Magical Thinking

by Todd Walton, September 23, 2010

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believ­ing in government and business.” — Tom Robbins

Big game tonight, our Giants scrapping for first place in the National League West, a dozen games left in the regular season, our first shot at making the playoffs since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds. So this morning I hand-washed my black Giants sweatshirt and smudged it with white sage to amplify the winning mojo therein. Do I really believe wearing this particular sweatshirt will make a difference in the outcome of a distant baseball game? Was Yogi Berra a catcher? If reputable physicists seriously aver that butterflies flapping their wings in China impact the weather in Brazil, why wouldn’t my choice of sweatshirts influence a baseball game a couple hundred miles away?

Maybe you don’t believe butterflies contribute to the creation of weather? Do you believe that devoutly imagining something can make that something happen? As in envisioning Juan Uribe hitting a home run, and then he does? Hit a home run? Coincidence, you say? Then how about this: you’re stuck on the sofa, too tired to get up, or you’ve got a cat on your lap so you can’t get up, but you fervently wish someone would bring you a beer or a cup of tea, and suddenly here comes somebody with exactly what you wanted. That’s never happened to you? God, I’m sorry.

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” — William Burroughs

In 1962 the Giants went to the World Series. I was in the eighth grade at La Entrada Junior High in Menlo Park California. This was before the passage of Jarvis-Gann Proposition 13 that annihilated the common good, so California still had the best system of public education in America. Indeed, the system was so good, the powers that were wheeled a television into our classroom so we could watch the World Series. Talk about having your priorities right.

So the bell rang at the end of class, lunchtime upon us, just as Willie Mays was coming to bat, at which moment Nancy Woolf, the girl of my dreams (though I was too shy to tell her so), approached that television, kissed her right index finger, and with that lucky finger touched the tiny projected image of Willie Mays on the screen. And on the very next pitch, Willie hit a towering home run. I saw this happen with my very own eyes, in real time. Everything was live in those days, no tape delay as I witnessed the power of love and divine pul­chritude precipitating a mighty swing. Coincidence, you say? Magic, say I.

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when sci­ence is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” — Thomas Szasz

My father, a medical doctor and a Freudian psycho­analyst, was a religious atheist. He felt it his un-God-given duty to debunk and demean anything and anyone tainted with even the slightest whiff of what he called magical thinking, which included believing in God, astrology, reincarnation, and Santa Claus. Near the end of his life, my father proselytized zealously about his lat­est and greatest theory explaining everything that had ever happened in human history. To wit: most people are genetically incapable of not thinking magically, and are therefore easily controlled by vastly more intelligent people who don’t believe in magical thinking. Shamans and priests and gurus and messiahs and emperors and popes and politicians throughout history were those born free of the magical thinking gene, but they pretended to believe in magical thinking in order to rule the roost. For thousands of years, anyone who didn’t believe in magi­cal thinking and was naïve enough to say so publicly was branded a heretic or a lunatic, until finally science over­came religion and reason prevailed over superstition. But magical thinking, according to my father, still must be ruthlessly opposed or the charlatans will make use of this dominant genetic propensity to seize control once more and plunge the world back into ignorance and organized religion.

My father insisted that spirituality was synonymous with magical thinking, and he declared all spiritual experiences to be fake or delusional. On those rare occa­sions when I used the words spiritual or mystical in my father’s presence, his reactive rhetoric rivaled the fieriest of fire and brimstone preachers. This was before he developed his ultimate theory of the genetic inevitability of magical thinking, which allowed him to express pity for the inferior masses rather than hatred and contempt.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.” — Theodor Adorno

My mother was not a magical thinker, nor were my siblings, but I have always been so. This means, accord­ing to my father’s theory, that I was born with the gene for magical thinking and my siblings were not, which may explain why they are atheists and I have never felt that the geological, chemical, and biological workings of nature in any way preclude the existence of an intelligent universe. Indeed, my recent reading of a rigorously sci­entific text on hummingbirds confirms my view that the universe is a fully conscious artist.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguish­able from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke

I have recently heard the expression magical thinking used to castigate those who believed Obama’s campaign promises, to ridicule those who think solar energy can effectively replace fossil fuels, and to pour salt into the wounds of those who lost their shirts and pants and everything else in the ongoing economic meltdown; and I realize from these vitriolic usages that the expression magical thinking is used primarily as a synonym for stu­pid and/or ignorant, which conforms with my father’s theory of cultural history.

So let us deconstruct the expression and see what we find. On the surface we almost have an oxymoron. Magical–Thinking. In my experience, magic only fully manifests when the linear logical mind is quieted or turned off, and disbelief (preconception) is thereby sus­pended. That is, if our brains are on red alert to not believe in anything contrary to our current notions of reality, our brains are highly unlikely to be open to magical occurrences.

I think this brings us to the root of the inquiry as well as to the root of magical, which is magic, a seriously loaded word. There was magic in the air when he saw her. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Love. Angels. Pleasure. Luck. Fate. Sunsets. Kittens. Simultaneous orgasms!

As with most loaded words, magic behooves us to find a less loaded equivalent to make our point. I nomi­nate the word extraordinary, which means beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, perhaps even unprece­dented. We’re down one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, Posey on second, two outs. Juan Uribe steps to the plate. I am suddenly overcome by an extraordinary thought, one might even call it a vision, of Juan con­necting with a fastball and hitting the ball out of the park. And he does, Juan does. He hits the ball out of the park. Fair. Not foul. Gone. Outta here! Adios pelota! Extraor­dinary! Did my wanting him to hit that home run make the home run happen? Or was my vision merely pro­phetic? Whoa. I don’t know. For if I knew, then my thoughts would be what? Scientific?

“Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.” — Margot Fonteyn

There is a marvelous passage (marvelous to magical thinkers) in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Moun­tain in which Merton tells of his extraordinary experi­ence in a cathedral in Mexico City. As Merton prayed fervently to God that He exert His extraordinary power so that Merton’s first book would be accepted for publi­cation, Merton was filled with an extraordinary energy (a magical thinker might call such energy the light of God) and Merton was shaken to his core. And though his book was not published, Merton came to understand that God had not forsaken him, but had given him exactly what he most needed, not what he most wanted.

So tonight when I don my black sweatshirt and per­form on our extraordinary piano an extraordinary blues progression in lieu of the national anthem, and Marcia (yes, I’ve converted my extraordinary wife to the cause of los Gigantes) and I take a moment to visualize our starting pitcher throwing extraordinarily well and our hitters making loud and extraordinary contact with the ball, we will trust the unseen powers, otherwise known as the baseball gods, to grok from our vibes that we don’t just want to win, but that our need is extraordinary. ¥¥

(Todd worships los Gigantes in Mendocino and blesses KMFB for broadcasting the games locally.)


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