Unknowingly Guilty of Magical Thinking
I have been blessed with a very lucky life. I was born into a middle-class family in a modern, developed country. My children and my loved ones have all been healthy. Medical attention has been available to us. I have never suffered from financial hardship. I have always had friends. I’ve enjoyed the work and interests I have pursued.
I know that a lot of my feeling lucky has to do with what I choose to focus on. Everything isn’t perfect, but I am particularly mindful of and grateful for what is good. I know people with circumstances similar to mine who focus on the negative and are pretty unhappy in their lives.
I’ve always regarded my optimism as a positive trait. Early on, I developed the attitude that we can determine our future to a large extent. I grew up believing that we are responsible for our decisions and their outcome. When my kids were frustrated, I would encourage them by saying, “Let’s figure this out. There’s pretty much a solution to every problem.”
But over the last few years, I’ve become suspect of my optimism. Asked if the glass is half full or half empty, I would answer, “Neither. Just think, if it were a smaller glass, it would be completely full.” I realize that’s avoiding the question.
I came to see that there was a desperate aspect of my positive thinking. It was my belief that if you are positive and optimistic, bad things won’t happen to you. Pessimistic people bring bad things upon themselves. For example, in my mind, if you’re a hypochondriac, you stand more of a chance of getting sick. But this was defied when I suddenly found myself living in a world where something out there was killing people regardless of how optimistic or negative they were.
I became aware of other magical thinking. When someone died, I tended to assign blame. It was their fault for smoking, for not going to the doctor soon enough, for ignoring their friends’ advice. Or it was someone else’s fault–the doctor, their family, a friend–somebody who was guilty of being incompetent or careless. But this was challenged when my sister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She’s done everything right: diet, exercise, lifestyle. Our family has healthy genes. Who could I blame? I had to face a reality that I had been trying to avoid: death just happens.
Then there was my belief that “there’s pretty much a solution to every problem.” I was clinging to a view that science can eliminate disease and save our lives. I quarantined for a year and a half, waiting for scientists to come up with a vaccine to protect me from Covid. When I was vaccinated, I was relieved. Covid couldn’t get me. But this illusion was shattered when a family member had a breakthrough case of Covid, and then it spread to other friends and family. The vaccine kept all of them from having to be hospitalized and from getting very sick, but clearly, we were not immune to Covid.
For a while, I was longing for “When life gets back to what it was. When life is good again. When life is back to normal.” But then I started to question what I was wanting to get back to. Was that real or was that a self-deception? Maybe what I’ve been experiencing lately is normal.
The Illusion of Safety
To maintain my delusion of being blessed, I had to stay away from unpleasantness, distance myself from adversity, and sidestep unhappiness. I successfully created my own internal Pleasantville. This illusion of safety had been an effective survival mechanism for me as a child when I felt alone and unsafe in the world. Sadly, avoiding negative situations and keeping myself at a safe distance from people kept me isolated and prevented me from interacting with others.
In my magical world, I was missing out on the big, messy feelings and interactions and experiences that give life depth and texture. That bring you close to those you share them with. That give you a feeling of accomplishment when you cope with them. That allow you to enjoy the good times even more when they happen.
I’m coming out of these last years no longer believing that I am golden. Yes, I’ve been blessed. Yes, I am lucky. But I’m not special. I haven’t been handpicked by a higher power to have a life that is better than anyone else’s. I have been brought down to earth. My magical wings have been clipped. But my life is bigger and fuller now, because I’m experiencing the good and bad, joy and pain, happiness and sadness that comes with living in the real world.
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