“Superstition brings bad luck.” – Raymond Smullyan
Do you avoid stepping on cracks? Does it make you worried if you spill the salt, or break a mirror, or walk under a ladder? Are you afraid something bad will happen if a black cat crosses your path? If so, you are not alone. Many people share these – and many other – superstitions. But where did all these beliefs come from?
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation”.
In everyday English, there are several reasons why the world seems not to make sense. One of these reasons is not having enough information to understand why things happen. It is easy to see patterns in the world around us; the human brain seems to be hard-wired for recognizing patterns. When we detect a pattern, we like to find the cause for the pattern. For example: on the twentieth day of every month, I feel a little more happy and relaxed than on other days. Why could this be? Is there something magical about the number 20? Not at all: I get paid on the twentieth of each month. But if you didn’t know that, and failed to guess the truth, you might find some other explanation.
Another reason for being superstitious is feeling afraid of what might happen. Nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future; yet some of us fear it and others do not. If you feel that you are in control of your life (whether this is true or not), you will not fear the future. If you feel that you have little or no choice in your life’s events, you will probably feel some degree of fear when imagining the future.
Finally, it is possible to believe that things happen for a reason, and still be wrong about the reason. For example, before discovering germs, most people around the world believed that diseases were a punishment from Heaven, or caused by evil spirits hovering in the air! (When Dr. Semmelweiss proposed in 1847 that diseases were caused by germs, the other doctors made fun of him. They got him kicked out of the hospital where he worked. They even had him declared insane and locked up. But that is another story!)
It is pretty easy to prove that diseases are caused by germs, so not many people are superstitious about sickness anymore. But many old superstitions are still popular, probably because there is a bit of truth to them!
Walking Under a Ladder
Walking under a ladder is considered bad luck in many parts of the world. The reason for this one is fairly obvious: the more you walk under ladders, the more likely you are to knock them over and get pelted with buckets of paint, metal tools, construction workers, and whatever else is at the top of the ladder. There is really no reason to be superstitious about ladders; it is just good common sense to walk around them instead of under them.
Breaking a Mirror
Breaking a mirror is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck. The reason for this is not quite as obvious as the one about ladders. Yes, when you break a mirror, there is always the risk of cutting yourself while picking up the pieces; but a cut will heal in seven days, not seven years. Why would anyone believe seven years of bad luck?
You may not think of a mirror as a valuable and prized possession, but they were until about 300 years ago. Before then, mirrors were hand-made by artisans who knew the secret of producing sheets of glass with a backing made from mixing tin and mercury. The process was difficult and only known to mirror-makers in the city of Venice, and mirrors were extremely expensive. Most people could not afford to own a mirror. If your family had a mirror, and you broke it, they would probably be upset with you for seven years or so! Thus the superstition.
Spilling the Salt
Like mirrors, salt was difficult to produce in the ancient world. This made it so valuable that the Roman army even paid their soldiers in salt (better than gold for a soldier, as salt also can disinfect wounds and keep meat from spoiling); this is the origin of the word “salary”. The only bad thing about getting paid in salt is that it dissolves in water; if you drop it in a puddle, your salary is gone. Bad luck indeed.
As opposed to ladders, mirrors, and salt, there is no real link between black cats and bad luck. But to the superstitious mind, always looking for a reason (and not really caring if the reason is a logical one or not), black cats are handy scapegoats. Why? Because there are so many of them all over the place. Chances are, if something good happens unexpectedly, there will be a black cat nearby. The difference is that we never look for a reason when something good happens; we seem to think we had it coming. On the other hand, when misfortune strikes, it must have been that cat!
The comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” Which makes sense to me.
Superstition in Sports
Superstitions are most often due to a sense of not being in control of things, of wanting to gain control, but without any real plan for doing this. It is interesting – and perhaps instructive – that superstition is much more common in some sports than others. More to the point, the sports that breed superstition are the ones where the player has the least control. Baseball players are famously superstitious; golfers a bit less. These sports involve hitting hard balls with hard clubs at very high speeds and at distances that allow the wind to become a factor. Tennis players are not prone to superstition. They are hitting a soft ball with a flexible racquet over a short distance, and are able to control the ball with a high degree of confidence. Likewise, you will never hear an archer or a rifle marksman talk of superstition. Their equipment is very precise and allows almost total control of the results. Tennis players, archers, and marksmen talk about skill, not luck.
And that is why I titled this post “It’s Bad Luck to be Superstitious”. The way to achieve success is to maximize your control over as many factors as possible. Anything else is probably a waste of your time and energy. Of course, control starts with yourself – which is why it is such an unpopular word. Until you are in control of yourself – words, actions, and thoughts – you can never really be in control of anything outside yourself either. Self-control is the key to every kind of success. It is also the end of superstition.