two weeks. Was it Sophia and Loren’s fault? Or did I do it to myself?
I repeat again: I don’t believe in any of the superstitions or magical thinking people cling to. I was once in a car with a friend and we were going out for lunch. She was driving and as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot, we noticed that the place was packed. She immediately began to pray, out loud.
“What are you praying about?” I asked.
“For a parking space,” she said, sounding quite surprised by my question.
I looked around and silently wondered what that would look like if the prayer were answered. All of the parking spaces are filled with cars. She prays for a place to park, and then what? Suddenly there’s an open spot? After we pull in, will someone come out of the restaurant to discover that his car has disappeared? Where exactly would it have gone? If I had been looking in the right place at just the right moment, would I have seen the car vanish?
Another time I was expecting a check to arrive in the mail. As with all checks over three dollars, it was late. The post office, I believe, has its own X-ray machine, and stores envelopes containing large checks in a dark room for several weeks before sending them out for delivery. As I headed out to get the mail, someone told me to “think positive.” Again, is it possible that my thoughts would have any influence on whether or not that check would be in the box? It was mid-afternoon, so the mail had all been delivered. Either it was in there or it wasn’t. Could my positive thinking cause the check to vanish from the dark storage room and reappear in my mailbox? On the contrary, after waiting for so many weeks, I believed it less likely that it would show up on any given day. My thinking that it would be there on the exact day it arrived seemed to be a coincidence too great to hope for, or even pray for. Positive thinking, I imagined, would pretty much guarantee that the check would never come.
This idea is related to another example, one with life threatening implications.
I’m about to drive across a bridge. The bridge has been standing for decades. It has never fallen. I’ll be on it for a few minutes. What are the chances that it will fall during those few minutes, when it’s been here all this time? But here’s the real key: Having these thoughts while I’m on the bridge adds another layer of coincidence. What are the chances that it will collapse while I’m on it and while I’m thinking about it collapsing? By focusing on this mental image of the bridge falling into the river below, I virtually ensure that I’ll make it across safely. In addition, the people in the other cars will be safe, too. Using this method over many years, I have saved the lives of countless thousands of unsuspecting drivers, as well as their passengers. I do the same thing when boarding an airplane, walking under a construction crane, or swimming in the ocean.
Does all of this make me superstitious? Of course not. As I said, I’m a rational, analytical, and logical being. I just don’t want to jinx myself.