In a Marxist group retreat I attended in Berkeley, California, one man, a city college professor in U.S. History, sat us down at a picnic table to divulge his thoughts on mysticism. (In retrospect, I might have called this “mansplaining.”)
He shared that, when he was on the train to get there, a pigeon flew straight into one of the windows of his train car. This was, unfortunately, its last moment of life. Everyone on the train gasped, and the women sitting directly in front of him started discussing what this could mean. Could God be trying to communicate something to them? Could it be their “spirit animal” committing suicide to send them a message of impending doom?
“No,” he said, swigging his Guinness, flaring his nostrils in contempt. “It means nothing. The pigeon was confused. We’ve seen the Windex commercials, okay? Humans naturally look for cause and effect but rarely seek the scientific explanation. Remember in the Middle Ages, when they blamed the failure of their crops on women going out at night? Or when old tribesmen used to blame a wife’s lack of sexual interest on demons instead of being treated like second-class citizens?”
At the time, I was eager to show my approval. I was a teenager, after all, with almost zero mental fortitude. But I’ve come to accept a much more multifaceted view.
In our time, we don’t accept mystical causes for arbitrary and chaotic events of the world, when we used to know almost nothing but them. We used to tell stories like those of the Chumash, who saw the darkness of night as a result of one of their Gods throwing a blanket over the sky, so the people would sleep and stop partying in 24-hour sun. The tribe sent birds and bears and eagles to try to rip the blanket apart and restore the light of the sun. According to the Chumash, these rips and tears are our stars and our moon. We used to mourn the loss of our crops, knowing nothing of pests or soil, and lose masses of people to horrific diseases, knowing nothing of medical science, but see women who weren’t a part of the church, who instead lived independently as healers or midwives, as witches using dark magic to wreak havoc.1
Mystical thinking heightens reality. As day-to-day mystical explanations have withered away, we’ve still maintained our need for the drama that mysticism necessarily produces. Things like Harry Potter, Disneyland, World of Warcraft, or Twilight exist and make millions of dollars, opening up our imaginations, satisfying this need in a rational and increasingly secular age. Yet there is another side of the coin: if benevolent magic exists, then malevolent magic exists, too. If there’s a Harry, you can bet there is a Voldemort. If a God can bless you, a demon can curse you. If there’s the pure light of God, there’s the pure darkness of Satan that can be honed and practiced by the likes of witches.
There are obvious risks that come with applying this mysticism to reality, perhaps filling in the gaps of the unknown in uncertain or terrifying situations. Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist studying Trobriand Islanders off the coast of New Guinea, found that the further out to sea the people went to fish, the more they developed superstitious rituals.2 In the inner lagoon where the waters were peaceful, there were few of such rituals. Simply being scared in new waters is relatively innocent compared to the conclusions we draw about people and customs which are unknown to us—where such thinking could develop into inaccurate myths, stereotypes, or worse, xenophobia and racism. It doesn’t take too much digging to find examples throughout human history or even in the present day.
Increasingly, we are applying scientific and rational thinking to our realities. Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, discusses how we’ve applied scientific thinking more and more to not just the physical world, but the social world. We’ve reasoned through sexism, racism, homophobia, animal abuse, violence, and discovered that much of it just doesn’t make sense. We now know that measuring an African American’s skull to show their supposed “lack of intelligence” doesn’t actually show anything, because skull size doesn’t impact brain functioning. We know now that women don’t just naturally love to cook or that they all just want to be housewives because of “ingrained talents.”
And while appreciating what rational thinking has done for us, I can’t help but wonder what it was like to dream beyond reality on a daily basis. I go back to that moment, sitting at night with this cynical and jaded Communist professor and wonder: “Did that pigeon flying into the train car window just not mean anything at all?”
Months ago, at least five years since hearing his story, I was walking to the bus stop from my work at a school in Beverlywood, Calfornia, on a hot, frustrating day. My work as an assistant entailed a lot of getting beaten up by a strong-willed and overindulged child.That day was particularly difficult, as I had gotten nothing but grimy looks from her mother and the staff because she wasn’t doing well in school. I realized that I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Just as I thought this, something incredible happened.
A hawk, huge and glorious, swooped down onto a branch of the small tree right in front of me. Its eyes were a glowing red and they were absolutely piercing. It left as suddenly as it came, swooping off so quickly I couldn’t even see where it flew to.
Science might say that my hunched over and deflated stance made me look like prey for the hawk. And I know that this is, could be, has to be, the explanation for this event.
But while knowing this, I couldn’t shake it off. Its glare was like waking up to the sound of glass shattering. I started thinking of what, if anything, this hawk would say to me if it could speak. And it was saying, be like me. Be focused on what you want in life. Then swoop on it.
While knowing that from high up in the sky I probably looked like the hawk’s lunch, my heart told me: this had to mean more. And that if I didn’t believe it was more than what my rational side was telling me, I would be stuck in a reality that was holding me back.
Victor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist, neurologist, and Holocaust survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, was an incredibly reasoned and intelligent person forced into one of the darkest experiences known to man. Here is what he had to say of one morning he spent during his imprisonment while thinking of his wife:
For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present; that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.
Rational thinking is, all said, one of the great drivers of human history. But I would say that it shouldn’t reign supreme, especially in trying moments where we may need another explanation. Although the reasoned mind is a beautiful thing, it shouldn’t break the spirit of our hearts.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.
1. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, historians estimate that as many as 50,000 people were executed as witches.Many faced excruciating deaths, some burned at the stake, others burned in oil.