Change your underwear
According to published reports, Ottawa Senators‘ centre Jason Spezza will continue to change his underwear despite his recent scoring streak. Unlike some hockey players who continue to wear the same (unwashed) underwear during a winning streak, superstitiously fearing that a change in their apparel will disrupt their good fortune, he will wear clean underwear every day. Spezza, you see, does not credit his success to his undergarments.
It is amazing, really, what people will do to get good luck or to avoid what they consider to be bad luck. Hotels and office buildings frequently do not have a thirteenth floor, considering it bad luck. Of course, the thirteenth floor is still there – they just assign it a different number (like 12a or 14). Some believe that throwing a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder wards off bad luck. Others try to avoid black cats, believing that they bring bad fortune – though some cultures see black cats as bringing good luck, not bad. Many read their horoscope and take it seriously, believing that it tells them something about their character and future prospects. Lots of people say things like cross your fingers or knock on wood, implying that doing this will bring good luck or ward off bad luck. At least one of Canada’s prime ministers was known to consult mediums, looking for reassurance from the spirit world. Many people will visit the booth of a fortune-teller at the local county fair, and nowadays psychics market their services quite openly, apparently attracting plenty of customers.
Superstitious practices generally are based on some form of belief about the supernatural. The avoidance of black cats is probably based on a medieval belief that witches sometimes appeared in this form. Throwing salt was supposed to ward off evil spirits. Mediums are supposed to be able to put us in touch with the departed who can give us guidance, reassurance or comfort – and so on. But whatever the specific beliefs that underlie a particular superstition, the motivation behind such practices is a desire for control.
The world can be a frightening place. Many things happen to us, or could happen to us, which we fear we cannot control. All of us are aware that in the physical realm we have to contend with wars, natural disasters, diseases, pollutants and other hostile forces. What if, in addition to the physical realm, we have to contend with possibly hostile spiritual powers as well? In that case, the reasoning goes, we need all the help we can get – we need to enlist the help of whatever beneficial powers might be out there, and we need to ward off the schemes of dark powers in any way open to us. And if we can get insight about the future through fortune-tellers, mediums or tarot cards, why not?
Why not, indeed? Well – it all depends on what you believe about the universe.
If you believe in the reality of the spiritual realm, but you don’t really trust any of the powers out there, you may use various superstitions or magical practices to try to manipulate or influence otherwise hostile or indifferent powers to do you good and not harm. With some variations, and at the risk of oversimplifying, this is the basic worldview and mindset behind Wicca and all forms of paganism. Haitian Vodou (see my last post) is a good example of such a belief system. The idea is that spiritual powers are real, but not necessarily friendly. Some are helpful and some are harmful, and they are also potentially open to influence. So, it is in one’s best interest to learn how to influence the spiritual powers, co-operating with the helpful ones and seeking to avoid being harmed by the nasty ones.
The mindset behind such belief systems is essentially self-centred, the key to success is knowledge, and the goal is power. The problem with this approach is that you never really know if it’s going to work. It might, or it might not. You may think you have a pretty strong hand, but if someone else with more power than you comes along and trumps you, you’re in trouble. You can never be sure. One can see this basic insecurity reflected in the Harry Potter movies and books, and all forms of fantasy literature. People who place their hope in superstitions or various forms of magic can never be truly secure. The best they can do is to hope that everything will pan out in their favour.
If you believe that we’re entirely on our own, and that all events have a natural (physical) explanation, then you probably aren’t reading this blog – but if you are, you will of course agree (being a completely rational person) that all superstitious practices are totally nonsensical because there are no spiritual powers out there to affect us, for good or ill. However, like the pagan, you can never be totally secure if you hold such a belief system. Ultimately you are not in control, and you’re not really sure who is – so you do the best you can, and take your chances. I’m not 100% sure, but my guess is that this what Jason Spezza believes. It’s how an increasing number of post-Christian North Americans live their lives.
But if you believe that you were made in the image of the God of the Universe, that He cares about your life, and that He has the power to preserve and bless those who entrust themselves to Him, then things look very different. As one who has placed his hope in the Holy One, I don’t deny that there are many things I can’t control, but this thought doesn’t frighten me. I know that my Redeemer has come, that He has risen from the dead to conquer the powers of evil, and that He is coming again to establish His Kingdom on the earth. I know the spiritual realm is real, but instead of trying to placate a plethora of potentially hostile powers, I place my trust in the One who has won the right to rule over all other powers, and whose name is love.
Consequently, I have no need for superstitious practices, and I don’t need to worry about the future. I still make plans, but my trust is not in my own plans but in the One who is ultimately trustworthy. I can make use of every legitimate means to improve my life, but ultimately my hope is not in these secondary methods, but in the One who made heaven and earth, and to whom I belong. Because I don’t live for myself, but for His Kingdom and glory, I can trust Him to look after me. That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to me – in fact, Jesus made it very clear that his followers should not be surprised by trouble – but it means that even in the midst of trouble I can have peace, because I’ve read the last chapter of the book and I know how it ends – I know who wins the battle.
So – will I still change my underwear the next time I beat Joe at racquetball? Well – first of all I have to beat him, of course – which is an uncertain proposition at best. But if I do, it won’t have anything to do with my underwear – or his, for that matter. Not only that, I am totally unimpressed by horoscopes, unafraid of black cats, and have no fear of walking under ladders. I also choose not to complain about the weather, or worry about my health or the stock market. If I can make something better, I try to, but I find that life goes better if I place my concerns in the Lord’s hands, do my best, and live free from worry and anxiety. He knows the future, and I have found that my life goes much better if I trust Him to manage all the stuff that I can’t really control anyway. Just some food for thought …