Magical Thinking Or Magickal Living?
Author: Stifyn Emrys
Do you believe in the tooth fairy?
Children live in a world of magic and wonder, where knights rescue fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons, where witches command the elements with an incantation or a flick of the wrist. And we believe that somehow, somewhere we should be able to do the same.
We believe we should be able to keep mommy and daddy from fighting so much. That it’s within our power to stop our alcoholic uncle from drinking. That if only we could harness these magical powers, we could bring back the devoted puppy who played fetch for endless hours in our back yard and knew just when to wake us up with a playful kiss when it was time for school.
If only …
When I was 8 years old, that puppy – a Shetland sheepdog named Frisky – was hit by a car in front of our house. Mom told me she was dead, and no amount of wishing or hoping could bring her back. I shouldn’t have let it happen in the first place. I shouldn’t have allowed her to get out of the house and now, worse still, I couldn’t bring her back. I remember calling her name again and again, but she simply wouldn’t come.
And I was convinced that it was all my fault.
Now, years later, I realize that it wasn’t. The world doesn’t revolve around me, and I don’t have the power to bring back Frisky with a wave of a magic wand. I’m simply not that powerful. But at the time, it was natural to believe that I was. “Magical thinking” is a psychological term that characterizes a certain stage of our childhood development (around the late preschool age) during which we believe we have control over our environment. We haven’t yet developed the capacity to differentiate between causation and coincidence, so we bemoan the fact that Daddy got sick because we threw a tantrum and refused to eat our peas.
As we mature, we leave that stage, but it can be tempting to return – especially if our lives are out of control. Our parents divorce, or Daddy hits Mommy, or we are sent away to school. We grow older, and we yearn for a simpler time, when the world wasn’t so complicated and (we imagine) there was magic at our fingertips. In individual terms, we seek a return to the playful innocence of youth; in a historical sense, we long for a golden age or Camelot, where magical forces were at work to ensure that all was right with the world.
But did such a world ever really exist? Was it ever really that easy? Or was it simply that we, as children, just weren’t ready yet to confront the harsh reality of life beyond our parents’ protection?
Magical thinking can be very seductive. And Pagans who fall prey to it, pass it on to their own children, taunting them with the promise that they can somehow control their environment through spellwork, visualization or mere force of will. If we do so as parents, we do our children – and ourselves – no favors. Have you ever tested a teenager’s will? It’s pretty strong already. Even without magical powers, teens are very much a force to be reckoned with.
But we fan the flames of this magical thinking with entertainment and literature that offers the illusion of control. We glamorize Witchcraft as a pop culture phenomenon on the level of the Backstreet Boys or Brittany. Teen Witches can use spellwork to achieve good grades – never mind cracking a book or studying for a test. And what about those so-called Witches on “Charmed”? That Book of Shadows works more like Aladdin’s lamp than a compendium of spiritual insight.
Pagans are hardly the only ones who indulge in such fancies. Christians cling tenaciously to such illusions as a virgin birth and a bodily resurrection, hoping by the force of their will to overcome their fears of sex and mortality. The greater the fear, the more severe the distress, the greater the temptation to seek shelter in that golden age that never was, in that Garden of Eden we never planted. People are afraid of death, of sexuality, of abandonment, of violence. So they hide behind a cloak of magic.
When we present the Craft as something out of “Bewitched” or “Charmed,” we dishonor our children as well as our tradition. (This is not to denigrate those series, which have value if viewed for what they are – pure entertainment.) The Craft is not something that can be mastered like a computer game or worn like a pentacle necklace or garb at a Ren Faire. To be a Witch, the word’s origins themselves tell us, is to be a “wise one.” And wisdom is not a commodity cheaply purchased or easily won. It comes, most often, with experience and trial. Do we therefore bestow this title too lightly? Do we forget that the wise women of the village were most often the crones, who had learned by hard experience to shed the cloak of magical thinking and walk spiritually skyclad in humility and oneness with their source?
The lesson they had learned was simply this: That to combat the temptation of magical thinking, we must move toward the practice of magickal living. What we must, in my view, accept is that the Craft is not about bending the environment to suit our will. That’s the kind of thinking that has produced global warming, rampant pollution, widespread starvation and mass extinctions. It is instead about honoring that same environment and coming to terms with it – and with our own true selves.
If we place ourselves at odds with our surroundings by seeking to control them, we isolate ourselves from the true source of all magick. Where then will be our power? If we, in our arrogance, declare war on Mother Earth, how can we prevail? Indeed, why should we wish to? It is only when we bring ourselves into harmony with the greater whole that we can achieve the truly wondrous. It is only when we connect with the source that we can transcend the narrow bounds of ego and step beyond the constraints of childhood fancy. No longer do we seek to control the source.
We manifest it.
We spend such energy tilting at windmills that we forget to ride the wind. We seek to compel the impossible, we deny the inevitable … but we dare not abide the unthinkable: That we are the magick we have spent our lives pursuing. We are the very change we strive in vain to manifest.
Father Christmas was your own dear father, placing gifts beneath the tree at midnight. The tooth fairy was your loving mother, who cared enough to leave a dime beneath your pillow. They were magick in these moments – and no less so if at other times they quarreled. If they lashed out at you in anger. If they left you when you needed them. If they divorced.
Magick is reality, affirmed in any moment.
We can’t mend our parents’ broken marriage.
Force an alcoholic to stop drinking.
Or a bigot to stop hating.
Or an army to stop killing.
We can’t bring a beloved pet back from the grave.
We can’t wave a wand and conjure up a happy ending.
Not by wishing or willing it.
But we can know our true selves, and be our true selves – secure in the knowledge that this, in itself, is enough. We won’t be able to foresee what wonders will be born of this; but wonders rich and bounteous are sure to manifest. The choice is ours alone to make: We can isolate ourselves in magical thinking …
Or we can empower ourselves through magickal living.
That, in my view is what it means to be a Witch.