Worry, hope, and jinxing things

My father used to say something like "Worry is negative hope"—by which he meant, as I understood it, that worrying about the possibility of a particular bad thing happening was like hoping for it to happen—it puts out vibes encouraging the Universe to bring that thing about, or something.

I never really bought that idea. His underlying point was, I think, that it was better to hope for a good outcome than to worry about a bad one, and I can see value in that; but at the same time, I think there's also value in thinking about and preparing for contingencies.

But that's my rational brain talking. There's another part of my mind that isn't at all rational about this kind of thing, and it insists that being too confident in a positive outcome will cause a negative outcome, by some sort of mystical law of universal irony and overconfidence-comeuppance.

Partly that's the same sort of idea as the Murphy's-law-like notion that if you don't take an umbrella with you, it will rain. (Which I more often hear in its converse: taking an umbrella with you prevents rain.)

But there's also more to it than that, something at a more personal and deeper level for me:

When I was about ten or twelve, my mother told us that she was dying. She had had leukemia for years at that point—she lived for five years after she was diagnosed, despite being told she had only six months left—but I think the disease must have reached a point where she knew that she wasn't going to last much longer.

I told her that she wouldn't die, that she couldn't, because we needed her.

And then she left—went to stay in a clinic on Orcas Island, or maybe it was a hospice for all I know—and not long after that, she died.

I obviously don't actually believe that there was any cause or effect there (and didn't even at the time), but it was a powerful connection for an impressionable kid. And I think there were two or three other instances around that time of less important things where I said out loud what I wanted or expected to happen and then it didn't.

So I developed a theory, as a kid, that saying aloud that something would happen (if I actually wanted it to happen) would cause it not to happen. I was too much a rationalist to really believe that with most of my mind, but at the same time, the superstitious part of me has a kind of Pascal's Wager-like attitude about this kind of thing. If superstition is nonsense (as most of me believes it is), then knocking on wood is a harmless joke; if it's true, then knocking on wood is a good idea; either way, there's no harm in doing it. (Unless you get obsessive about it, but I think that's a different issue.)

This may all also be part of why I have a hard time asking for what I want. Some years back, I was at a friend's house and asked for a glass of water, and the two or three friends I was with all stopped and stared at me, and one of them said, "Jed, you just asked for something. You never do that."

(I've gotten a lot better about asking for things since then, but I'm still not very good at it. But there's a bunch of other stuff tied up in that, too, mostly around fear of rejection.)

Anyway. I've been thinking about this whole jinxing thing lately, because of the house-purchase stuff. The whole structure of the deal that we'd worked out was so precarious, relying on so many different improbable bits and so many different people's interlocking needs, that I felt like one overconfident thought could blow over the whole house of cards.

So I mostly refrained from talking about it here, and even in person with most of my friends. I didn't honestly believe that talking about it would make the deal fall through, but why take the chance? The thought of talking about it made me nervous, so I didn't.

But there is, of course, an opposite viewpoint: some people feel (at the same irrational gut level) that there's power in positive thinking. (I'm trying to avoid bringing religion into this discussion, so I'm not going to talk about prayer here.) And if that's true, then surely having a lot of friends hoping for a good outcome would be better than it being just me doing that hoping, no?

Then, too, some people have the purely rationalist viewpoint that nobody's hopes or fears or worries have any effect on the outcome.

(Also, I know people who, once they start worrying about something, get caught in a vicious spiral of debilitating distress, and so they try to avoid thinking too much about the things that could go wrong. But that may be only tangentially related to what I'm talking about; cf cognitive behavioral therapy.)

So I'm curious: what, if any, gut feelings do you have about the way the universe works with regard to this kind of thing? If there's some part of you that doesn't entirely subscribe to the rationalist worldview, does that part of you believe at a gut level that hoping for something will make it happen? That hoping for something (and/or wanting something) too much will make it less likely to happen? That worry creates bad vibes? That overconfidence creates a universal-irony backlash? That making or not making contingency plans has (in some nonrational way) an effect on the outcome? Some entirely different belief about this kind of thing?

There are no right or wrong answers; I'm just curious about what y'all think, or rather what your gut feelings are.

(On a side note, I'm also curious as to whether there's any correlation with optimism and pessimism. I'm definitely an optimist; I'm not sure how that fits with my "don't jinx positive outcomes by talking about them" attitude.)

(Wrote most of this a month ago, but didn't get around to finishing and posting it.)

16 Responses to “Worry, hope, and jinxing things”

  1. Greg van Eekhout

    I have a lot of gut-level rationalism, and I don’t really believe that positive thinking, whether it be on an individual or collective basis, has bearing on results of things in cases where those things are outside the control of the person or persons doing the positive thinking. But I know that when people are thinking positive things for me, I feel good, I feel supported, and I feel loved. And even if feeling that way doesn’t impact the ultimate results of anything, feeling good can be a wonderful bonus if things work out the way I want them to, or a good consolation if they don’t. And that’s why I appreciate it when people think good thoughts for me, and that’s why I’m usually happy to think good thoughts for my friends. So, to me, it’s more about feeling good or trying to make others feel good than it is about actually impacting the course of events.

  2. Leah Bobet

    I am occasionally a superstitious little thing, though I come by it honestly. My great-aunt will take the evil eye off people if you call her up and ask!

    I do have that wanting too much makes it not happen thing, sometimes. You sort of have to play it cool with the universe. But the thing I have more is…that one only has a limited line of credit with the universe? So if I’m asking for something, or, well, praying for something inasmuch as I ever pray, it better be good and it better be important.

    (If that makes sense.)

  3. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Yeah, I’m guilty of the same sort of fear of jinxing.

  4. Josh B

    Ouch re your mother. Reminds me of when a friend of the family had brain cancer, and we visited him, and we knew one time when we said “goodbye” that it was final…

    I’m in a similar category in not asking for things.

    I think I can imagine a lot of things, of assorted sorts, working well, and I’m often unrealistic in this. I also sometimes find that things that I think I just cannot do, are perfectly doable, once I actually get around to starting on them.

  5. jacob

    I do the “if you prepare for the contingency, it’s less likely to happen” thing (bringing an umbrella so it won’t rain). Both in terms of doing specific things like the umbrella, but also in terms of having a mental plan for what to do if such-and-such doesn’t work out.

    When we bought our current house, we also had appointments scheduled to look at rental apartments, and didn’t cancel them until the purchase and sales agreement was signed. Even though I love my job and hope to stay here until I retire, my resume is up-to-date and I maintain contact with a list of recruiters. Etc. (This type of thinking has the nice side effect of reducing worry, at least for me — if the worst happens, I already know what I’m going to do.)

  6. Tacit Hydra

    I don’t believe that anything I think can affect anything that I can’t affect directly – I’m a pretty solid rationalist about things like that.

    But, like Greg, I like telling people I’m thinking good thoughts at them, and like hearing that they’re doing the same – it means, basically, that they care.

    And as much as I say I’m in rationality’s court, there is a not insignificant part of my mind that thumbs its nose at the very idea. A secret:

    When Governor Lynch said he’d sign the bill as long as some religious protections were written in, I knew that meant it would have to go back to the NH Legislature, but I still wrote “SIX STATES” in this post.

    I hesitated when I wrote it. Even though the legislature had already passed it, it wasn’t certain they’d be able to do it again. But I went ahead and posted. Then I thought to go back and delete that line, decided that it might double-jinx things somehow, and left it.

    And then the bill failed the House vote by two votes.

    And inside, that part of my brain started going, “Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit – “

    Of course now the rational part of my brain is pointing at this part and laughing, but for a while there…

  7. Betsy HP

    My gut is that if you want something too badly, God will take it away. And if you’re worrying about something awful, it probably won’t happen — the bad news generally blindsides you.

  8. Jed

    Thanks, all—these are great comments. (And good point about it feeling good to know others are thinking of us, and about that helping regardless of outcome; I hadn’t thought about that in this context, but I definitely agree.)

    I also wonder where it comes from—what teaches us these gut-reaction worldviews, whether rationalist or otherwise? Do any of you have thoughts about where/when/how you picked up your gut-reaction metaphysics?

  9. Anonymous

    (wasn’t it orange juice, not water?)

  10. Thida

    Interesting question. My views on this are complex. I also feel writing is powerful and I don’t really have the time to craft things correctly. I do believe I have some control, but it’s limited since sadly I don’t control the universe.

  11. textjunkie

    Mmmm–in a tangential vein, I have a strong belief that you should never want anything TOO much, not because the Universe Will Screw You, but because then you’re heartbroken if it does get taken away. (I have a firm belief this came from parenting practices which understood the value of taking things away as punishment, and the child’s protective response.)

    It’s hard for me to get too excited about something as a result, because part of me is always saying, “Well, this might not happen/come through/work/etc.” and trying to be prepared for that. Even knowing I was going to Disneyland last week and being all excited over that, part of me was thinking, “Well, you might get a headache; it might be too crowded; you can always go again later if it doesn’t work out.” When I do throw my heart into something and then it doesn’t come through, part of me is saying, “Hey, you knew that could happen.”

    It’s a wierd way of avoiding your situation–I can ask for stuff, but but asking for stuff that I don’t care about it isn’t that hard. 😉 And there’s a bias to not care about it so it doesn’t hurt when someone says no.

  12. kairon-gnothi.livejournal.com

    Growing up through childhood and adolescence in the Reagan 80s meant, for me, that as long as I imagined in vivid and scientific detail what would happen to me if a nuclear missile hit the nearest tempting target (usually NYC), then IT WOULD NOT HAPPEN.

    And it didn’t. See? Aren’t you all glad?

    I ‘knew’ this wasn’t true, even at the time, but I felt that it was true.

    Since then, magical thinking has given way to trying to practice magic. The jury is still out on that one.

  13. Bhadrika

    Okay, Jed, reaading this I was so worried that the whole philosophical discussion was to set up news about the house sale falling apart. That is going through successfully, right? Or is it not safe to say yet?

    I often actively “use” Murphy’s Law. Faced with a decision, I look at the worst case scenario for each option, and then try to decide in order to noodge the result I’d like. (eg, my brother didn’t want to plan a vacation when they were waiting to adopt, since they wouldn’t be able to go out of state for the first 6 mo after adopting (IL law). I said they absolutely should plan the vacation — if they don’t, worst case is they don’t find a baby, and realize they don’t even have a trip; if they do plan it, worst case would be they can’t go because they have a baby — easy choice.)

    I tend to think having the supportive thoughts of friends is a good thing — not really sure whether that good thing is exerting an influence on external reality, or just my internal warm fuzzies. And my own thoughts I really don’t feel effecting the external, but strongly the internal — don’t want to either wallow in anxiety, or get my hopes up so high that I’ll be crushed if it doesn’t work out. I think I feel okay hoping a lot, as long as I try to think of a few alternatives to move to in case of failure.

  14. Kir

    Re asking: I can think of on occasion –hm, over 10 years ago?– in which you asked for something unexpected (at least to me) and got it. So I don’t think you never asked for anything… but I recall it was at least a little difficult for you to ask. That exchange–specifically the asking and answering– significantly affected how I approach asking: If I don’t, the answer is no. If I do, the answer might be no, and I’m no worse off. And sometimes, the answer is (as it was then), yes, and that turns out to be very cool. Sure, there might be specific circumstances in which a no answer would leave me worse off, but by thinking this way ahead of time, I can figure that out, and be prepared or decide the yes wouldn’t be worth it. Turns out, the possible yes is generally worth it…

    As for magical thinking: I’m don’t tend to associate my thoughts with events directly. I don’t believe that positive thinking or visualization alone will affect the outcome; I do believe that envisioning what I want to become, to do, or to have happen can help me make a way open for whatever it is. I would be clearer in my intention, and thus less likely to accidentally sabotage myself, for example.

  15. Jed

    Anon: I don’t remember whether it was orange juice or water. I don’t even remember who it was I was asking. Sounds like it might’ve been you; if so, could you drop me a note in email and remind me of the circumstances?

    Thida: sadly I don’t control the universe—hee! I know the feeling.

    textjunkie: Interesting. I think I share some of that, too. It’s a tough balance: managing expectations to avoid heartbreak and make it easier to ask for stuff; but also not tamping down the desire so much that it’s no longer exciting when you do get what you want.

    kairon: Thanks for saving NYC!

    Bhadrika: I imagine you’ve seen this by now, but just in case: the house deal went through, though not without one last rollercoaster moment.

    Yeah, I find envisioning comparative worst-case scenarios helpful too, although more so when I’m giving advice to others than when I’m looking at my own plans and hopes. (“The worst that could happen is they’ll say no” sounds so much more reasonable when I’m saying it to someone else than when I’m saying it to myself!)

    And yeah, I think hoping for the best but preparing for the worst is a reasonable way to approach things, though sometimes easier said than done.

    Kir: 🙂 Good point. That particular instance of asking was shortly before my Wanderjahr, in which one of my goals was to practice asking for what I wanted; I don’t remember whether it was Arthur who suggested that to me as a goal of the trip, or whether I came up with it on my own, but either way I was consciously embarking on an attempt to change how I did things, and to be more willing to ask, so the incident you’re referring to turned out to be kind of a test drive of that new approach (and, as you noted, it was very difficult for me to ask). The success of that particular asking emboldened me to ask for stuff in various contexts during various parts of the trip itself—but unfortunately, the answer was generally no, which reduced my willingness to keep asking.

    So, yeah, in theory I totally agree with what you said here about being no worse off; in practice, I still get stressed about being told no, which makes me reluctant to ask, which puts more weight/pressure on the asking, which makes it hard to ask casually, which tends to make the askee tense, which reduces the likelihood of their saying yes to whatever it is I’m asking for.

    Good point about clarity of intention as a result of envisioning.

  16. E

    This is a 2009 post, so I dont believe my comment will be seen but regardless, I wanted to say how much this resonated with me. Whilst not as severe, I feel like this is one of those “quirks” and issues that stem from something, I remember boasting to my parents about an exam only to flunk it and get reprimanded for lying. I wonder how common this is, I’ve seen it talked about quite often in OCD forums but I don’t have that, it’s also a very catch 22 moment, you think negative things then it comes true, you think positive things then you jinx it, I feel like it’s so hard to do any future thinking with this issue. TDLR: I am so very grateful you wrote this blog entry, I needed to see someone else speak about this to not feel silly. Thank you.


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