Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Magical Thinking

Never grow a wishbone, daughter,
where your backbone ought to be.
-- Clementine Paddleford

Born in Kansas in 1898, Clementine Paddleford  wrote in her memoir that her mother gave her the advice I've quoted above. Apparently young Clementine listened well, since she grew up to become an intrepid journalist, pilot and traveler in the 1920s to 1960s.

As a food writer at such publications as the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Sun, Paddleford flew a Piper Cub all over the States to learn about and report on regional foods. She went aboard a submarine to learn what the sailors ate and explored quiet corners of her country to discover what the locals prepared for their families. Paddleford then conveyed her enthusiasm to readers by tempting their palettes with descriptions of the exotic-sounding foods she found in her travels.

When I found Paddleford's quote a number of years ago, I knew nothing about her. I only knew that its cleverly worded meaning shot straight into me and put words to a vague and unsettling feeling I had about myself. Although I was happy with some of my accomplishments and personal traits, I knew I wasn't being and doing all I could. At that time I'd never heard of "magical thinking," but I could tell I had more of a wishbone than a backbone in some areas of my life.

Through the years I've carried Clementine's mother's advice around in my head. I've passed it on to students and have continue to be attracted to its meaning. And when for the first time I heard about the idea of magical thinking, I knew that Mrs. Paddleford had nailed it so many years before.

To me, magical thinking means meekly waiting around for something to happen instead of doing it for yourself. It implies to me a floppy, waffling sort of attitude to one's circumstances and, perhaps, oneself.

Magical thinking is not the same as being patient or wisely waiting for the best time. It is not the same as trusting others or accepting limitations. Instead, it's a state of mind that doesn't allow a person to recognize his or her own strength and ability. Magical thinking is the result of (and supports) the belief that some external Somebody or Something will fix the problems, get the job done, make the desired result appear...and it immobilizes the magical thinker because she or he does not believe in herself or himself.

Letting go of magical thinking -- getting a backbone instead of a wishbone -- means seeing one's own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. It means letting go of the idea that others will fix one's problems. It means taking responsibility for choices and decisions.

Changing my own magical thinking has come as a result of facing and dealing with the lousy things that have been done to me as well as the lousy things I have done or the valuable things I have not done because I was waiting for somebody to do it for me. It's a satisfying (though not always easy) feeling to take responsibility for my own life, for myself, for my choices.

In my next post, I'll offer a journalling exercise that can help you look at your own tendencies towards magical thinking.

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