A week ago, I darted up the stairs to my room, in a rush to enclose myself in my space and my mind, away from the world that was my dad shouting incoherently at Chris Wallace through the barrier of the television. I had gone to the library curbside pickup earlier that day, and I now cracked open The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I was depressed. We were—are—all depressed. It seemed somehow fitting that I should read a book by a grieving author while I was grieving the loss of my country as well as any normalcy I might have experienced in the early months of 2020.
Didion describes the sudden loss of her husband, her grieving process, and how thereafter she struggled to perform actions like giving away his shoes, for if she did, this would not “allow” him to return as he would need his shoes at home. This latter idea is known as “magical thinking”—our way of trying to escape the inevitable or the truth through supposedly causal behaviors, thoughts, or rituals.
I have found myself engaging in a lot of magical thinking this year. This year, this sacrilegiously awful year of COVID. This year of songbirds falling, dead, out of the Western skies in beautifully sad attempts to escape an unregistered climate emergency. This year of Trump, of me at home when I should be at university, of America, here, now.
Nights like these are respites for me. I have not yet fallen ill with the novel coronavirus that I know of, so I lie on my bed beneath fairy lights, completing my pre-med coursework and preparing for the next day’s Zoom sessions. I am not sick and the world is dark, so the pandemic is not happening. Likewise, a few weeks ago when night finally fell on my Chicago skies, which at day were white and filled with PM 2.5 particles from California ash, the wildfires had ceased to ever be. If night falls in my time zone, I attribute a calming effect to it, believing that the night I experience causes everything else which is bad to cease, and moreover, to never have taken place.
When I sealed myself off from the presidential debate a week or so ago, I made the debate stop for a while. My own behaviors exhibited causality with the external world. I holed up in my suburban home and Trump stopped interrupting Biden, Chris Wallace vanished into thin air, and Biden became my president, ending the so-called “shitshow.” And the climate emergency was resolved in one fell swoop.
Yet I am not the only American to be magically thinking this year. We are most of us numb and saddened by what has occurred, and so many of us have turned into machines revolving around our day-to-day rituals and numbers. The American thinks to herself, if I recycle and compost as much as I can today and for as long as I can, then I will save the environment and things will be okay and maybe, just maybe, it will be okay for me to have children. Or else the American counts her 10,000 steps a day inside while quarantining, because as long as I get my steps in every day and maybe also take an Alive! Multivitamin I won’t get Covid and become one of those long haulers. You can’t help but notice the fabulous uptick in walkers and joggers in your neighborhood during the past six months. Is it because we’re all stuck at home and we’ve decided to get fit! or is it because we’re all just counting our numbers and ritualizing our actions because we attribute grandiose causality to them like a basket of religious zealots? You tell me.
Yet where does the line between magical thinking and real causality get placed in this time of turbulence? The link between sharing political postings on Facebook or Instagram and actually influencing a follower’s political post is weak at best, but we’re all doing it anyway, sharing away like a pack of fiends and urging each other to VOTE. We’re putting up signs in our lawns and text banking for Joe even though this, too, is unlikely to change anyone’s mind at this point and sometimes you get responses from Trump supporters such as the ever-eloquent “Eat my a**.” We all know in our heart of hearts that if we don’t post that post specifically that one, or text 100 more registered voters, then we will single-handedly lose the election for Biden.
No American wants to be the person who could’ve done more but didn’t. For Biden, about COVID, about climate change, about everything. If it helps me, if it helps us as patriotic Americans and world citizens, to try to help the world or try to help get Biden in the White House if we think magically, then so be it. Let the magical thinking continue.
Let it unfurl and proliferate in the mind of every American.