OPINION: Magical thinking plagues society

Popular fiction rife with heros and magic, but is all this nonsense really good for us?

By Al Lehmann

Abracadabra! Shazaam! Open sesame!

Wouldn’t life be much easier if, in order to accomplish our goals, all we needed to do was to recite (murmur, whisper, shout) a secret phrase, one that somehow transferred awesome powers to our ourselves or generated breathtaking supernatural change to our benefit?

It’s an immensely popular idea, one that has permeated society for millennia. It’s central to religions, most of which include ritualized incantation in their worship. “Allah akhbar!” “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” “Om mani padme hum.” (For best results, believe implicitly in the power of these phrases to work, even if results are variable and not guaranteed.)

Billions of people are religious adherents, with the strength of their faith depending upon many factors, including the satisfactions of fellowship and metaphysical reassurance, but also on parental indoctrination and cultural pressures from society at large.

Children’s literature is replete with examples of magical events based on language cues and wish fulfillment. Themes include accounts of the world’s creation, rags to riches stories, fables to instruct the young in moral behavior, and so on.

Many of these stories’ characters are animals that are curiously like people in the way they think. Storytellers have pasted human traits, abilities and foibles onto multiple species from rats and spiders to monkeys and bears.

Virtually every known culture exhibits its own variety of magical tales. From the Muslim world we have Ali Baba and Sinbad in 1,001 Nights. France has given us the Mother Goose stories of Charles Perrault. Germany’s Grimm Brothers compiled hundreds of such stories. England created and spread dozens of familiar yarns including Alice in Wonderland, and darker tales such as The Monkey’s Paw. First Nations cultures around the world feature a fabulous variety of myths and tales.

Most of these were created for children, providing vicarious adventures that pull readers in to experience wonder, danger, struggle and often victory. But our culture increasingly markets such material to adults, as well. Thus, Little Red Riding Hood gives way to Harry Potter, which leads to mammoth undertakings like Lord of the Rings. The film world’s blockbusters now include a plethora of superhero films like Spiderman and Wonder Woman.

It’s obviously wildly popular. According to Forbes, sales of science fiction and fantasy have doubled since 2010. Just three recent Avengers movies grossed nearly $5 billion worldwide! JK Rowling, author of Harry Potter, is estimated to be worth nearly a billion dollars.

This phenomenon leads one to wonder, is all this nonsense really good for us? Are our lives so utterly unfulfilling that we must stuff our consciousness with regular doses of not merely fiction, but fantasy? (Serious fiction at least is stories that could occur in reality.)

Perhaps reality isn’t that wonderful. Questions about reality posted on Quora include: “Why do I hate real life and reality so much?” “How can I stop hating the reality I’m living?” Advice from one post was, “Don’t obey the rules. Create your own reality.”

It’s difficult not to conclude that enormous numbers of our population feel much the same way. How else could a clown like Donald Trump be elected president of the most powerful country on Earth? How else can Justin Trudeau claim that we can address climate change by buying a pipeline and selling more gas and oil?

All together now! “Bibidi bobidi boo!” “Trust the Force!”

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