To the poor guy who veered so violently to avoid stepping on a campus seal that the weight of his backpack knocked him over:
Are you alright? That was quite the tumble. I hope your laptop’s alright too. I saw you scramble to check on it the moment you sat up.
If it’s any comfort, I would’ve done the exact same thing in your position. What’s a couple of scrapes and bruises, or even the life of the thousand-dollar device storing most of our schoolwork, in exchange for protecting that precious 4.0 GPA?
The strangest thing is, I’ve heard all of the perfectly reasonable explanations that should have assuaged our fears about the “sinister” power of those seals. You probably have as well. It’s just a hoax started by campus itself to keep students off of the expensive and high-maintenance emblems; it’s an inside joke among seniors that allows them to easily identify gullible freshmen; it’s nothing more than a scapegoat for lazy students who wouldn’t have earned a 4.0 in the first place. Realistically, time is better spent on charging straight to class or into a library sat across from those meaningless seals.
Such common, pragmatic sense could be applied to any other campus superstition. Honestly, it could be applied to the superstitions and myths of any culture in our diverse world.
So why, then, does my Hindu childhood friend continue to avoid cutting her hair or nails Saturdays, fearing that doing either of those things will anger the divine Shani? Why does my Malaysian-Chinese mother scold me and my brother whenever we stick our chopsticks upright into our food, warning us about attracting spirits of death? Why are the two of us, students of higher, rational education, so absurdly terrified of a bit of campus ornamentation?
Perhaps the answer lies right within that fact — we are students of rationality. Humans are beings of logic, beings who inherently desire reasonable explanations for anything and everything. We watch, read about, listen to or develop brand new methods of analyzing every single little detail about our world. We spend our entire lives scarfing down more information than we do food. In the great intellectual Stephen Hawking’s words, “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
A complication with this intrinsic rationality, however, is that the world we live in isn’t always equally reasonable. Life doesn’t arrange itself into neat, coherent principles that can be printed into textbooks or memorized through Quizlet cards. Even with more than a decade of earning straight A’s in advanced English classes, I find myself fumbling for words in front of a new, adorable crush. My color-coded notes on the supposed five stages of grief for a psychology course offered me no comfort when my grandmother passed away. The bond between me and my mother seems to stretch far beyond a few shared genes, instead made from a mysterious, invincible substance yet to be listed on the periodic table. No matter how meticulous we are, it remains impossible to rationalize an irrational world.
But even in the face of such an enigma, our intrinsic, stubborn rationality still refuses to balk. Not entirely, anyway. We alter it ever so slightly, scrubbing and polishing it until it gleams with an otherworldly glow, transforming it into imagination.
When science slows or fails entirely, we turn to stories and superstition instead. We convince ourselves that carelessly putting a toe on a campus seal is the first step down a miserable academic path. We rap our knuckles on wood to scare off jinxes and make breathless wishes on puffy white weeds. We imagine higher beings who can pluck imagined strings of fate. The trajectories of life being unknown doesn’t stop us from attempting to pragmatically label them. We name them destiny, fortune, or at the very simplest, magic.
Such desperation for answers in a world that hardly ever has any makes us seem a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? But here’s the true magic: These superstitions, myths and all our other silly little stories transcend their original creators. They soar from generation to generation, gathering extra bits of glitter with every retelling, tucking new members into an ever-growing web of human connection: A beautiful nexus laced with an unbreakable spell of wonder, hope and love.
So, I remain enchanted. I will continue to heed my mother’s warnings about the arrangement of my cutlery and invoking spirits of death. I will continue to visit Buddhist temples and leave offerings for the gods I believe can grant my wishes. I will continue to skirt around looming ladders and around those wretched campus seals.
Even the smallest of superstitions represents this integral part of being human, this belief in something irrationally greater than ourselves. A belief in this glittering mesh of human connection. In our often nonsensical world, we find meaning in those around us.
I find meaning in you, Seal-Sidestepper. I hope you’ve found your people and your own meanings as well. If you haven’t yet, I wish you all the luck.