Thursday, October 27, 2016


Within the past week and a half or so, two people we were acquainted with (not closely) died. In accordance with the "bad things come in threes" rule, should I brace for hearing about another death in the near future? I don't really believe in that "rule," but. . . . How soon would it have to happen, to "count" as the last in a cluster of three? How well would we have to know the person? The human brain, being designed for pattern recognition, tends to stretch events to fit into patterns whenever feasible.

I admit I entertain superstitions that I recognize as such and don't truly believe in on an intellectual level—yet a certain degree of emotional belief lingers, even though I know it's irrational. I feel it's bad luck to talk too much about good fortune, because it might evaporate. I don't believe Divine Providence actually works like capricious deities in classical mythology. But I "knock on wood" anyway (usually on my own skull to indicate it's a joke). There are some cultures in which it's considered bad luck to praise a baby or small child, because the words might draw the attention of evil spirits or malicious fairies.

My stepmother tended to pronounce superstitious warnings on occasion, though I don't know how seriously she meant them. The one that struck me as strangest was "it's bad luck to open an umbrella in the house." Huh? You have to set up a wet umbrella in the open position, typically in a bathtub, so it can dry. I'd think a mildewed umbrella would be a worse outcome than hypothetical generalized bad luck.

In the U.S. black cats represent bad luck; in England they're good luck. So it all depends on your culture's point of view.

At the Maryland Renaissance Festival this fall, I attended a talk about early modern science, given by a man who portrayed a natural philosopher and alchemist of the sixteenth century. He told us comets were omens sent by God to warn us of coming disasters. Proof? Whenever you see a comet, something terrible happens soon afterward. Of course, terrible things happen in the world all the time, comet or no comet, so we can easily find a disaster to connect with the celestial omen. We are pattern-seeking creatures!

One thing that bugs me about lots of older science fiction set in the future is that many authors operated with the unquestioned assumption that beliefs in supernatural beings and phenomena would no longer exist. Scientific advances would cause the people of the future to outgrow that "irrational" mindset. DEEP SPACE NINE, I thought, handled the spiritual dimension much better than the original STAR TREK did. In DS9, religion played an important part in Bajoran society and in the lives of some of the characters, rather than the only "gods" being super-powerful aliens faking their divine status like Apollo in the original series. The transitions from hunter-gatherer cultures to agriculture to urbanization to the present Information Age haven't eradicated religion and superstition; why would a relatively minor innovation such as space travel (minor compared to the difference between the Paleolithic and today) cause these deep-rooted human tendencies to die out?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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