I studied my forehead like I’d done almost every morning for the last year, observing closely just how much the scar between my eyebrows had faded, or if it had gotten worse, and then feeling a frustration rise up in my throat, a tightening of my neck muscles as I remembered the moment when I endured the injury that gave me the scar: cutting across a parking lot and walking headlong into a wire stretched so taut it was like walking into a brick archway.
The thin metal wire was placed, eye level, around the parameter of the lot and used to hang up various parking instructions and other info. I had cut through that lot hundreds of times, but this was the first day they put the wire there. I was not expecting it. Colliding with it at casual walking speed was enough to scrape a chunk of skin right off my face, leaving a bloody gash.
In the proceeding months, every time I studied my forehead I would think about how reckless it was that someone would install a wire like that in the first place. They must have known people wouldn’t see it. I could imagine the company employees saying, “To hell with anyone who slices their face on this wire. They cut through our property. They’re trespassers.” And I get angry at those imagined people, and think about suing, and then I get angry at myself for being so absent-minded that I didn’t notice the wire despite the signs hanging off of it. What a clumsy idiot. I deserve what I got.
Then I reimagine the scenario. I play it out in my mind different ways. I imagine I do notice the wire, and I duck. Or I imagine that the company decided against putting it up in the first place (they were wise enough to take it down after about a week, as I’m sure they realized the kind of litigation they were leaving themselves open to by surrounding their lot with a decapitation trap). Or I imagine that I walked into the wire, but then immediately went to a doctor who gave me a cream that healed the wound. I then get angry at myself for not doing just that. I get angry that I didn’t duck. I get angry, all over again, at the people who put the wire there. And once more I reimagine the scenario going differently, going better. I imagine my face without the scar.
This is the kind of thing people do with post-traumatic stress syndrome, but here I was reliving something on a loop that wasn’t even that big of a deal. The scar is almost totally gone. A month or two after the incident, the wound became nothing more than a deeply faded pink blotch between my eyes that no one noticed. Still, I obsessed.
It took a year and a half looking in the mirror every morning, tonguing the psychic sore, before I finally had the wherewithal to ask: why was I doing this? It only brought me pain and frustration. Why would I obsess so much over something so little, especially considering that no amount of obsession could change what happened?
I realized that in some obscure part of my wormy brain I believed I could reverse time, that I could undo the situation if only I obsessed enough about it, and that if I did reimagine it going a different way, then maybe the scar would vanish.
I do the same with pretty much anything in my life that goes wrong but that I can easily imagine going otherwise. If only I had ducked. If only I had decided to take that job. If only I had applied myself more in my 20s. If only I hadn’t had that extra drink. If only I started my 451K earlier. Dated someone else. Done more sit ups. If only I had said the right words … You get the idea.
Each time I do this, I’m imagining an alternate timeline that makes me more upset about the actual timeline I’m living. So if reliving the past and reimaging it only hurts me, then pretty much the only reasons for doing so are 1.) I enjoy the pain—which I swear I don’t—or, 2.) I believe somewhere deep down that subjecting myself to that pain can rewrite history.
Another way to put that: obsessive regret is a form of magical thinking.
I came to this conclusion with some help from Joan Didion.
In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion describes herself imagining her recently deceased husband coming home, imagining that if she just could picture it happening in the right way, he might actually walk through the door again.
“Of course I knew John was dead,” Didion writes. “Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother … Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. … This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
I know it’s somewhat silly to compare situations involving PTSD and grief with my daily obsessions over a minuscule scar, but it’s precisely because of this apparent silliness that it didn’t right away occur to me that Didion’s descriptions of magical thinking mirrored my own. I realized I indulged in this type of I-can-reverse-the-past thinking in minor ways every day, without really noticing it, in the same way that no one really cares when a small dog acts viciously. What harm can it do? But if magical thinking intensifies, in light of grief, trauma, exhaustion or psychological disease, and begins to rear its head in more substantial ways (PTSD or ruminative depression or chronic anxiety or paranoia or OCD), suddenly the small, vicious thought patterns disregarded earlier become something to be concerned about. Left unchecked, there’s no saying what they can grow into.
Granted, putting such thoughts in check is easier said than done. I don’t think I’m alone in this. As long as something from the past continues to have negative ramifications in the present, it can be nearly impossible to let go of, even if we try, even if we know it’s not rational to dwell on it—especially when we think there’s someone to blame.
I’m reminded of my ex-girlfriend, who once visited a chiropractor who did some shoddy realignment work on her spine, causing her back to ache indefinitely. This happened two years before I met her, but she brought it up every couple of days. Like me, she was kicking herself for not suing, and the statute of limitations had passed. So all she had now was her aching back to constantly remind her of how screwed over she was and how there was nothing she could do about it.
I would tell her that what happened can’t be undone, and that feeling angry every day only did her harm. Anger didn’t fix the situation, I told her. It just added to the suffering. If she could forgive the past, forgive the chiropractor, she could move on and relieve some of that emotional pressure. I told her that forgiveness was as much about letting herself off the hook as the person she blamed. Besides, what other option did she have?
She would think about this for a few moments, nodding in agreement, and then after a few more moments, she’d stop nodding, ball up her fist and say, “But I’m just so angry!”
And so it went.
Gaining willpower over these vortex-like thought patterns takes time, lots of time, but I’ve learned that just being aware of the thoughts for what they are can blunt their effects. It’s like that rare moment in a dream when I realize that I’m dreaming and suddenly the monster has no power, because I no longer believe in it. It’s the difference between seeing a scary movie thinking it’s real vs. knowing it’s fake. The former haunts us, the latter entertains us, and when the movie’s over, we can move on.
Whether or not you agree with my argument that certain thought patterns are tied to magical thinking, seeing them as such has been one of the few ways I’ve been able to control them. It works for me (to an extent—if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that there’s no such thing as a panacea). But it’s a battle requiring constant vigilance.
After my scar incident, I stopped and examined my life. How often do I do this? How often do I indulge in magical thinking? Turns out, all the time …
My photographer friend asks if I need new headshots for my future comedy gigs. I say no. I tell myself I look the same as I did in my headshot from four years ago, so why waste the money? Denial over aging is another form of magical thinking. I’m aging, it’s obvious, and it can’t be reversed no matter how many times I run to the mirror to double-check. Denying aging is like getting upset about the sun rising. All I can do is buy some skin lotion and get on with my day.
I worry about the future constantly, but rarely in a constructive fashion. If the worry doesn’t lead to some kind of action, or have some tangible result, it exists either as a form of masochism, or magical thinking, or both.
When I stub my toe on a table, and then, in anger, kick the table and stub my toe a second time, that’s magical thinking writ large. Do I actually believe the table had some sort of sentient malice? For a fleeting moment, yes, yes I do.
When I buy a lottery ticket, I have a vague sense at the back of my psyche that the laws of statistics don’t apply to me, and that while everyone else who buys a lottery ticket is throwing their money away, I actually stand a real chance of winning. How is that not magical thinking?
I was bowling the other day. I tried to bend the curve of the bowling ball mid roll using only my mind and frantic hand gestures. Apparently, in that moment, I believed myself a wizard.
I could go on.
Magical thinking isn’t necessarily bad. The frantic hand gestures while bowling add to the fun of the moment. Feeling like I can win the lottery, against all odds, makes it more exciting to play, to a point. And the sense that there’s some magic in the universe makes it feel a little less cold. But overindulging in that sense ultimately betrays me. Obsessing beyond reason about things that happened in the past or things that might happen in the future, in the dim hope that I might be able to bend the laws of time and physics using the mere weight of my worry, makes living feel burdensome.
But when I’m able to look at my face in the mirror and accept what I see, and move on, when I’m able to forgive, to let go, when I’m able to live in the moment, see it purely for what it is, free of narratives, free of judgments, free of grudges, free of magical thinking, I experience a great sense of relief and become excited just to be alive. In those rare moments when I’m able to halt the looping ruminations about the past, the future, and the things that can’t be changed, I lift the veil on reality and behold, mindfully, a raw, beautiful world I can only describe as magical.