One of my debaters asked me last weekend whether I was superstitious. It was a good question. I reflexively answered that I wasn’t, but then he started talking about debate superstitions about writing on the board and how and who does it and I started quickly clarifying that when it came to that, I was extremely superstitious!
He asked me why I thought people were superstitious and it seemed pretty obvious to me that people are because they seek to exert control on their environment or circumstances in a way that they know they can’t otherwise in life. While we all like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own destinies, the reality is that none of us has particular control when we hold just one-seven-billionth of the power in our planet. I’ve discussed the cacophony of wills extensively before, but it’s crippling to really internalize how much that abrogates our free will into a collective free will as disjointed and chaotic as our world itself. No wonder people try to claw each other’s eyes out getting into the 1% where that one-seven-billionth can seem like one-one-millionth for a while.
If we believe that we secretly control events larger than ourselves – sports outcomes that we watch on TV or in person, the life or death of someone far away, the heart of another person, the thought processes of a debate round judge – by simple actions of routine or pattern, then we can believe there’s some connection between our own personal effort and the outcomes that affect us so deeply. And once there’s confirmation of some sort of link, however tenuous or absurd, between writing in a certain style on the chalkboard or saying a particular set of words or wearing a hat in a particular way and the desired outcome, then repeating that becomes almost holy.
We all hunger for free will, all crave the ability to dominate merely our own lives. And while we all probably have more actual will than we acknowledge when we’re not being overtly superstitious, the fact is that humanity’s not actually well organized yet to maximize reasonable choices for people. Most people do most of what they do with the verve and volunteerism of one with a gun aimed squarely at their temple.
Is it any wonder that I sit here waiting for my life to come back to me? Maybe today, maybe if I mismatch my socks and think only the best thoughts, maybe if I don’t sleep enough to let the nightmares in, maybe if I can ward off the migraines and do everything she would have wanted, look at the clock at the right times and focus my mind in just the right way, maybe I can find a little hope that this message will travel across the universe, the Atlantic, the bridge between half-souls, and remind her of what she threw away.
I am patient. I can do this.
The cruel reality is different, of course. Like any superstition of debate or sports or life, I’m winking at myself. I see the image of her, hopeless and claiming to be tempest-tossed, citing the need to commit an affair and cast aside compassion like they were mandates from Heaven of which she mildly disapproved but was robotically forced to comply. I can imagine her eye-rolling at reading this, the clucking sigh she used to make about how naive, idealistic, stupid I was. Like she had a monopoly on understanding the universe and how it was out to get her.
The universe isn’t out to get anyone. We use our limited will as an excuse for abusing each other. As soon as we wake up and realize that no matter how little will we have, maximizing its utility for good, compassion, and the further maximization of will is our best hope, then we might start making the best use of our individual slices of light. We can all hold a candle and watch it dance in the harshness of wind and rain, or we can join together to merge our lights into a fire that could burn all the architecture of the past that holds us back.
Hoping our light will magically be transported to create that conflagration is surely not enough. But I can’t do this alone.