On the surface, various primary cultures who are living in the “old ways” appear happy, content, connected to each other and the natural world, living a simple, elemental life. But dig below the surface of just about any of them and you often uncover a world filled with superstition and fear. One common characteristic of many such cultures is maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the invisibles, a conversation with the gods through ritual, offerings, shamans and such. The gods are always happy to cause mischief and since they can’t speak directly, they appear in omens and premonitions. The apparently simple carefree life of various primary peoples is fraught with anxiety and worry as they track the various signs that something is out of balance and will need some kind of propitiation— or else.
Of course, we modern people are not so different. We have our collective ideas about walking under ladders and Friday the 13th and such, our personal little quirks and quaint routines to avoid disaster (like saying “hares” the last thing before turning to sleep on the last day of the month and “rabbit” as the first word when you wake up). And then dreams. Waking up with a sense of worry or dread from a nightmare— or carrying our own anxieties with us in a kind of walking daydream.
I bid my daughter farewell last night as she headed out for a long drive to Oregon to visit her sister, spoke the mandatory evil-eye-avoiding phrase “Drive safely” and had a sense of mild worry about the trip. This morning my wife woke up saying she was worried about the car and the drive and couldn’t sleep well because of it. (I hadn’t shared my thoughts). Then while playing the piano, there was a huge crash in the hall and shattering glass. I rushed out to see my daughter’s framed painting on the floor. Don’t think there was an earthquake, but mysteriously, it just fell off the wall after 20 years hanging there. Now I was thinking about bad omens and immediately called my daughter. Thanks goodness for cell phones! Except, of course, she didn’t answer. Why did that painting fall? What did it mean? I was worried.
Fear is real. If we think about it, there’s a thousand things to be afraid of every day, even without the newspapers shoving it in our faces. And it’s always been that way. We’re worried about ice caps melting and terrorists, but our ancestors were stressed about Mongol hordes invading, inexplicable plagues, the Inquisition. We have freeways and planes, they had tigers and snakes. It’s a dangerous world and a bloomin’ miracle that we make it through each day.
And mostly we do it with good old-fashioned faith— or repression, take your pick. We create our routines to give us the feeling of safety and try not to think about everything that could go wrong. We survive by creating the comfortable illusion that all is well and will continue to run smoothly— at least for now. Yes, disasters abound, but they’re happening somewhere far away or await us sometime in some far distant future.
And so while I await the return call from my daughter, I’m turning on Garrison Keillor to hear his comfortable voice in his comfortable Lake Wobegon world in the comfort of my home eating comfort food. Sometimes it’s best not to think.
PS She called, she’s fine, Garrison was in fine form, there’s a good Public Television movie on, the Warriors are tied 2-2, balance is restored to my world—for now. One can only be grateful.