Sandy was on the motorway heading for Preston, Lancashire. Suddenly, she saw a single magpie flutter across her path. Desperate to spy a second magpie, she missed her junction and found herself on the road to Hull.
Bad luck? Had this inoffensive black and white bird, or ‘harbinger of doom’, really caused Sandy to veer off course? Or had she simply allowed herself to get distracted?
Every day, millions of people face similar situations. Walking under ladders, passing someone on the stairs, having recurring dreams and – a particular dread for actors - whistling backstage are all viewed as potential hazards in the bad luck department. Sportsmen and women too are usually prone to lucky mascots and pre-performance rituals, and I’ve even known of people refusing to get out of bed if their horoscopes were unfavourable.
Of course, it’s easy to make light of superstition but for many lands it can be highly damaging, even dangerous. In India, AIDS is being spread by truck drivers who think sexual relations will keep them cool in hot weather. In other parts of the world, the birth of twins is viewed as a curse, sometimes causing parents to kill one – or even both - of them. And superstition can actually enslave whole communities, especially when combined with an overdeveloped fear of the dead.
Like Sandy, one of my worst phobias was lone Magpies (“one for sorrow, two for joy” as the rhyme goes), but there were plenty more where that came from, such as breaking a mirror ( 7 years’ bad luck!), putting new shoes on a table (death within a year), opening umbrellas indoors and uncrossing knives (broken friendship)......so many superstitions, in fact, they were actually affecting my life and it was only through research and applying simple logic that I eventually learned to cope with them in a rational way.
What’s the point if the future’s already written?
Omens, superstitions and predictions all have one thing in common - Fate, a philosophy which began with the original three Fates from Greek mythology, goddesses who spun the thread of life, decided how long it should be for each individual, and cut it at the predetermined time.
Despite its mythical roots, this belief is very widespread, pointing to inevitable (often adverse) outcomes for every event - outcomes that are totally inescapable because they’re determined either by God or by other supernatural forces. As a result, fatalists may have a laissez-faire view of life, displaying a lack of purpose and an unwillingness to make decisions. After all, what’s the point if the future’s already written?
If there IS no point and if the future is truly controlled by unseen forces, then why do we visit doctors? Why do we try to live healthily? And why are there fewer fatalities for people who wear seat belts when setting off in cars? If you’re fated to be an X-Factor winner, why bother with singing lessons? If you’re meant to pass that exam, why bother swotting? And if the job’s destined to be yours, does it matter how you dress for the interview?
According to astrologers, a person’s character can be determined by their horoscope, the precise positioning of the planets and signs of the zodiac at the time of birth. Despite many challenges to astrology over the years, belief for many in its abilities - not only to predict the future but also to influence human behaviour - is very deep-rooted.
Yet is such faith backed up by evidence? As part of an A-level course in Psychology, students were given a horoscope that had supposedly been drawn up according to each individual’s date and time of birth. Most students agreed it was extremely accurate, only to find they’d all been given exactly the same character description!
So what’s the harm? Well, convincing someone they have a certain nature, set of talents or even destiny can exert undue influence over his or her decisions for the future......almost as though a screenplay of their life has been written in advance by somebody else. Social workers and psychologists have highlighted how being typecast as, say, the black sheep of the family, the clever one, or the ditz can colour youths’ development, virtually obliging them to live up (or down) to their given role.
Even worse, whether it comes via a zodiac chart or family members, such prejudgement interferes with our most basic human right – free will.
We may be born with certain traits, we can certainly be influenced by nurture, and circumstances we encounter throughout life will obviously affect us. But with free will, we have the right and the means to change ourselves. So be the person you want to be, choose the path you want to follow and never, ever let fate or superstition dictate yours – or your children’s - life!