Considering the incalculable complexity of the universe, the sometimes cruel vagaries of nature, the capriciousness of circumstance, the sheer precariousness of existence, people have always thought it prudent to propitiate the powers that be. To invoke their protection and to seek the good fortune of their favor.
It is simply too dangerous to leave life to chance. To do so would be to invite disaster. Luck must never be taken for granted. One can never assume. It requires constant courtship, demands undivided devotion. Luck exacts unrelenting vigilance and expects a perpetual attempt to appease. Luck trucks no indolence.
The Latin proverb encourages, "Fortune favors the bold." In Sicily, it is bad luck to say, "Good luck." Theater people agree and say, "Break a leg" when they mean "Good luck," so as to trick fortune into smiling on them. "When fortune turns against you, even jelly breaks your teeth," goes an Iranian proverb; "When fortune calls, offer her a chair," counsels a Yiddish saying.
Survival seems to depend on the ability to placate fate. So it is incumbent upon one to search for and respond to the subliminal signs, subtle portents, secret signals, and subconscious symbols sent by divine authority. It is essential to observe, interpret, and obey all omens, oracles, and other holy hints. Like milestone markers along the miracle trail, these are clear indicators of the almighty attitude of the moment -- fortunate indulgence or fatal aversion.
The one sure thing about luck is that it's always changing. Like life itself, the only certainty is uncertainty. Still, throughout time and across culture, folks have devised complete systems of encoded behavior to ensure that their deities are kept satisfied. Methods, tested, tried and true, which seem to succeed in soliciting divine fortune are considered to be lucky. These magical formulas for fortune are the basis of myth, ritual, tradition, taboo, sanction, and superstition.
Lest we think that the currying of beneficent favor is quaint custom practiced by foreigners somewhere in the third, fourth, or 15th world, just take a good look at us. We knock on wood, step over cracks, and around open ladders. We tie ribbons around trees, knots around our fingers, and strips of silk around our necks when we go off to work. We carry the feet of small rodents in our pockets, and nail the footwear of horses onto our houses and barns. We close our eyes, hold our breaths, bite our tongues, and spit at our feet. We cross our fingers, cross our hearts and hope to die.
We throw salt over our shoulders and pick the petals off of flowers, reciting love charm incantations. We put coins in our shoes and under our pillows, throw them into fountains, and toss them into the air to tell us what to do, which way to turn. We shun certain days, foods, colors, activities, plants, and animals. We balk when a black cat crosses our path. We think twice about opening an umbrella indoors or lighting three cigarettes with one match. We are convinced that bad things always happen in threes. We are wary of some numbers, yet bet our lives on others.
We especially steer scrupulously clear of 13 anything. Fear of the number 13 is one of the most prevalent superstitions in the Western world. We even have a name for it: triskaidekaphobia. When the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, many folks are plagued with a primal sort of fatalism, a nagging dread of something really bad happening. A troubling reminder that we are not, after all, in control.
That is a scary notion. But it is also quite comforting when you consider what fortuitous coincidences constitute our fate. The lucky blend of just the right conditions, chemistries, elements, and energies, which comprise our universe. The way it all works. The way we are. That we are at all. That, despite whatever major or minor matters we might think are unlucky, we have somehow managed to remain alive and aware.
This Friday the 13th, let us stand in full consciousness of the miraculousness of existence and count our blessings. Knock on wood.