If you’ve ever knelt down to pick up a stray fortune cookie fortune littered on the ground, or gotten your knees dirty to search for a four-leaf clover in the grass, then you know the feeling that I’m talking about. It’s the same feeling that arrives when you look to the sky for a shooting star. This effort to find meaning in the little events of our daily lives: it’s called believing in magic.
Magical thinking suspends reality, engaging instead in a kind of flawed thinking about cause and effect. It’s actually an anthropological term, one which describes the phenomenon that if a person hopes hard enough for something, or engages in ritual actions with strong belief, that the outcome of an uncontrollable event can be influenced. If you plant magic beans, a beanstalk will grow outside your window and you will have riches beyond compare. If you rub a Genie’s lamp, three wishes will be granted of your deepest desires.
Young children engage in this kind of magical thinking the most. Think back to your eight-year-old fascination and all the hours you spent inventing fairy tales and casting spells—or curses—with the hope of influencing the events of your ordinary life. Those were the good old days of “Harry Potter” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” and Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But belief in magic decreases dramatically with increased age and life experience. If, as children, we used to believe in magic, when did we stop?
Highly intellectual environments such as Duke encourage their students to act and think rationally in the pursuit of knowledge. Chemistry TAs won’t accept ‘magic’ as an answer for lab assignments, and neither will English professors as a way to conclude an argument in an essay. We are taught through the education system to be wary of magical thinking.
I’d like to think that magical thinking can actually help us in our daily lives. Magical thinking is a reaction to situations of uncertainty, where we aren’t able to control the environment or the outcome of a test, game or job interview. So, instead, we engage in an activity that imposes a certain outcome, one that is assured to be positive or beneficial. Magical thinking also shows up as a means of explaining emotionally significant encounters, ones that seem not to have other meanings.
If you look harder for it, examples of magical thinking among college students turn up everywhere.
Athletes partake in the same routines before every game, fans wear the same lucky jerseys. Wearing a lucky suit to an interview, or sticking a penny in the pocket before a first date: these, too, are examples of magical thinking. They don’t guarantee the outcome: a job, a relationship, an NCAA championship; but they do have an effect, according to Thomas Robisheaux, professor of the popular course on ‘Magic, Religion, and Science’ in the History department.
Studies have shown that engaging in magical thinking, whether through the form of ritual or prayer, is effective because it has an effect on the psyche of the practitioner. “There isn’t necessarily any correlation between magical thinking and success,” Robisheaux said. “But forget about whether magic alters the event. If there is an effect on the person, like calmness or confidence, meaning or purpose, it is effective.” By attempting to influence the events of our daily life through magical thinking, we are changing our own reactions in the process.
I asked almost every person I encountered last week to tell me where they had experienced any magic, if any. Their answers varied greatly, everything from dog footprints spotted in the Duke Gardens, to a song that came on at just the right time, to postcards unexpectedly arriving in the mail from an old friend. Snowflakes started falling from the sky the minute a friend walked out of the library at midnight.
One friend described the beginning of a new romantic relationship as “magical”. Another told me about reconnecting with a family member she didn’t know she had, describing their chance meeting as if by magic. Several people told me of times this week that they ran into the just the right person at just the right time. Maybe magic disguises itself as love, especially when we are least expecting it.
The writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal coined a handy acronym for this feeling, ATM: Always Trust Magic. This is my goal this spring semester, to trust in the magic that is pointing me in directions I didn’t think I would ever go and towards people I didn’t expect to meet. To line my pockets with lucky pennies.
Janie Booth is a Trinity senior who believes in magic more than she believes in doing homework. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.