I’ve been watching some interesting shows on TV lately, shows about different superstitions and beliefs around the world. Some of them terrify me—exorcisms and people who pierce themselves with hooks that are connected to weights, then climb a hundred steps dragging the weights up the stairs—and all of this to appease their god or gods. And there was a segment about women deemed witches by their peers and driven out of their villages because the crops failed that year or because there was an unexplained death in the village.
A lot of those stories featured superstitions and customs in third world countries, but people in the United States believe some pretty weird stuff too, like “if a black cat crosses your path, it’s bad luck” or “if you break a mirror it’s seven years of bad luck,” to name a few mild ones.
I got to thinking about all these things and how they related to me, because I’ve had a lot of unexplained incidents happen to me over the past decade that some might call crazy. And as I was experiencing those things, there were often times where I wondered if I was simply inventing them in my mind or if my perception of reality had somehow become seriously flawed.
So where does belief in the supernatural get out of hand and cross the border into insanity or in the very least, when does it become an unhealthy belief? Perhaps it’s a matter of interpretation, because in those third world societies, I’m sure they didn’t consider the things they were doing unusual or cruel or wrong in any way. They were raised with those superstitions and that’s the way things have always been done.
This reminds me of a story a friend once told me about a family who had a rather unusual tradition of how they cooked roast beef. Before putting the roast in the oven, they always cut it in half. Generation after generation prepared the roast in this way, until one day, a mother was preparing the meat to put in the oven and her daughter questioned it. “Mom, why do you always cut the roast in half before you cook it?”
Her mother replied, “Because that’s how my mom taught me to do it.”
Unsatisfied, the young girl then asked her mother’s mother and got the same response. Since her great-grandma was still living, she then asked her, “Does cutting the roast in half give it a better flavor or something?”
Her great-grandmother smiled and said, “Well, I started doing it that way because the roast was too big to fit into the pan I had, so I had to use two smaller ones, and I cut the roast in half to fit into the pans!”
And so, a tradition, a sort of superstition, was born.
Often our superstitions are established out of fear—fear of bucking the system, fear of the unknown, of things we cannot see with our eyes. And at the same time, we also have a need to find explanations for the reasons things happen the way they do–it’s a matter of survival of our species. But what do we do when there is no logical explanation? Like why the crops fail or why a seemingly healthy child dies for no apparent reason? Or why lightning strikes a certain man on the golf course—one in particular—but not the others he’s with? Are these circumstances merely random flukes of nature?
It’s times like these that we sometimes turn to our spiritual beliefs, because there is no other way to explain things. But when does believing in the supernatural get out of hand? And where did I get the notion that such beliefs can get out of hand? Maybe it’s because I believe in the importance of balance. In martial arts, I learned that in order to be whole, one must nurture one’s body, mind, and spirit in equal amounts. If one of these becomes more important than the others, it’s time to reevaluate. This makes sense to me.
And yet, there are monks and nuns who do nothing but meditate and pray all the time, but someone has to feed them, house them, clothe them, do they not? Can one’s mind float above one’s body the entire time, even when preparing food, cleaning house, washing clothes, or going to the bathroom? Perhaps. I’ve heard it said that that’s the ultimate state—not to allow one’s self to be distracted by the outside world because the outside world is just illusion. That could very well be true.
So maybe the villagers who were condemning those women were simply blinded by illusion. And yet, it was “fact” that the crops failed that year and the entire village faced possible starvation because of the loss of food, so they felt compelled to do something about it. They didn’t realize (logic) that by ousting someone, it wasn’t going to provide a means to feed their people that year; they only believed that by doing so, it would prevent the same thing from happening in the future, because it must have worked once before. Maybe that’s a lot of the problem with the world: people feel victimized and powerless, so it’s easier to blame someone else than to accept responsibility.
Perhaps the real solution is to believe in ourselves—believing, KNOWING that we are NOT powerless and that no one is to blame but ourselves. And yet, how does that apply in cases of horrendous things happening to innocent people? They didn’t choose their lot, because if they would have known ahead of time what was going to happen, they likely wouldn’t have chosen to be in that setting. I also know there are those who would argue this point and say that yes, we choose everything in life, including when and how we are going to die—we choose this before we are born. But that’s a whole different topic.
I personally don’t think those villagers were crazy because of their beliefs; they were simply doing things the same way they’d always been done—and maybe it’s my own fear that makes me think that they were doing something wrong—although hurting others is NEVER acceptable.
There’s a lot to be said for tradition—I think it’s wonderful and important to honor our heritage. However, I also think it’s important to question things and to examine our hearts to see how we feel about the things we unquestioningly accept as true and right, merely because that’s how it’s always been done. Maybe that’s where the border lies between unhealthy beliefs and belief in the supernatural—in the stepping back and examining our reasons for our thoughts and actions and adjusting them accordingly–by restoring personal balance–if necessary.