Superstition is no substitute for reality

According to a survey, 20% of Americans believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead (Gallup Organization, 1996). Films such as ‘Bless the Child’ and ‘Sixth Sense,’ along with TV shows peddling self-proclaimed mediums such as John Edward, continue to feed an apparent need for otherworldly communication.

Millions of words have been written about the authenticity (or lack thereof) associated with those who claim to predict the future and communicate with the dead. It is not my intention to add to that collection of hearsay and dubious ‘scientific’ study.

As a psychotherapist, my question is this: What need does this fascination with mysticism serve? Why do otherwise rational and levelheaded people flock to psychics, mediums and the like? What are we looking for that is so superior to reality? As John Edward artfully cultivates his persona of clairvoyance for the TV cameras (‘Crossing Over with John Edward,’ Sci Fi Channel), there is no doubting the outbursts of genuine emotion from the audience. Obviously, right or wrong, true or untrue, there is a need being served here.

Human beings want explanations for things. Science does not provide us with everything—at least not all at once. Consequently, it can be tempting to look for answers beyond the realm of reason and reality. Of course, what greets you there is nothing more than wishful thinking—not hard-core answers. That notwithstanding, fantasy can hold great emotional appeal in an often uncertain and indifferent world.

Adults who grew up in abusive, unhappy family environments will often tell a therapist, ‘I escaped by retreating into fantasy.’ Fantasy, in such situations, can actually keep the young person sane through the treacherous psychological (and sometimes physical) warfare taking place in the household. Of course, not everyone grows up in horrible family settings, but I think this offers a clue as to what’s so appealing about the paranormal: All of us, occasionally, can find life puzzling, stressful or even futile. In times like these, it can be exciting to look ‘outside’ the real world. As an old friend of mine once put it, ‘It’s fine to face reality and confront your fears, but what happens when reality bites?’

Here’s where you run into the difference between psychologically healthy and unhealthy attitudes. When reality ‘bites,’ the healthy person thinks, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ The answer might not be immediate, but the healthy person never questions the fact that solutions do exist. A person with self-esteem trusts his or her mind to figure things out, without having to look for answers out of the blue. A man I know was going through a series of tragic life crises. When I asked him how he coped, told me, ‘I stop, take a deep breath and tell myself that there IS a solution in here somewhere; I just have to find it. Usually, I do.’

A person, who, for whatever reason, finds it difficult to summon up this kind of attitude, will take a different approach. ‘I just can’t take it. I need out.’ In rare cases this could result in suicide, but most people are not suicidal. In some situations, drug or alcohol addiction takes over, but this is also the exception. Some will absorb themselves in favorite hobbies or their work. And still others will turn to the paranormal.

If you think about it, the mystical and magical can be fascinating. It addresses questions that most of us don’t think about in daily life. What happens after we die? Is there reincarnation? Can I communicate with lost loved ones and figure out where they are? When all is said and done, of course, there is no hard and fast evidence of anything regarding the paranormal. But the appeal, for many, lies in escaping the rigors of daily life by venturing over to the ‘other side,’ where, for a blissful little while, you can make up the rules yourself.

A lot of times, unhappy or over-stressed people will think, ‘Why did this happen to me? Life isn’t fair!’ The thought can be in response to something horrendous and tragic, or nothing more than a frustrating day. A cognitive psychotherapist such as myself can truly offer no answer other than, ‘This is just how it is.’ Don’t try to read meaning into what simply ‘is.’ Some things just are what they are. The challenge is to figure out how to cope with them. Maybe the negatives can even be turned into positives. Explanations are certainly valuable, but, ultimately, solutions are more important.

In counseling, I have sometimes been asked things like: ‘Why does God allow these things to happen?’ My only reply is: ‘I don’t know. You’d have to ask God. My concern, in the here and now, is what YOU’RE going to do about it.’

Trying to dig up explanations for the not-yet-explained, or maybe the merely coincidental, might make for a happy escape in the short run, but what does it really do for you in the end?

Celebrated singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder said it best in his hit song ‘Superstition’: ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way!’