Magical Thinking

Magic hat for magical thinkingIf only there was a magical solution to the world’s mess: terrorism, climate change, border tensions, refugees, not enough jobs, murders, police violence.  It makes you wish that we could make it disappear.

When I was six years old, I watched my brother make a penny disappear into his forearm by rubbing it on his skin. It was magical—and it was wonderful. So I tried to do it too. I knew I could, if only I believed it would happen. But try as I would, the only result I got was a sore arm.

Within a few years, I discovered that magic wasn’t really magic. Magic was made of cleverly learned tricks. By the time we are adults, we no longer believe in magic. If a terrific magician—or more accurately, illusionist—were to explain in detail to us exactly how he sawed a woman in half and put her back together again, we would be impressed by his skills at illusion but now we could easily see that no “magic” had taken place.

As adults, we know that reality doesn’t bow to our belief, but somehow, when faced with life’s more complicated problems, we often opt for a magical way out of trouble:

  • When a terrorist strikes, we want to attack a specific religion or a specific country. We don’t want to consider the complex nature of society—the mix of poverty, failed governments, unwise wars, a flood tide of lethal weapons, of mental problems and—along with those—the evil use of religion.
  • When faced with the reality of international trade, we want to dial back economic reality to a protectionist mode—every nation for itself—even though economists have made it clear that protectionism contributed to and lengthened the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • When confronted with the rising sea levels, melting glaciers and record world temperatures, we want to pretend that there is not enough science, even though 75% to 95% of relevant scientists (depending on what studies and definitions you use) agree on human caused climate change. Besides, even if global warming is real, we can just move to higher ground or solve the problem later.
  • When immigrants flee for their lives from war torn countries, we want to seal the borders. After all, the world’s problems are not our problems.
  • When demand for a certain kind of work is low and the result is lower compensation, we want force employers to pay more for labor, even though increased prices invariably lead to decreased demand.

Maybe we give in to such magical thinking because the great complexity of life makes us feel very insecure. Our need for some security leads us to believe that life can’t really be that complicated. If life is simpler than it appears, these problems can readily be solved because simple problems require only simple solutions.

And maybe we long for life to be the way it used to be. We want to go back to that better time in the past—for the most part, a past that never was.

But our desire for simplicity and for the good old days—and the magical thinking they inspire—do not change the nature of reality. We cannot banish the complicated problems of life on earth by believing in simple solutions, any more than I could make a penny disappear into my arm by believing I could.

So what is the antidote to magical thinking?

Maybe we could quit listening to the most popular and loudest voices, and listen to the voices of those who have done their homework—for example scientists, time-tested news sources, and investigative journalists—instead of talking heads and political candidates.

Maybe we could remember and even read about the past—the past that contained both brave defenses of liberty and unjustified wars; racism as well as people who defeated hate;  and desperate poverty in nations that have now joined in global commerce.

And maybe we could loosen our grip on our need to feel secure and accept the inherent insecurity of life.

Then we could use science and accumulated knowledge to work for real solutions,and to vote for knowledgeable, realistic candidates for public service. And leave magical thinking behind.

You might also like these:
Who Can Know the Earth? (A Thank You to Scientists)
John F. Kennedy on the Truth

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