Recently an acquaintance died after a long string of misfortunes – more a friend of a friend than anyone I knew well. Some of the misfortunes were self-inflicted from errors of judgment; others seemed the latest in a long string of plain old bad luck. Being around this person was a little creepy, in both the ordinary sense of not wanting to hear a litany of however-justified complaints, and in the extraordinary sense I want to talk about now – the atavistic feeling that bad luck just might be catching.
Just raising the subject of contagious luck brings up a tangle of thoughts and feelings. I have noticed that many pre-modern/preliterate societies take the view that luck, especially bad luck, can be catching. When I think about luck contagion I immediately get mental images – perhaps from films – of villagers stoning an unfortunate person to death or driving them away. Whether the image is justifiable or not is besides the point – it’s in my psyche, and I won’t be surprised if it’s in yours too. The biblical story of Jonah is another example – Jonah got tossed overboard after bringing bad luck to the ship he was fleeing his God in. Ever after a bad-luck carrier has been referred to in our culture as “a Jonah”.
The Rationalist Perspective and Calvin’s Smugness
One widely shared rationalist perspective in our culture suggests that believing that luck can be catching is a bad idea because it’s unfair to the unfortunate. It’s a slippery slope that leads from believing that bad luck is catching to the even worse Calvinist idea that people’s material circumstances reflect their spiritual value. Once we walk down Calvin’s road we blame the poor for their poverty, the sick for their illness, the unlucky in love for their rejection. I agree – in my view, the Calvinist road is a pretty straight path to a really bad smug attitude, and maybe even long-lasting character damage and evil.
Given this blog’s readership, I expect most of us know the dangers of acting like luck is contagious and edging towards uncompassionate, selfish and ultimately destructive behavior. I believe that as well, and will take it as given, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story.
A Thought Experiment
Thought experiments are a great way to explore a hypothesis – a tentative framework to understand events. You can conduct a thought experiment by considering that something might be true, then examining what follows from the assumption, and what can be learned from the result. A thought experiment does nothing to prove the truth of the hypothesis, but if the results of the experiment match up with other real life observations, it does tend to reinforce the usefulness and possible provisional truth of the hypothesis.
So let’s assume just for the duration of this article that luck is contagious. We’re wading in dangerous waters, but remember – even if we come to believe at some future time that luck is contagious, that doesn’t mean we must shun the unlucky. What a person does about a belief is different than the belief itself. Doctors and nurses deal with the physically contagious every day, both through prophylactic methods like barriers and sterilization and through spiritual measures like pure raw courage. Consider our health workers who travelled to the heart of the Ebola epidemic and successfully stemmed it – sometimes catching a disease that’s a whole lot worse than bad luck in the process. That’s spiritual courage for you.
Flavors of Luck
If luck’s contagious, do people believe that all kinds of luck are catching, or just bad luck? Things get interesting here. I’d suggest that unconsciously we have a strong tendency to treat all kinds of luck as contagious, although without the conscious believe about good luck that we have about bad luck.
For example, one of the insults our culture has fastened on lately is calling people “losers”. The implication in calling someone a “loser” is that life’s a race, and we don’t want to be around those who are behind in it – and do want to be around those who are “winning”. As with much of this discussion we’re looking at Calvinism with a thin coating – but leaving that aside, as Linda Ronstadt so eloquently sang:
“Everybody loves a winner
“ But when you lose, you lose alone”
So we probably have a tendency to unconsciously cluster around perceived ‘winners’. I’d suggest that this indicates we feel, on some level that some of the winning luck might rub off. You can see this in a casino sometimes when people cluster around a player on a roll. It’s not just bad luck that we unconsciously think is catching.
What Makes Luck Bad or Good?
All this assumes that we actually know what bad luck and good luck look like. That’s a perilous assumption. Even in obvious cases – nobody wants cancer – you can imagine a circumstance where a painful slow disease or death might lead to a fortunate spiritual or physical rebirth, and the absence of disease might lead to spiritual degeneration. Misfortune can build character, and can turn out in retrospect to be far better than what would initially seem to be good fortune.
If something hurts, it hurts and it’s best to acknowledge it. Still, it’s worth considering that pain may have a purpose.
It’s even more important to consider a counsel you find in teachings like those of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Harper Translation):
“Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive? “
The suggestion here goes beyond the idea that we can’t always tell what is good fortune and what is misfortune. It’s that our very spiritual health depends, to some degree, on detaching from results and just doing the job at hand. If that’s true, the thought that luck might be catching becomes much less relevant because we don’t even really know what luck is when we see it, and probably shouldn’t care anyway.
How Could Luck be Catching – Field Theories
Let’s think a little about mechanism. If we explore the idea that luck can be contagious, regardless of our attitude about what luck is and is not, we’d expect there to be some way for luck of any kind to move from person to person.
One view might be that luck is a sort of field or substance surrounding a person. We do seem to perceive people as feeling good to be around or bad to be around. Much of that is a direct result of the person’s attitude and actions, but there might be a less definable field that interacts with attitude and action and could extend beyond the person to people physically or emotionally near them. Kind of a “dark cloud” phenomenon that might make depression, suicide and other bad or sad phenomena move from person to person.
If such a thing were true, it would also make sense that such a field could be contained, counteracted, worked upon, and defended against. Again following the medical model of physical disease – which can sound equally unlikely if you are in a culture that can neither conceive of or visualize germs – we can act with courage around a contagion. We can defend ourselves against it with barriers of an appropriate kind. We can employ techniques of sterilization to neutralize or eliminate agents of contagion. In short, even if luck is contagious along the disease model, we can deal with it with vigilance, intelligence and courage. But we need techniques.
Our religion is rich in counter measures. Folk culture is rich in ‘defenses against the evil eye’, which in one context is defense against malevolence, but in our context might be techniques to deflect a bad energy field. The heart of these techniques is usually some kind of mirroring or indirection – creating an intent that prevents a field from interacting with a person.
Much of deflection comes down to mirror or grounding magicks, a topic in themselves. The point is that we can employ such means to neutralize the luck fields we come in contact with.
Then there are barriers – the spiritual equivalent of gloves or condoms. From the white light exercise every postulant learns to elaborate network spells, we’re rich in techniques that can allow safer, if not safe interaction with a bad energy field around a person.
Note that all this hypothesizing treats the misfortune as something different than the unfortunate. It’s not the person that’s bad or good, lucky or unlucky – it’s the field around them, both shaping and shaped by their actions. I think this might be a better way to look at and deal with our perceptions of luck in our ethical interactions with those around us.
Field theories of luck seem to align well with our traditions, and measures already present in them.
Let’s Not Leave Out Demons
Field theories are neutral. Physically, negative ions aren’t bad, they just carry an extra electron. Positive ions aren’t good, they are just short an electron. The concept of fields implies a similar ethical neutrality.
But there are other ways of looking at good fortune and misfortune. Again using Calvinism as a ‘good example of a bad example’, the good fortune of the elect and the ill fortune of the damned is not a neutral field, it’s a direct result of the actions of their God on an individual.
In a more productive direction, when we Pagans align ourselves with a specific Goddess or God as a Votary, we usually want the God or Goddess to walk with us, to protect us, to inform us, to guide us, and to bring us … good fortune. We want our Deities to actively be involved in whatever luck comes to us. This can be as crude as a child praying for gifts, but usually takes the form of praying for guidance and growth. In acting and living as a Pagan with a specific Goddess or God (or two, or ten), we ask them to influence the energy around us, guide our steps, protect and help us from their superior point of view as multidimensional and wiser elder creatures.
All that makes sense, but it opens the door to an uncomfortable consideration. If, as many say, “beer is proof that the Gods love us and want us to be happy”, it seems entirely possible that other creatures of similar multidimensionality and craft, if not wisdom, might want us to be unhappy.
Here’s where things get a theologically tough. After all, from what little we know of wisdom, the path to greater life and co-creation leads in the direction of compassion and loving detachment. So how likely are malevolent multidimensional creatures.
Well, it could be. Consider physical parasites, who draw their energy from a biological host. Some kill their host quickly but the most successful parasites kill their host slowly or not at all, drawing energy off without destroying their living source. The spiritual equivalent of such a creature would nourish itself on misery, and to that end would benefit from creating a field of misery around its victim. It might be powerful and clever – as a virus is powerful and clever – but neither wise nor compassionate, merely hungry.
Sounds like a good description of a Christian demon, but without the “War on Heaven” mythology which we can disregard as unnecessary to a Pagan discussion.
If such creatures existed, there would be no contradiction to our thinking about field-based luck, just the added awareness that a conscious parasitic entity might be directing and influencing bad judgment and probabilistic outcomes in a way to improve its food source. And such creatures might well want to spread their influence to contacts of the parasitized person, eventually accumulating a collection of unfortunate humans like a computer botnet accumulates slave computers.
That’s a grim thought. Fields were bad enough, but now we have potential malevolence. I’m reminded of a relation that we thought was “not such a bad fellow, but we didn’t want to be near the creatures that hung out around him”. Salt and other countermeasures would seem indicated in such a situation. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed multiple traditions making use of salt in burials. I’d always thought it was intended to lay the departing spirit to rest, but it might also discourage or ground spiritual parasites that gather around a confused soul before the second death.
We’ve explored a number of possible implications if luck is contagious, without of course proving in any way that it is. Most of the conclusions, in my view, align well not just with our own spiritual traditions but with those of most other religions. We’ve considered that:
- If luck is catching it says absolutely nothing about what our obligations are regarding the unfortunate or fortunate. Even if true, contagion doesn’t mean you stone the unfortunate villager. Courage, skill and compassion are possible, and may be required.
- We don’t really know whether luck is good or bad, and a healthy agnosticism might be wise, especially regarding our own luck
- A certain level of indifference to fortune and misfortunate might be a wise thing to practice
- There are means built into our religion, folk practice, and nearly every other religion to deal with contagion. If contagion is real, our hands are not tied
- It might be useful to think about luck, good or ill, as a physical field capable of manipulation and counter-action
- When we ally ourselves with our own Gods and Goddesses we often ask them to help with our own fields of fortune or misfortune and possibly those of others
- It might be the case that entities exist that parasitize humans using misfortunate to generate then consume misery
The most important takeaway may be that having a good relationship with our own Gods and Goddesses is the best possible guard against contagion. Nature hates a vacuum, and the best defense against burglars is a well-defended and occupied house, not one left untenanted, unmaintained and open to any invader.