The punishing ideology of superstition

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Every night, I read children’s books to my kids before bedtime. I have always enjoyed reading aloud since I was introduced to it in first grade. When I read to my kids, I change my voice, add inflection, changes of tempo and make up melodies for songs in the stories I read. I want bedtime stories to be entertaining for my kids and I, together.

So last night, I found myself reading, “Fancy Nancy’s Just My Luck”, a very well thought out book that can be used to dispel superstition for kids. In this book, Fancy Nancy introduces the reader to a few of the most commonly believed superstitions, like:

  • Stepping on a crack is bad luck
  • The number 13 is bad luck
  • Breaking a mirror is bad luck
  • A black cat is bad luck
  • And four leaf clovers are good luck

The irony of superstitions is that they teach both control and no control. If you can avoid those things that are bad luck, well, your life is supposed to stay as it is. And if you never find a four leaf clover, your life will still stay as it is. But if you step on a crack, on Friday the 13th, and break a mirror, and then a black cat crosses your path, stay indoors. On the other hand, if you find a four leaf clover, go to Vegas.

What really struck me was the following passage in the book:

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Here, we see Nancy confronted by a schoolmate for stepping on a crack. Notice the posture and expression of the character, Grace, the girl confronting Nancy. Total confrontation, zero compassion. Notice also that Nancy didn’t know that stepping on a crack is bad luck. Ignorance is no excuse for bad luck, right? And as we continue reading, we see how tiring it is to follow every single superstition.

To be fair, there is an Amelia Bedelia book, Amelia Bedelia Tries Her Luck, that handles the introduction of superstition with a bit less drama at the beginning, but at the end of that book, it gets rather serious. Both books do a good job of debunking superstition and illustrate how tiring superstitions can be. As if we don’t already have enough to think about.

For me, the point of interest in that whole book was a realization that superstitions are about punishment and control. I also think of superstitions as an extension of religion. They can both be used for social control and even dominance in the case of religion.

While I can see how conformity can be useful for the safety of a tribe in a forest, I think we can protect ourselves against most predators nowadays. Yet, I see how our culture tends to relish punishment in pop culture and in religion. I’ve seen preachers quoted as saying a flood is punishment for decadence, in just the same way that I’ve seen people say that the number 13 is bad luck. I guess the bad luck for number 13 is punishment for failing to honor the number 13.

In popular movies, there is a good guy and a bad guy, and most of the time, the bad guy gets punished. In television drama, we see the same thing over and over, conflict starts, melee ensues, bad guy is dispatched without jury or trial. Everyone is happy. It is hard for me to remember where the punishment befits the crime in the movies or on TV, too.

In television comedies, most of what I see is thinly veiled sarcasm. To me, sarcasm is punishment, usually for what is perceived to be a misunderstanding.

From religion to entertainment, to politics, our culture seems to be obsessed with punishment. If you don’t believe me, go shopping at your favorite supermarket and check out the tabloids for sale at the check stand. The tabloids are all about how much time the rich and famous have to suffer for their gluttony.

Lost in all of this are natural consequences to our actions. Walking under a ladder is supposed to be bad luck, but anyone familiar with the laws of physics will know that it’s dangerous to walk under a ladder. What are the natural consequences of a black cat? Maybe some heavy petting and purring. The natural consequence of stepping on a crack could be stubbing your toe if you’re barefoot. The natural consequence of breaking a mirror is yet another trip to Ikea for a new mirror. If luck prevails, they will still carry the same mirror and have it in stock.

So I’m using these children’s books to steer my kids clear of superstition. I’m using what I know now to remind myself that superstitions are a distraction from the present moment. I’m reminding myself that many people still believe in these superstitions and they still vote every November. I’m reminding myself that there are serious men in powerful places that are still afraid of witches.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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