Columns | A Modern Guide to Superstition

No One Is Waiting to Steal Your Joy

Growing up with abuse, I came to see the experience of joy as inseparable from the threat that it would all soon be undone.


Another story from Ireland claims the practice of knocking wood is meant to thank leprechauns for good luck. Folklorist Steve Roud disputes these origin stories, instead tracing the origin of the superstition to “Tiggy Touchwood,” a nineteenth-century game of tag played by British children. In this game, one player is “Tiggy” (though the name changes according to region), similar to “It” as we play tag today. Children are chased and become Tiggy if they’re caught. If a child touches wood, such as a tree, then they are safe.

My grandmother, who routinely knocked on wood, always seemed deeply and chronically unhappy. As a child, I swore that would not be me when I was grown. She and I did have moments of joy together, when I would rest my head on her chest and we talked as though there was nothing in the world to fear, but she was angry or sad so often that it left a lasting impression on me. “Everything is shit,” she was fond of saying, as though she were casting a spell. I would lie on the grass in our backyard, stare at our battered tree crawling with ants, and imagine breaking the spell of unhappiness that seemed to haunt my grandmother.

I have to practice resisting worst-case scenarios when they start running though my head. I have to practice resisting the fear my father instilled in me that something bad always follows something good. I have to practice resisting my default mindset, which tells me misfortune lurks around the corner, that it waits for me like the neighborhood boys watching me, waiting to pounce, waiting for me to pull my hand away from the old oak tree so they can take me out. I have to practice believing that no one is waiting to steal my joy.