The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Do You Believe in Magic?

Have you ever had one of those over-bearing co-workers who was so absorbed by their need to be a unique little snow-flake that they would do anything and everything to draw attention to themselves and make themselves look special*?

Some years back, I worked in a store in Modesto, CA with a fellow, let's call him Skippy, who described himself as a witch**, complete, he claimed, with the ability to cast spells. Now, I have worked with people with a wide variety of religious beliefs, and I generally don't spend much time worrying about them. But this guy was obnoxious. If a customer was not in the store, he was doing something to draw attention to himself - singing, or telling stories, or exaggerating the closeness of his relationship to somebody by whom we were supposed to be impressed, or, as often as not, he was talking about his alleged ability to cast spells.

Being the sort of person that I am, I began asking questions that were reasonable, but seemed impertinent to Skippy. It started simply by asking him to describe a spell. Ready to impress me with his knowledge, he explained that he could cast a spell that would make someone itch.

"Really?" I asked, "how would you do that?"

"I look at you, and then I say that you look like you're itchy. Maybe I'll say that you shirt looks itchy, or I'll say something about itchy hair, or something."

I stared at him blankly for a few minutes, and then said "that's not a spell."

"Yes it is."

"Well, a spell would involve magic, right?"

"Yes" he beamed triumphantly.

"So, you just described really crude basic psychology, you know, simple suggestion. There's nothing magical in that. It's about as mundane as you can get." I looked at him, waiting for a reaction.

His response: "Maybe you just don't understand what magic really is. Magic is all around us and part of everything we are."

There are probably a lot of people who would think that his response was somehow wise. The problem, though, is that it is faux-wisdom. It's a sound bite that might make someone sound deep or "spiritual" to a room full of half-drunk college students, but is actually completely devoid of meaning upon examination. If magic is all around us and part of everything we are, then magic is literally everything, and any term that is defined so broadly as to include everything is a term that ultimately has absolutely no meaning and is completely useless. It's like the people who define God (with a capital "G") to mean "love" or "goodness" and not "Judeo-Christian concept of an omnipotent spirit that glares at humanity." Just because it sounds good while one is stoned doesn't mean that it actually makes any damn sense. Statements such as this are wisdom vacuums, sucking all wisdom away and leaving a wisdom void in their wake. People who spout such things are prone to patchouli poisoning while under the influence of Deepak Chopra books.

Nonetheless, Skippy continued to talk about his magical powers and his ability to delve into the mystical arts. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes frequently and occasionally cast an itch spell on him for good measure.

Oooooh! Such dark arts I weave!

Finally, one day, I began asking questions again. I don't recall the exact route of the conversation, but it was the usual back-and-forth of him claiming magical powers, and me claiming that he was full of it. By this point, most of the other employees at the store were at least willing to pay lip service to this guy having some sort of power, and he really wanted me to believe. So, I put it in simple terms: I would believe when he provided evidence.

"What?' Skippy asked, "do you want me to cast a spell on you?"

That wasn't quite what I was thinking, but I gave it a moment's reflection and figured that it would work.

"Yeah, sure. If you can cast a spell on me, I would have to concede that you have the ability to cast spells."

He hesitated for a moment, and then said " don't have the ability to do that."

I figured he would have a cop-out of some sort, that he would say it was against some sort of magical code, it would be an unethical use of power, or something along those lines. So, I asked if he was unwilling to do it for an ethical or moral reason.

"Well, no." he said, trying to look confident and failing, "you don't believe. Your lack of belief in magic will shield you from a spell, so it just wouldn't work."

So, the only way for me to believe would be for me to have evidence, but the only way for him to provide evidence would be for me to believe. In other words, there was nothing to what he was claiming, it was all basic psychology fueling an illusion in people who were willing to be fooled, and deep down he knew it.

I felt a bit bad about this. On the one hand, the guy could be obnoxious, and his claims were pretty damn tiresome. But in retrospect, I can see that the guy felt like he had very little in the way of solid friendships, and his job as an assistant manager at a store in Modesto, while not bad for a guy in his early 20s like Skippy, fell far short of the glamour and excitement that he really wanted and that few of us ever achieve. He felt insecure, and his claims to this "magical lifestyle" was the thing that he had chosen to mark himself out as special and distinct from the crowd. And here was this smart-ass college student dismantling it.

I lost touch with him years back, but I can sincerely say that I hope that Skippy has since found something that excites him, and has made better social connections. He wasn't a bad guy, just an insecure one.

At the same time, I had already proven myself to be the sort of person who was going to ask questions and not accept faux-wisdom as an answer. So, while I probably could have handled myself better, he was also pushing the matter by trying to win me over. He bears some responsibility as well.

So, yeah, we were both being dicks.

In the end, we became friends of a sort. He stopped trying to push me to believe his various stories, and I stopped being overly analytical of everything that he said. We had some good times even after I stopped working there. But, as happens, we eventually fell out of contact.

*Which is, of course, completely different than those of use who keep blogs and announce our thoughts to the world. I don't have a giant ego in need of stroking, not at all. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

**There are, of course, actual witches, people who are members of various different religious groups which claim that name. I have met many such people over the years, and when I tell them about this fellow, they invariably roll their eyes and say something to the effect of "yeah, we attract a lot of those people, but they don't stick around long."

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