Seeing Portents

The inclination to read meaning into random events seems to be widespread and longstanding in human thinking. Many cultures (probably all) have superstitions and attach meanings where there is no justification for doing so. When this is taken to extremes, it can be limiting and damaging to a person. But why do we do this?

I think in part it comes from a desire to have some power over or insight into what is basically a very chaotic and unpredictable world. Imagined insight gives comfort, even when we know it has no basis, weirdly. People who make something of seeing one, or two magpies. People who expect the worst on Friday the 13th.

From a certain perspective this all seems wildly illogical, and unlikely to be of any help to anyone. However, if you consider the idea that all things, people, objects, events, stars, flowers, creatures etc are connected, then a different way of considering this emerges. There’s the old gem about a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. Things are affected by each other in very logical ways. I can look at the sky and guess what the weather will be like in a while. Animals sense tsunamis and earthquakes. Perhaps other tides and currents manifest in the natural world.

If you believe in any notion of higher powers, then it can be tempting to see natural phenomena as messages from the divine. However, a comet above a battlefield can be taken as meaning victory to all who see it – and clearly for one side it won’t be. If the sight of a rainbow, a meteor or a thunderstorm is a message from the gods, can we be confident that it was meant for us and that we’ve understood it right?

The biggest danger, to my mind, lies in imagining that we understand. The world is a complex place, full of subtle balances and relationships. Sometimes things we see as omens turn out to be relevant, and sometimes they don’t – whether that’s a matter of interpretation, or the relevance of omens, I can’t say. I don’t know. Some experiences and encounters feel laden with meaning, but is that my desire to find meaning, or does it represent something external to me?

I think the bottom line here, as with all things is, does it help? If you are forever seeing bad signs and omens of doom that make your life even more unhappy, then no, it doesn’t help. If you see too many good signs and miss the trickier realities of your life by ignoring what you need to face, that doesn’t help either. If you are able to do something that adds to your life, in the gap between those extremes, then why not explore it?

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