Wired for Meaning

Or: Why I Won’t Walk Under Ladders.*

 A few weeks ago, I wrote this:
Better safe than sorry.
A few more times, just to be safe

“Cat’s back. He’s cradled between my chest and the computer now, resting his head on my left wrist, making it impossible to move that hand laterally to type. And I put up with it, because, yes, I love this moment and I love this beast. The relief and comfort I feel is exactly what I’d feel were we truly somehow involved in a balanced relationship, the two of us feeling the same level of devotion. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter that this isn’t true, that, in reality, he is a different species with a limited set of motivations. Dangercat enacts all the behaviors that trigger my own gushing affection. As a human being, I am wired to read too much into everything.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about reading into things lately. About how, as human beings, we are, as I said, wired to search for meaning, to search for the reasons things happen—to try to bring them on or to prevent them. Superstition. How it governs the places we least understand. The places closer than everyday life to the unknown, to death.

The sailors had (and still have) 1,001 rules for keeping safe at sea. My grandmother was born in the nineteen-teens in rural North Carolina, a time and place where bad crops, tornadoes, accidents and illness could and did destroy lives in ways more capricious than what I expect from daily events in this world I know. She her own sets of rules for warding off bad luck. She did not set hats on the bed. She did not open umbrellas inside. She had a method, says my mother, for removing warts that involved stump water.

And, says my rational-as-her-mother-was-superstitious mother, it worked.

I wrote some about superstition in the book, but I’m thinking about it now in a broader sense. How it’s possible sometimes not to hold rational credence in a given cause-and-effect relationship, but still to go through actions designed to ward of ill consequences. (The little kid, thinking If I step on this crack, I know it won’t break my mother’s back. But still, the veiled threat of something seems very real.) How shadowy threats are sometimes the most effective, because we can fill in our own blanks with what terrifies us most. How odd it is that our humanity has provoked in every culture elaborate behaviors meant to ward off ill; consider the distance between the words as we think them: “ill,” “evil,” “danger,” “hell,” “damnation,” and death.

*(I have no idea why I won’t walk under ladders; I just won’t.)

5 thoughts on “Wired for Meaning”

    1. Pat, this also makes me think about our belief in other people as its own kind of superstition. I mean, there’s no rational reason to believe in a friendship as a third thing that exists outside of two people–or in any kind of relationship. But we do it, and it heals us or keeps us whole.

    1. The thing is that, Mom, I kind of feel that way about you. Your practical skills outweigh mine by a mile in the “Uh, oh! You’re now stranded on a desert island!” sense. If we lose a little of this with every generation, what on earth are we gaining? Song lyrics? Internet memes? Ugh.

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