The Futility — and Hope — of Magical Thinking
I canceled my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Most people I know talk about 2020 as having an almost mystical power of wrongness to it. Something terrible happens, and people immediately comment “That’s so 2020,” as if the year itself is somehow trying to ruin all our lives.
It doesn’t seem so mysterious to me: 250,000 deaths due to a pandemic, nationwide civil unrest, a colossally broken political system, are all historical moments, but they’ve happened before. The 1918 Flu Pandemic. The Civil Rights Movement. The Civil War. None of our current experiences is all that special or unique. They tell us that we Americans aren’t that good at learning from — or remembering — our history.
There is something that we Americans are good at. We’re exquisitely good at thinking Nothing Bad Will Happen to Us, to our loved ones, as if we are exempt from it even while others suffer.
Magical thinking, broadly defined, is the idea that one event influences a different, unrelated issue despite lacking any apparent connection.
I think of it as human thinking, given that most people I know engage in it to some degree or other. These days, I wonder if it’s not a uniquely American-human way of thinking. These days, America seems exceptional at this sort of thinking.
America seems utterly divided in considering how to handle holiday gatherings this year.
One side believes we should have our family visit as usual and not live in fear. Their primary justification is that we might not have another opportunity to see our loved ones. As I listen to their arguments, I think it’s more that they’re just convinced the Bad Thing Won’t Happen to Them. They believe it will happen to someone else, or COVID isn’t really as bad as it’s been made out to be, and that if they catch it, they’ll only be a little ill. They seem convinced it won’t happen to them, or they think acting as we always have can magically return us to normal.
The other side says we should wait. We should protect ourselves and our loved ones by not traveling, keeping a social distance, and wearing a mask if we see each…