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“Superstition ain’t the way” – did Stevie Wonder get it right?

From quirky superstitions to exploitative marketing - when can our beliefs in the supernatural be a useful source of comfort and when should we listen to science?

On my left wrist sits a tiny silver star on a chain. On my right hand, a ring my mother was given by her first serious boyfriend, to replace the one given to me by mine, after we broke up last November.  Around my neck rests a blue topaz crystal on a vintage chain.  

It’s my superstitious nature that makes all these things meaningful to me. The bracelet is a permanent replacement for a lucky charm that I wore from my mock A-Levels to Results Day, by which point both my nerves and the string bracelet were hanging on by a thread. The blue topaz is a healing crystal, meant to inspire creativity, making it the perfect crystal for writer’s block and arguably the reason this article met its deadline. I’ve always found these little charms to be a source of comfort and reassurance, but it’s hard not to consider the often insidious nature of superstition. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with some meaningful jewellery or the odd ritual, is it dangerous for us to put too much faith into the unknown? 

We all have our quirky superstitions, from lucky numbers to little rhymes about pennies – harmless fun that raises our spirits, or just things we grew up with. I still find myself looking out for pairs of magpies, sidestepping ladders and avoiding cracks in the pavement. I’ve always loved the idea that there are small signs that the universe really is on our side. Not only do silly superstitions from my childhood take me back to a more optimistic time, they can have other advantages too – if someone you fancy sneezes twice in front of you, you can inform them that you’re cosmically obligated to give them a peck. (“Once a wish, Twice a kiss.”) 

It can be comforting to see signs that the moves we’re making are the right ones, to believe that wishes can come true and that the universe has a master plan for us. Especially now, putting your faith in the cosmos and turning to the oracles for answers is more tempting than ever. What I’m suggesting therefore isn’t a detachment from your spirituality, but an avoidance of the more insidious elements of ‘cosmic faith’.

For example, I have very little time for companies such as Paltrow’s ‘Goop’, which deliberately generate anxieties and promote expensive pseudo-solutions. After a quick peruse of the ‘cosmic health’ section of Goop, I was slightly horrified to see that both her ‘Chill Child Calming Mist’ and her ‘Psychic Vampire Repellent Mist’ had completely sold out after retailing for £27 each – a bizarre side-effect of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. ‘Calming Mist’, a mixture of rose water and essential oils like lavender and chamomile, has been referred to as “a mix between a humidifier and a riot cannon” by comedian Richard Ayoade, so it’s not hard to see how it might appeal to a home-schooling parent during a global pandemic. But whilst the benefits of aromatherapy are scientifically proven, most brands with similar products retail for about half the price as they don’t claim to possess the paranormal powers Goop peddles. 

What makes Goop so insidious is what it’s really selling:  a superstitious superciliousness (try saying that quickly) – a cosmic superiority that suggests benefits above and beyond the product’s scientific properties. This is a dangerously enticing idea and a risky way to search for reassurance as it often comes at the cost of rationality and faith in medical science. The danger of this is that it introduces new anxieties, such as the fear of psychic attack and emotional harm, and then suggests that this alternative cause for unhappiness must be solved by alternative (and expensive) means. Being emotionally exhausted, stressed or drained at points in our life is normal and shouldn’t be catastrophised into a ‘psychic attack’ as an exploitative marketing ploy. Creating an incorporeal enemy to blame these emotions on deters from scientific solutions to struggling mental health that have their basis in psychological study rather than psychic intuition and for which there are plenty of free resources! Meditation that aims to alleviate anxiety can still be supported with the burning of calming essential oils or a focus on healing crystals, but oils and crystals alone can’t singlehandedly solve the problem and it’s dangerous to suggest that they can. 

Another response to the uncertainty that surrounds the coming days, weeks and months has been a determination to find the answers in oracles, crystal balls and tarot card packs. Kim Kardashian, (an undoubtedly reliable and well-informed source) recently shared an extract from the 2008 book ‘End of Days’ by the psychic Sylvia Browne, in which she predicted that a “severe pneumonia-like illness” would spread across the globe this year. Browne was a convicted fraud, with a string of failed prophecies (according to Browne we should also all have robots by now) and yet after this post went viral her book once again became a bestseller. Others have been citing Nostradamus and his warnings of plague in his book ‘Les Propheties’, however his predictions are penned in vague terms and are often creatively interpreted by those searching for answers. 

When these resources fail to provide answers, some even turn to contemporary energy healers and fortune tellers for guidance and comfort, trusting their extortionate prices to be an indication of their success. The average ‘energy healer’ costs £200 an hour and their new remote healing services in response to social distancing measures seem particularly sketchy. After a brief phone call about your particular concern one healer will hang up and then call afterwards to discuss the ‘energy transmission’ she’s just supposedly performed. I can’t help but imagine her hanging up the phone, making a cup of tea and curling up with the telly on before calling again, but maybe I’m just a cynic. Meanwhile, my nearest psychic centre is currently offering clairvoyant telephone readings for £80 an hour, with the website stating that “our psychics are ready to provide validation about your life.” And they probably will provide at least superficial validation, but at a price. 

They do this through the use of ‘Barnum statements’, general characterisations attributed to an individual that could apply to almost anyone. Similarly to how when we read a horoscope we actively seek a correspondence between what it says about our star sign and our perception of our own personality, this is how psychics convince you they have paranormal powers. They prey on vulnerable people using this effect and whilst their clients may leave feeling validated, it’s only a temporary fix. Meaningful validation ultimately comes from within, and not every question in life can be answered. Psychic predictions of the future may make us feel more prepared, but ultimately they are an empty comfort. Part of coping in this current climate is learning to accept uncertainty and embrace it. 

But I’m still going to read my Cosmopolitan horoscope once a month. Maybe when I do eventually meet that ‘tall, handsome stranger’ I’m told I’m due it’ll be nothing more than my own confirmation bias, but otherwise I might have missed him. I also refuse to part with my lucky charms and, if you sneeze twice in front of me, watch out. There’s nothing wrong with a little superstition, as long as it’s a positive force in your life and you know that, ultimately, only you can decide your fate. 

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