Why We Need Magic
I am a big fan of the study of why people do the things they do. I have a whole reading list of books that discuss all the ways our brains bend and shape reality to fit our emotions, how people make choices, and what they find persuasive. It fascinates me. I fear if I ever meet Sheena Iyengar, the researcher who did the famous jam jar study, I will brazenly fangirl her in a way that will be embarrassing for both of us. Some people lose their minds over a Kardashian, so don’t judge me.
So when I encounter a human being who holds toxic ideas of what the world is like, and tells me I should just get over it, or some other invitation to resignation and hopelessness, I can’t say I’m surprised. They insist that whatever injustice exists in the world is “just how things are, and there’s no sense trying to change it.” Usually they’re justifying some form of bigotry: “Boys will be boys.” “white people are just more _____ than those other people.” “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” “You are only a woman if you have woman parts.” They insist they didn’t make the rules, but that everyone should live by them and if you want things to be different, it’s as pointless as fighting gravity.
Their denial gives them a very convenient way to hold on to their privilege and justify their bigotry, and it’s reprehensible. It’s also frustrating because their personal narrative is so entrenched, that there is no fact you can show them, no proof you can offer that will sway them. And it’s a very simple and very human thing, something that we actually all do whether we like to admit it or not — they have made their decision because their worldview fosters the feelings they are most comfortable with. And so they will only accept as fact the things that feed those feelings.
Notice I said comfortable, not happy. Humans often put what makes them comfortable ahead of what will make them happy. That’s why couples stay married long after the relationship has died, why people will stand by friends that are toxic, and why Trump supporters are supporting him long after it has become evident that his Presidency is a dumpster fire. Admitting that your worldview needs adjusting requires too much hard truth, too much self-reflection. We’d much rather sleepwalk through our existence than admit that it can or should be changed. It’s just easier that way, even if it’s completely unsatisfying.
But here’s the truth about gravity that should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention. You *can* fight it, and even beat it. Such a thing requires either a rocket ship or something that spins fast enough that you might throw up, but you CAN do it. Another one of my personal heroes, Dr. Robert Ballard, loves to tell audiences at speaking engagements that everything contained in his physics textbook from high school has since been proved categorically wrong. Dr. Ballard is the oceanographer who found the Titanic. He’s the guy who took robotic submarines into the Galapagos rift. They thought that there would be no living creatures down there — after all, life required photosynthesis, everyone knew that. With no light, that deep underwater, nothing could live, right? Until they found the giant tube worms and blood red clams and other lifeforms that sustained themselves even without light through a process called chemosynthesis. The Universe consistently surprises us by showing us that everything we think we know, all the absolutes we take as truths, may actually be wrong.
Humans have a hard time seeing that, because that is the essence of magic. And we don’t like to believe in magic. Modern people think they are too good for it. They think magic is for children, the mentally deranged, and geeks who read too much Harry Potter. Magic threatens their belief that the Universe is a tidy place that makes perfect sense, even if they personally don’t quite understand it all. Living in a world where anything and everything is possible is kinda scary. Their narrow view of what is and isn’t possible may not make them happy, but at least it’s safe, and they can rely on it.
Magic, on the other hand, disrupts. Magic is the belief that one can change the Universe. That if you know the right spell, can bring the right forces to bear, exercise the right kind of will, you can actually bend the Universe to what you want.
This is not to be confused with “magical thinking.” No one who actually works with magic believes that merely wishing for something is enough to make it so. It is a much more involved and complicated matter to bend the Universe to your will, and success is not always guaranteed. The Universe can and does say no sometimes. That’s how magical practitioners learn humility (something they absolutely need if they are to survive for the long haul.)
But the point is this — magic teaches us that we do not need to accept things as they are. We can and should challenge what we think is true, even if it seems unassailable. We should do that every day. Because everything we think we know is quite possibly wrong; we just haven’t figured out how yet. In that magic is not terribly different in its thinking than science. Both approach an infinite Universe from the perspective that one should not try to make it smaller to suit our finite brains, but rather that we must make our understanding and our selves bigger to more fully embrace it.
Deep down, those who defend the status quo on the grounds that “its just the way things are” are people who have embraced being small, because they are afraid. They are in a trap of their own making, a mental jail that accepts a limited view and a substandard world because they lack the imagination and the will and ultimately the bravery to change it. They’re comfortable at least, even if they are desperately unhappy. In this world bereft of magic, with nothing new to discover, they get by comforting themselves with resentment, which ultimately leaves them broken and alone. Such a place is hopeless indeed. Make no mistake that it’s a choice. Which means, by definition, that one can choose something else.
I choose discovery. I choose magic. I choose the infinity of the Universe over the finiteness of my brain. I choose the wild irrationality of endless possibility. I choose the perpetual wonder that comes when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I leave the back door of my brain open to be ransacked by the scandalous beauty of hidden truth. I fill my lungs with the pure, ferocious freedom that is mine by holy decree. And most of all, I claim my absolute right to make anything happen, and be limited only by my imagination and my will.
Maybe I am fighting gravity. But how else are we supposed to fly?