It Comes in Threes: Superstition, Ritual, and Action in 2020
If you feel more spiritual or superstitious than usual, it’s because you are.
Rituals often seem illogical to the people not performing them. Famously, Michael Jordan wore his Carolina practice shorts under his NBA uniform for good luck. Picasso wouldn’t throw away the clippings from his hair cuts. Nabokov wrote his first drafts on index cards, always in pencil; other authors have slept by their manuscripts. Recently, on a hike through a wooded trail to the beach, I picked up a Y-shaped stick that caught my eye, carried it with me to the ocean, and threw it into the water while making a wish: a new ritual made up right on the spot because I felt like I needed something—anything—other than the day I was having.
In fact, studies show rituals are proven anxiety alleviators. Prayer is the most obvious example of this phenomenon: When you pray, you unbottle your worry and it becomes less proprietary. A burden gets lifted. But not everyone prays, and as someone who falls into that category, I’ve often found myself inventing my own version of what I think prayer is. This is the case with many other individuals and groups across history who have engaged in their own sorts of divination: Coal miners don’t whistle in mines, mariners don’t set sail on Fridays, people who live closely with the land honor the crops and animals that nourish them in elaborate ceremonies. Some farmers still plant seeds based on what astrological signs are in the night sky. Each one of these routines manage some sort of anxiety about death or resource scarcity, upsetting a balance that’s already out of your favor.
A philosopher once noted that the human brain’s most important function is “making future.” Our frontal lobe, the large part of our brain that sets us aside from all other mammals on planet Earth, is what’s responsible for our personalities and also this forward thinking. We can’t help but think about the future—an act called prospection—and all the ways we might be able to control it because we are physically engineered to do so. We have our tarot cards read and our astrological charts written up so we can have a map of what will happen next—not so much to be satisfied with the predictions, but to be able to revise the map to lead us to suitable outcomes.
Which is why we light candles. Or set our intentions with a new moon and seed our fields accordingly. And though we can’t predict the future, rituals can actually enhance performances, in some cases affecting them. In one notable study, people were given a regular golf ball and a “lucky” golf ball and were told to do golf-y things. The findings showed the participants’ confidence was increased by the “lucky” ball—their performances outshining those with the regular ball. Our belief in luck can sometimes be as strong as actual luck itself.
And yet, I worry about the inefficiencies of my candle-lighting and the words I used to describe it. So many rituals, including the ones I’ve invented, seem so impotent because we have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now. When a friend and I were talking recently about the forthcoming launch of her book, she asked me to pray she survived the next month. I wrote back, “I will think about you when I light my blue candle every night that I use as my form of hoping very hard for good things (prayer).” It felt like the best I could do.
It was only thirteen years ago, in 2007, that scientists discovered the purpose of the appendix. For centuries, while we learned to remove a sick heart and replace it with a healthy one, to grow a human ear on the back of a field mouse, to engineer synthetic blood from stem cells, we still didn’t know what the tiny, worm-shaped appendage dangling off the large intestine was for. In fact, the three-inch organ was omitted from the get-go. Galen, a first-century physician, conducted anatomy studies that gave scientists and doctors the first projections of the body’s systems that were used for nearly two thousand years. He discovered voice came from the larynx and that there was a difference between the blood that went into the heart and the blood that left it, but he based his understanding of anatomy off monkeys, and monkeys don’t have an appendix.
The surgical removal of the appendix was preceded by centuries of medieval remedies like blood-letting and, of course, prayer. The first successful appendectomy wasn’t performed until 1759, but contemporary autopsies of Egyptian mummies have revealed appendicitis to be a common cause of death. We now know that texts describing “side sickness” as a death sentence were referencing appendicitis.
Just think: all those people dying from that tiny, inflamed organ, and those deaths being attributed to something stirring supernaturally, to bad luck, rather than something infected. It is not lost on me that in the past sixteen months, I’ve undergone two routine surgeries—an emergency C-section and an appendectomy—for circumstances or ailments that would’ve killed me three hundred years ago. That, in fact, being alive in the twenty-first century is my real, honest-to-goodness luck, and truly nothing else is relevant to my appendix story. Still, in a group text, I joked with my friends that the removal of the appendix would be the end of my misfortune, as if it were the original cause.
Our belief in luck can sometimes be as strong as actual luck itself.
My mom’s adage, that bad things come in threes, the one I continue to apply to fortune and misfortune, is called a teleological explanation. This phrase’s clinical mouthfeel belies its etymology, which comes from Greek telos, “end,” and logos, “reason.” The inexplicable lives in the realm where reason ends. This idea comes from Aristotle, who believed that all natural phenomena came from a “final cause.” Children are prone to this sort of logic—to them, things happen for a reason. Someone falls and chips a tooth because they’ve been mean. But we do it, too, whenever we believe the universe is trying to tell us something. We know it well by another name: magical thinking.
The same way our brain needs control, it needs to believe in order, and so it attributes motives to the natural world. In a study of MIT scientists, it was revealed even the most rational minds show a bias toward religiosity. When pressured by a time limit, the scientists endorsed ideas like Aristotle’s: the trees exist to provide shade, water to sustain life. Of course, with the time constraint lifted, the same scientists were more deliberate in their answers, but in the experiment their impulses were laid bare. They, too, often believe things happen for a reason.
People use teleological reasoning to explain that we needlessly suffer because of some bigger plan. We use rituals to mitigate that suffering, and most rituals are commonly associated with grief. In 2020, we are surrounded in unsparing, relentless waves of it. News footage of someone saying goodbye to a loved one on a ventilator over FaceTime; the video recording of George Floyd’s murder; the 911 phone call after Breonna Taylor was shot in her own home; the spiral of debt that faces each person who has taken out a loan, or lost a job, or gone to the emergency room; the loneliness of quarantine making us all destitute. These images all spin and flash together in a kaleidoscope of hopelessness. If you feel more spiritual or superstitious than usual, it’s because you are. We become subconsciously more spiritual when we are surrounded by the reminders of human mortality.
The blue candle was enough and not enough. It was just for me, perhaps selfishly so, as if I were hoarding all the good luck I was generating. So I began to add myself to the crowds gathering daily in Grand Army Plaza for the Black Lives Matter protests. As my baby and I made our way to rallies, there were always other people walking in the same direction as us, toward the Brooklyn square as if we were all caught in the same riptide, drawn out of our homes and into the streets. Exhausted by explanations, action feels like one of the last rituals left that could actually put the thumb on the scale of this year and tip it away from the badness.
There was a familiarity to these rallies, though at first I couldn’t quite identify it. Looking back now, I realize it was because I had been participating in another sort of ritual gathering all along. This past spring, at 7 p.m. every night, I would take my baby to our stoop, cup my hands around her’s, and we would both clap along with the rest of Brooklyn for the healthcare workers. As someone who has never attended a single Sunday service in her life, it felt what I imagine church must be like. With my daughter in my lap, clapping to what I told her was a “parade,” I would cry desperately or hopefully depending on the day. Across the street, from a tower that was visited hourly by ambulances during the Covid-19 peak, nearly every balcony had someone on it, banging pans or shaking maracas. They had lost so many people and this was most evident in sound waves: first the sirens wailing and, later, this applause.
During the revelry, there was one voice in particular that always shook me to tears. It belonged to a woman and it was a perfect tenor, her pitch urgent and jarring. Every night, as horns on Lafayette honked in solidarity and bike bells jingled and claps echoed off brownstones, the women screamed thank you over and over for five straight minutes, even long after the rest of the cacophony had faded. Time right now is a fox hole—this year, turning so many people’s beliefs inside out. Your spirituality is what you make it, not what you’ve been told it is and a routine can connect you to something outside yourself if you let it. After a while, I realized I turned up to my stoop at night not to be lifted by the invocation but to cry to this woman’s voice as she thanked someone, though I’ll never know who.
Kea Krause is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Lapham's Quarterly, The Believer, The Toast, VICE and Broadly, among other media outlets, and has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 and The Best American Travel Writing 2016. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she taught undergraduate creative writing.