Wishes and Wishers

“We wish you a …”, “wish me luck”, “wish you were here” – so much of what we say is encoded in phrases, and the phrases themselves encode remnant thoughts from the past. It’s interesting to think how and why we’ve come to be this way. Over the ages various traditions have come and go, but the one prevailing institution is that of wishing. It shows how we think about the relation between the world and the word. What lies beneath the familiar expressions?

On a superficial level, wishing simply means that we’ve mastered the skill of blending in through repeating what others are saying. People won’t feel as weird about you if you speak like they do. On a deeper level, the need to hear and say wishes reveals something about our past – our trust in the power of words to change events. Wishes, prayers and curses are all evidence to the power of imagination we have, and the deeply held conviction that by saying so we’ll be making it so. And though we might no longer believe in magic, we still feel the need to uphold the tradition.

This doesn’t mean we should get rid of wishes or any other greetings because of their past. It won’t do us much good to simply mechanically omit them in our desire to optimize language either. We’ve already done enough optimizing to our lives. Wishes, from a purely functional perspective, are there to act as an emotional glue holding society together. They are simply too convenient. But it’s not really the expressions that are of importance here, but the attitudes towards the expressions. And the attitude is that of an unconscious conviction that there is yet something special to wishing – the belief that, even though magic isn’t real, there’s just something about your own feeling towards a subject that will influence it. We can deny this, but the phenomenon is really well known – it’s called “wishful thinking”. What is interesting is that, with all the wishful thinking we can do, most of us should know deep down that actions are what brings about change.

Naturally, one can argue that it’s the feelings that push us to do what we do – and this is true. The emotions we attach to changes might motivate or demotivate us – but they can’t do much more than that. If one wants to stop being fooled, an important step would be to let go of the belief in wishing.

Yet, beliefs are not so easy to give up, especially if they are ingrained. The repeating of a made-up mantra before a test, the swearing at a malfunctioning car, the suspicion that a person who didn’t send us wishes might in fact wish ill upon us – we simply want to be convinced that magic works. We like the feeling that we have more control than we do. And thus we set ourselves up for a disappointment by becoming invested in the idea before it has come to fruition. It’s really an old but relevant observation, going back to Buddhism, that attachment is a set-up for misery.

All it comes down to is attitude. If you keep the wishes, can you give up on wishing? Can you accept the fact that you don’t have magic at your disposal? Like with all old habits, it might be hard to kick – and to stop kicking yourself over – but in the end, isn’t it worth it?


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