It’s the old superstition,
. . .
neither inside nor outside,
. . .
A metaphor, as Amma says,
for not doing anything halfway.
from Red, White, and Whole
by Rajani LaRocca
Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, 2021
When I was in grade school, I spent birthday money or my weekly allowance coins at my local dime store to buy, among other stuff, lucky rabbits’ feet. I don’t remember how many I had. They had a way of getting lost or borrowed or given away and needed to be replaced. Some were dyed pink or blue. I preferred the plain white ones. Their claws were still attached. On the opposite end was a round metal clasp, like a cap. A chain made of tiny balls was threaded through a small hole at the top so it could be clipped to a keychain or necklace.
Like most of my friends, I carried a rabbit’s foot on my keychain for good luck. When our teacher handed out tests, purple-inked ditto sheets, sometimes stapled together, sometimes just a single page, we’d all lay our rabbit’s feet on our desks. For good luck, in case the studying and generic prayers were not enough to ensure our success. Just in case.
One year, maybe third or fourth grade, our teacher told us “No rabbit’s feet in my classroom.” She gently explained that the good-luck charm had cost a living animal its life.
Why in the whole world had I not made that connection before? I was appalled. And now I had a dilemma. What would be the best way to rid myself of the sad and disgusting dead foot of a once living, furry bunny? The other sad part of this story is I don’t even remember. Maybe I gave it to a younger friend who did not have my same teacher. Maybe I gave it to my brother. I know I did not throw it away. That would have been sacrilegious. I’m not even sure I knew the word, but the idea of throwing away even part of a once-living being was as appalling as keeping it.
During a conversation with my older daughter we started talking about superstitions. She suggested that superstitions are portents of something bad. Unless you did a particular thing or carried or said one thing or another, something bad would happen. Black cats, ladders, and broken mirrors came to mind. But like carrying that rabbit’s foot, I knew sometimes superstition could foster good luck.
The New World Encyclopedia defines a superstition as “a way of attempting to regain control over events, particularly when one feels helpless.”
Understanding why events occur is one of humanity’s deepest yearnings. When something good, or especially when something bad happens, a common response is Why me? The quest for answers has led to many superstitions.
Often superstitions are born through coincidence. Who besides me has a lucky shirt or a penny? or pair of socks? or fork? or pencil? … Sometimes the item wards off the bad, and sometimes it attracts the good. I’ve been known to walk under an open ladder, just to see. (BTW, nothing happened.) I’ve also been known to toss a few grains of spilled salt over my shoulder, just because.
Some superstitions are particular to one society or culture or group of people. Some are more universal. Breaking a mirror will bring bad luck is a superstition believed in many cultures. It may have begun in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome whose citizens attributed a person’s reflection with a connection to a their soul. Viewing your reflection in a pool was akin to seeing your soul. When artisans learned how to put a high sheen on metal, they believed their gods could see their souls in these reflective pieces. Later, when mirrors were made of glass, they became much more likely to break, often due to poor handling. It was considered so disrespectful that “people thought it compelled the gods to rain bad luck on anyone so careless.” ("The Conversation" from the University of South Carolina)
But maybe superstitions are really related to our attitude. If we think something bad will happen, but we carry a four-leaf-clover, or find a face-up penny, we’re likely to be more aware of the moment. We can ward off the bad happenstance through our own sensitivities. Likewise with “good” luck. If we expect good things will happen, we’re more likely to work toward that end.
I’m really more of a “gray” person than one who lives in the black and white of the world, but opposites are one of my fascinations. I keep a list of them. So I wondered, what is the opposite of superstition?
Expecting something in the spiritual realm or something faith-based, I took a quick peek at the antonym for superstition on my computer’s built-in thesaurus. What I found was not really a surprise: science.
Pure and simple, science is based in fact. But science is ever-changing and very complex. And we’re acquiring new scientific knowledge all the time. That doesn’t change the science, but it does change what we know to be true. At least until we learn the next new thing.
-—be curious! (and believe)