So, “Even in the 21st Century,” many people still believe in luck. If you are a pagan, it seems to come with the territory. Not always, because neither does theism.There are a surprising number of atheistic pagans out there. This would not have surprised Roman Matrons at the end of the First Century, either.
I argue that there are more people (pagan or not in the vernacular…)who believe in luck than believe in God. Luck has a power that even theism doesn’t. You can, in the realm of the senses, deign to base it on observed experience, whereas a belief in a Godhead out there somewhere takes, you know, faith. Luck just takes a willingness to mentally avoid the outcome of failure, or more charitably, avoid worrying about things you cannot control by giving it over to little “harmless” rituals that calm the mind by focusing on results.
An argument like this tries to support said mental trick as a virtue, or perhaps focuses on why people find belief in luck useful. However, if you unravel this process a bit, it becomes clear that it is not an unalloyed good. There are side effects to this kind of thinking that have led the Church over the centuries to condemn a seemingly harmless belief in luck as superstition.
So, you shake your booty before you swing your bat, and hey, a home-run is a no-brainer. This holds off the habits of scruple [read: worry]until the job is done. However, there is nothing wrong with those rituals by themselves, if you know that you are just shedding your butterflies and focusing your mind. But if it is infused with the notion that disaster is eminent without your rituals – things take on a darker aspect. Let’s look at some of the more common, (and possibly outdated) luck mythology.
I am not going to examine the ladder phenomenon, because to me that’s just clearly good advice gone rogue in the misguided attempt to keep children safe. And anything said in that realm is a-ok, right? 🙂
Black cats. Yeah, there’s a good one. I own a black cat, so he crosses my path all the time. In fact, just about every time we wind up in the same hallway, he positions himself to trip me up. He does this because he believes that if he does this, I will pet him. I’m not sure how being sprawled on my ass makes me more likely to pet him– but, he’s a cat.
So, I will admit that there are big swaths of my life that kinda suck. I argue that this is true for pretty much everyone. Even Richie Rich has sucky days. I’d rather be poor and loved, for example. It is even true that my arthritis got significantly worse around the time Scooter showed up in my life. This is a dumb example, but there a is significant evidence that people do still subconsciously believe that black cats bring bad luck– that is, no one adopts them.
Go into any animal shelter and you will see a significant percentage of them are black cats. it’s not even a statistical anomaly, an age bias, a sample bias, or even merely anecdotal.
They have done studies on it. Sometime in October of 2004 or so, a publicity campaign started by the Humane Society about the plight of the high percentage of black cats left unadopted. Since then, a few hardy souls started up shelters specifically for black cats, a few people I know took to adopting black cats exclusively. As far as I know, the imbalance is still in effect, though a little less than it was. While this is a good example of unintended consequences, it doesn’t get into the heart of the matter. After all, you could always make the argument that this number of cats would be left unadopted anyway, and who cares if they are all black or not?
[ED. How could you go to “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER” as often as you do, and say such a thing?!?]
The reason why the Church tends to frown on things like luck is that it affects people’s behavior in adverse ways, to the point where you almost don’t realize it. That is, until that effect effects you in someone else’s behavior. Then you might just be more likely to take that behavior personally than to see it for the generalistic phenomenon that it is. For example, it is natural for human beings to avoid a person who’s luck is bad.
We tend to think that luck is communicable, that is, if you are near something that is bad luck, or has bad luck, then, clearly, you will get bad luck. However, it is those very people who most need our help. So we are avoiding them to save ourselves from those little annoyances that we fear so much.
This happens so automatically that you aren’t even aware of the dynamic, and people who have clearly acted this way, and when asked, will admit doing what they did for these stated reasons, will deny hotly that this is any belief in luck– they are just being ‘practical’. We all look down on greed and selfishness, but fail to see that the same basic drives can leach into people in the name of motives that aren’t just money and stuff.
That it can effect our entire mode of living, how we treat our fellow human beings, and we don’t even know what drives our true motives. To make matters worse, feeding the luck impulse can lead to a kind of worship of the good life– something that you really can’t count on having in the long term. Bad things happen. We can’t really stop it. And sooner or later, our number is up, and the natural thing to do is– flee.
But you can’t run from family, you can’t run from spouses, you can’t run from a bad economy… but wait. You can. People do it all the time. Sometimes, it is even necessary to put space between yourself and any of these things.
Distance keeps you from doing something you might regret. Distance keeps you from physical danger– provided snipers aren’t involved. But, that’s not terribly common in this country, even now. And, this not what we are talking about. We are talking about the unreasoned flight from a situation based on the fear that it will taint your life in some way, rather than based on actual threat.
So why is it so bad to treat the good life as the ultimate good– to do everything you can to have it? Because we tend to generalize the positive and negative whether we do or don’t have it. We base our “self esteem” on our living conditions. We tend to see everything and everyone around us in terms of who lives well (by whatever definition you like) and bad. This can happen whether you are rich or poor, influential or alone, in good esteem or the source of scandal.
One can even fetishishise living poorly, as seeing poverty itself as a virtue. It’s not. Having virtue alone is virtuous. You can certainly learn things from being poor that are harder lessons when rich, but… truthfully, if you are poor and yet have everything you need you can be just as spoiled, rude and selfish as a nasty financier with his own jet. The only thing that makes the financier more onerous is that his actions affect the society more visibly. So is society alone the only scope for morality? Really?
So this seed of superstition can lead to all kinds of moral failings. We hide from those by erecting little idols that we worship– whether it is those rituals that become more elaborate and turn from traditions to propitiation of the unknown luck god, or those states of life that seem so holy until we realize we have created a monster of unintended consequences.
The problem is, in our society what we do has been cut off from what we say. You don’t have to be a theist to worship the good life. Theists argue that you don’t need belief to worship– that is why orthopraxy exists as a term in theology. If you will do anything to live the good life– even if that’s not a life of riches– it’s still greed. It’s just we have come up with ways to cover it with snow to make it pure in our sight, so we don’t have to really look at our own motives and admit that we were selfish. That is the very definition of idolatry.
And even outside the realm of the Christian morality system– belief in luck in the long term is bad for the individual and everyone who knows him or her. Just think about the stereotypical gambling addict for a minute, and you start to see what I’m talking about.
It’s the same kind of thinking that allows people to fall for scams, abandon people for good who were really just having a bad day…
Well, a multitude of suffering and pain that can be avoided. Pain we can at least ameliorate it– if not stop dead in it’s tracks.