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🦋 Show Me A Sign
We are taking a slight detour from the hero’s journey to talk about something adjacent to the topic of journeys and the uncertainty that accompanies them, and the best way I know is by sharing a story.
The mystery of the unicorn
Many years ago, I was part of an organization in a role I wasn’t sure was the best fit for me. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right decision. I’d been with them for a few months, and though there’d been a steep learning curve, I’d finally settled into a routine. However, I also had a nagging feeling that I wanted something else. It all came to a head one afternoon. It was lunchtime, and I was out for a short walk in the nearby park after a busy morning. As I passed behind some trees, temporarily out of sight of others, the commentary in my head went something like this: “If only I could see a sign to help me choose what to do. That would be so helpful. Maybe that’s what I should do! Ask for a sign! If I see a...hmm.. a purple car. No. How about a unicorn? That feels right! A unicorn. If I see a unicorn before I go back upstairs, that’s a sign I should stay. If I don’t - and here, I remember laughing to myself- if I don’t see a unicorn, I am going to quit.” I also remember whispering this aloud, “Please. Show me a sign.”
You can probably see I wanted permission to leave, and now, I’d found a way to get it. After all, what are the odds of spotting a unicorn in a suburban park? Or, for that matter, anywhere? There was an immediate relief because I’d successfully absolved myself of authority, agency, and responsibility for the decision, even though, at that time, I had no idea that’s what I’d done. But here’s where things got strange(r).
As I rounded the corner - while also diligently scanning the surroundings for unicorns- and walked to the intersection to take me back to the office buildings, a large, black SUV slowed down a little ahead and pulled towards the curb. Someone inside the car opened the front passenger door and stretched out a hand. I was still waiting at the pedestrian crosswalk and idly turned my head to see what they were reaching for. That’s when I saw the man. He was walking towards the SUV. I don’t remember much about him though I think he was speaking, probably replying to the people in the car. All other details were blurry because I could only focus on what was in his hands. He was carrying it over his head like a trophy, and it was large enough that I could see it clearly from where I stood. It was a white unicorn.
I guess I hadn’t specified whether it had to be a live unicorn or if a plush toy would do.
I remember being stunned. It was just a man carrying a plush toy, but it felt more significant than that, as though I had used an old-fashioned, rotary telephone to dial the Universe’s number, and someone had actually answered. My heart rate had sped up, and I was shaky and cold. The traffic lights changed and the person standing next to me started to cross the road. I quietly followed them.
I didn’t quit, at least not that year.
Was it magical thinking? Synchronicity? Something else altogether? The answer will vary depending on who you ask, and I am not here to convince you to choose one or reject another. Instead, let's talk about magical thinking today and the idea of synchronicity in a later newsletter.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I am also not an expert on magical thinking. I am sure there are many variables to take into account and what I’ve written is a tiny, personal exploration of a vast topic.
Magical thinking assigns connection to unrelated events. These events are not logically connected. Magical thinking can include superstitions, and cultural, regional, or religious rituals and practices. In some cases, magical thinking may cause considerable distress and it may be part of mental health conditions. I’ve read that clinicians don’t include cultural and religious influences/ practices in their definition of magical thinking.1
In his book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, Matthew Hutson argues that each one of us, even the most rational, indulges in some degree of magical thinking. He describes it as an evolutionary “useful” (though not necessarily “accurate”) advantage geared towards survival and helping us navigate an uncertain world.
“When we feel out of control we search for patterns in the world. Finding regularities allows us to plan our behavior in a manageable environment. And in our search for order we often see order that isn’t there. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have shown that when people feel out of control, they’re more likely to see shapes in random noise, false correlations in financial reports, or conspiracies in strings of events. So the need for control can lead us to spot patterns (which may or may not exist), and, as explained earlier, pattern perception leads to agency detection; spooky coincidences and semblant conspiracies suggest creators. Such conspicuous alignments don’t just happen on their own, right?”
― Matthew Hutson, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane
Obviously, not all pattern-detection is part of magical thinking, just the ones that lack a logical relationship.
This resonated with my experience. I was definitely exposed to this growing up, both in cultural and religious contexts, though not explicitly as a tool to navigate uncertainty. Rather, and I am vastly oversimplifying this, it was seen as an acknowledgement of not everything in the world being under one’s control.
It’s your turn! I’d love to hear your take on this. Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
If you are reading this in an email, I hope you will click through to the posts on the website because what I write is one perspective and the comments section is full of other viewpoints, and the adding of more layers and nuances. As always, thank you for reading.