Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Quirk of a Crappy Week

This has been an exceptionally tiresome, irritating and crappy week and if I was half-way superstitious I'd either be panicking at how unlucky I'd suddenly become or be hunting around desperately for a 4-leaf clover in the garrigue (a hopeless quest). As I'm not particularly superstitious I've just been reading how much others are in 'Quirkology' by Prof Richard Wiseman.

How superstitious are you? Do you touch wood, or avoid walking under a ladder? Do you throw salt over your left shoulder with your right hand or carry a rabbit's foot in your handbag? I do the touch wood thing and very little else. I once tried to avoid walking under a ladder and nearly got ploughed down by a removal van and ever since, I've found it a lot less potentially dangerous to take my belief and stuff it where the sun don't shine.

The French are just as superstitious as everyone else. As well as not opening an umbrella indoors and touching wood, they also avoid putting bread down on the table upside-down, and believe Friday 13th is lucky, as is seeing a shooting star.

Nowadays people freely admit to their superstitious beliefs but it was not ever thus. During the Age of Enlightenment and especially the 19th century it was extremely poorly viewed, as a weakness of the spirit. Voltaire was indeed most rude: "L'athéisme est le vice de quelques gens d'esprit, et la superstition le vice des sots" (Atheism is the vice of a few 'wits' (?), et superstition is the vice of fools"). It's not that people weren't superstitious at that time, but they hid it well.Who wouldn't, faced with the mockery of Voltaire?

Nowadays, of course, no one's scared of Voltaire's tongue and they wear their superstitions with pride. I've seen many a manky rabbit's foot attached to a bunch of keys, while it's not for nothing les Français des Jeu created the 'gros cagnotte' especially for days which fall on Friday 13th.

It's a known fact that in hard economic times there is a rise in superstitious beliefs, but did you know that some populations take their superstitions so seriously they are prepared to commit unnecessary abortions and infanticide? Not the French, thankfully, but the Japanese and their belief in the unlucky nature of the year of the Fire-Horse. It falls once every 60years, the last being 1966, and females (it would be, wouldn't it?!) born in this year are predicted to lead ill-fated lives.

In 1966 it appears that the birth rate fell in Japan by 25% and abortions increased by 20,000. Mortality rates for girls were significantly higher than boys. Girls were sacrificed to the superstitious belief of a particular year sign.

You might think that that sort of thing doesn't happen here, but in Ireland, there is a superstition that if you leave somewhere on a Saturday, you won't be leaving it for long (Saturday flit, short sit). In a study on maternity wards, it was revealed that there were significantly more discharges on Fridays and Sundays. Hospitals were prepared to keep mothers in for the extra (costly) day and allow them to leave on a Sunday because of a superstition.

I think my unlucky week has been but a blip in the universe. Such periods of irritation serve to remind me that I'm generally lucky; even if I'm plunging into the cold waters of frustration and stress, when I come up for air, it's warm and sunny. Dr Wiseman has carried out many experiments with people who he's asked whether they consider themselves lucky or unlucky. The results are fascinating, but what shines through is that people who consider themselves lucky live longer, happier lives, take advantage of opportunities and make their own luck. They create a 'virtuous circle' around themselves. People who consider themselves unlucky take a pessimistic view and create a 'vicious circle' of difficulties and lost opportunities.

His book is a fascinating glimpse into the 'backwaters' of human behaviour examined through the results experiments carried out by him and others. After all, there's nothing more interesting than oneself examined in comparison with others...

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