“That guy hasn’t missed a free throw all night,” announced the color commentator of the college basketball game.
“Now you’ve done it, you’ll jinx him for sure,” said the play-by-play broadcaster. Sure enough, the player missed his next free throw.
Why do we say such things? Do we really believe there is a supernatural universe operating out of sight? Is it a form of magic? We all do it; we go through rituals for certain tasks, in an effort to affect things we cannot control. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I do still participate in rituals.
A favorite of mine is “knock on wood,” a mantra to assure things will continue the positive way just stated. For example, after a visit to a friend in the hospital, I said, hopefully, “Well, it looks like she’s out of the woods now, the worst is over. Knock on wood!” Woe betide us if there is nothing made of wood handy! It feels like a bad sign if we don’t follow through, so I feel some dissatisfaction if I can’t knock on real wood. I have nothing wooden in my car, alas, so I am out of luck if I am in the car when I try to knock
I think rituals help us because we believe they give us an edge to achieve a desired outcome. Going back to basketball (can’t help it, as I write this we are in the midst of March Madness), a coach will often wear what he considers a lucky sweater, or tie. A player will go through the same routine each time he lines up for a free throw, but that could also be muscle memory, since he practices shooting hundreds of free throws. Each time the routine works, it reinforces the behavior – until it doesn’t work. Then the person needs to find another ritual. Maybe he will cling to the ritual a little longer if he thinks the failure was just an aberration.
I am a Duke basketball fan; I wear my college gear when I am going to watch a game my team is playing. It doesn’t necessarily work, but it makes me feel like I am doing my part. I have sweatshirts, T shirts and earrings as well as mugs to drink from.
So many people are superstitious that it seems to be part of being human. I would venture that all cultures have their rituals and superstitions. Anything you can do that might be able to improve the odds is worth a try. But people do these things without actual forethought, it seems to me. If we think about it too much we realize how silly it is to think we have such power. So we continue practicing these behaviors without examining ourselves too closely.
I remember as a child, when I walked on a sidewalk, hearing in my head the saying:
“Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,
Step on a line, you’ll break your mother’s spine.”
I did not believe it, but I was careful to walk the proper number of steps it took to get through each sidewalk block, so I wouldn’t step on a line. I still do that, to this day.
Here are some more common superstitions: if you spill salt, you must immediately throw some over your left shoulder (to ward off evil); it is bad luck to walk under a ladder; a black cat crossing your path is bad luck (making it a not-so-great idea to have one for a pet, as I do); if you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years of bad luck. Those rituals and superstitions all portend negative consequences.
Some rituals are inherently positive. If my daughter and I happen to say the same thing at the same time, we immediately join pinkies. One of us says, “What goes up the chimney?”
The other replies, “Smoke.”
The two of us then say, in unison, as we shake our pinkies up and down, “Your wish and my wish will never be broke.” That always gives me satisfaction, even if I haven’t thought of a wish. It’s kind of like breaking a wishbone, which the two people must hold between their pinkies. I always believed the person getting the larger piece had their wish come true, but I discovered that my husband believed the opposite. So we could both win (or lose)!
Athletes in particular seem to engage in rituals. I am told that tennis player Rafael Nadal goes through an elaborate ritual each time he serves, although I have not seen it for myself. He wins a lot, so maybe it works! Superstitions and rituals help us to believe that we have some measure of control over the universe. Even though we know it’s not so, we continue using them, anyway.
Just in case.