My birthday is this Tuesday.
That may seem like a gratuitous plug to you, but keep reading and I promise it will tie in.
It's been a while since I actually had a birthday cake -- you know, icing, candles, and, um, cakey stuff.
I don't remember being young enough to actually think that making a wish and blowing out the candles would make the wish come true. There's a chance I've always been cynical enough that I never believed that. What's funny is that, to this day, I'm still not likely to tell anyone what I wished for because "it won't come true" if I do. So, while I don't think my wish will be granted, I'm not going to go out of my way to anger the birthday deity, or whomever would be in charge of that sort of thing.
I'll bet I'm not the only one. We all have superstitions bordering on phobias and phobias bordering on superstitions. (Told you it would tie in.) Sometimes it's tough to tell where to draw the line. Regardless, it's all about, apparently, fear - fear of bad luck, fear of wishes not coming true, even darker fears (Friday the 13th is coming up...).
One friend of mine always (always) kisses her fingertips and touches her hand to the roof of the car whenever going through a yellow light. She even does it when I go through a yellow light. Now, I'm not superstitious enough to do it myself, but I still feel a little bit more at ease when she does it. Where the line blurs, of course, is how strongly one feels about the need to comply with whatever "rule" is in effect.
My friend, for example, is so obsessive about the yellow light thing that she doesn't even realize she's doing it anymore. It's just second nature. Does she fear what would happen if she didn't do it? Probably. Is it a crippling fear? Probably not, but it is both habit and compulsion at this point.
Another friend of mine has a fear of gauze in her mouth. Yeah, really. She gets physically ill at just the thought of gauze, tissue paper, or really anything of that ilk passing her lips. Her dentist hates her. As does the local woman who sells tongue cozies.
It is true, though, that she's got a phobia over something so a) unusual, and b) not tied into a system of reward/punishment. I'm sure she doesn't think she'll have bad luck if she's blowing her nose and a piece of the tissue touches her tongue. At the same time, I'm also sure she flinched at that last thought. I don't know if it's genuinely considered a phobia, but she claims it is, and people are scared of stranger stuff than that.
The idea of fears is one that's been running through my mind lately, especially with Halloween in a few weeks. But it was the Jewish holidays at the beginning of the month that got me thinking about supertition - Yom Kippur. For those who aren't M.O.T.s (members of the tribe), there's a Rabbinical teaching that during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God decides whether to inscribe each of us in the "Book of Life" for the following year. We pray to be written in, in fact.
This is not, however, a concept from the Torah (the Old Testament), but, rather, later commentary on it which has been integrated into the traditions surrounding the Jewish New Year. I'm not commenting, by the way, on the legitimacy of religion, nor am I suggesting that a belief in God is simply superstition. So no stoning me when I walk out of my apartment. I'd also point out that it's really a metaphor. The rabbis were smart enough to figure that God probably doesn't need an actual book to keep track of this sort of thing.
Speaking of God, by the way, another thought I've had recently is the question of writing out the word "god." Now there's a superstition. Most people, when referring to the Judeo-Christian god, at least, will capitalize the word. God. It shows a distinct lack of respect for the Creator of All Things to write "god" when we even capitalize our own names. Given, we also throw words like "He" and "His" in as well, just to make sure He doesn't think we're being cheeky.
Then there are those who refuse to write out even the full word, again because of a teaching somewhere in the scripture. These people are usually very religious Jews who prefer to write "G-d." They feel that if they write out the word, they can never destroy the medium on which it was written. Even in English. But I have to wonder if God, in all His/Her wisdom, really cares if we type out the full word or accidentally forget to hit the shift key once in a while. Maybe He/She does. Maybe that's the difference between being written into the Book of Life and not. Or maybe it has to do with being a good person.
We all have different superstitions, of course. My friend who does the yellow light thing has also told me that I can't pull out the grey hair in my beard or put my shoes on the table. These are things she believes. She's afraid of the consequences. So is that merely superstition, or is that a phobia?
Some actually sort of straddle the line. As I mentioned earlier, we're in a month right now that contains a Friday the 13th. This is a day which inspires both superstition and phobia. For example, I'm not afraid to go to work on this day, as I've read some people are, but at the same time, I probably wouldn't plan to take my first flying lesson, either.
I have another friend who can't say the word "snake," because the animal terrifies her so much. It's odd to have conversations in which a normally rational human being says, "I hated summer camp. I was always afraid of an 'S' coming into my cabin." The fear is obviously a phobia, but what about the choice not to say the word? Is substituting "S" for "snake" more of a superstitious action? I'm not really sure where to draw the line. What I am sure of is that she's gonna hate me for writing this paragraph.
Snake. And this one. Snake.
Of course these things, in and of themselves, are harmless. So my one friend can't take off her mittens with her teeth. So the other will never see "S's on a Plane." It's when superstitions and fears do start to have a truly detrimental effect on our daily lives that we really need to take a step back and use our G-d-given force of will to make the decision not to be controlled by them. (Upon reading my first draft of this, my friend Bill pointed out that aibohphobia is the fear of palindromes. How horrible would it be to have a phobia that you're afraid to name?)
Afraid of heights? Buy a bunk bed. Suffer from Ablutophobia? Do us all a favor and bathe. Rather step into traffic than walk under a ladder? Stop being so silly. Your umbrella getting mildewed because you can't dry it properly unless you open it indoors? Take a risk. And for those of you out there with Novercaphobia, she's probably not as bad as you think.
Point is, whether we abide by a superstition going back hundreds of years, or if we just have a phobia based on traumatic experience or genetic disposition, none of these things is immutable. And if I can be responsible for just one lutraphobic reader of mine who finally allows himself to interact with an otter, well, I've done my job.
Keep your fingers crossed.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER
more about adam kraemer
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.6.06 @ 7:58a
I am a baseball fan. Most of us are blatantly superstititious, as are the players we love so much. I ate strawberry jam every day for the entire 1986 baseball season because I ate it on that day in April (I think it was April) when Darryl hit his first homerun of the year. The Mets won the penant and the world series that year, so you can understand why it was reinforced, can't you?
So, Amen, Brother Adam!
10.6.06 @ 11:46a
I never have been afraid of Friday the 13th. If anything, because I perversely turned it into a good supersition, I like Friday the 13th.
However, I did freak out on 6.6.06.
10.6.06 @ 1:06p
I still always throw a pinch of spilled salt over my shoulder, and I cross my fingers when a post or other object comes between me and a loved one I'm walking next to. The pinch is conscious, the finger-crossing is not.
10.6.06 @ 1:47p
There is a great difference between a phobia and a superstition. Constant fear is more of a phobia where the 'potential' of something bad happening is a superstition. Having a phobia is mentally and physically crippling.
My Birthday is on the 13th of December....I don't have the triscadecaphobia problem, fortunately. I feel badly for those who do. In fact, I might approach the number '13' as a fortunate omen. The few times I've been in Atlantic City gambling, '13' has been kind to me on the roulette wheel. I've ALWAYS won when using 13 in conjunction with a couple of other pet numbers.
What is it called when a time-tested phobia or superstition is used as a lucky charm?
10.6.06 @ 4:11p
I do know that a phobia is mentally and physically crippling. However, there are some, like the few that I mentioned, where they're very specific instances. Pteronophobia, for example, is the fear of being tickled by feathers. How often does this sort of thing come up?
10.7.06 @ 8:22a
I was thinking of the whole phobia thing. (....you touched a nerve) I couldn't come up with anything that would cause muscle-petrifying, gut-tightening, cold-sweating fear until I heard CNN's MC, Wolf Blitzer, penetrate the haze of concentration. Is the ominous fear that our Government will implode, dissolving into a dictatorship with the corresponding loss of personal freedoms and individual rights, a valid phobia? Or is that just the illogical conclusion, born out of the current political climate? Maybe there is a name for a phobia that fears 'total' government control. What do you think?
10.7.06 @ 3:29p
Tyranophobia - fear of tyrants, maybe.
10.8.06 @ 3:37p
Tyranophobia - fear of tyrants, maybe.
10.12.06 @ 7:12a
What Phobia labels come to mind when thinking of President Bush; fear of stupidity, fear of insecurity, fear of the truth, or fear of the proper use of words. The psychological community no longer recognizes schizophrenia as a valid label....but the symptoms are there.
10.12.06 @ 9:36a
Man you Jews are neurotic. I thought that was a stereotype, an embellishment on Woody Allen's part. (I'm JOKING of course. I've known a lot of Jews, and you're all nuts)
Phobias are irrational fears, like believing that Bush is some sort of boogeyman and actually having an emotional response to his image or voice. Supersitions are unproven, blindly accepted beliefs in the significance of something, against all reason, like believing that voting democrat will bring some needed balance, or exert some positive force in the future.
It's rational enough to be afraid of predictible consequences. Fire normally burns us, so, hell yeah, don't touch the stove. But I guess unrelenting belief in some mojo, like all snakes are bad when whe KNOW a ton of them are harmless, or throwing salt over your shoulder, which I guess, has something to do with Lot's wife but no appreciable effect on current events, is just one of our endearing shortfalls.
10.12.06 @ 10:11a
Actually, Dan, voting Democrat will bring some balance. Whether or not you feel that's a good thing, a Republican president with a Democratic Senate (for example) would balance a lot more than a single-party legislature and executive.
10.12.06 @ 10:30a
Well, yes, agreed, in terms of red or blue seats, some fleeting balance can be had. But it will be pendular, and will offset at some later time.
True balance would be when actual MINDSET changes, or at least when we can all agree on what we agree on, as well as agree on what it is we disagree on. For example, whether or not we think the Iraq war was a good idea to begin with, we need a fresh mindset to ascertain whether or not it is a good idea to pull out.
So, what I am saying, you can vote democrat or however, and think it's making a change, helping curing whatever we think ails us, but really it's not, unless whoever you vote for has progressed in thinking somehow.
10.24.06 @ 4:09p
Then I guess saying that politidicotophobia is worse than unipoliticophobia is.....right Dan?
Having been found in a 'spider hole' has given Sadam Hussein a very bad case of arachnaphobia!