Yesterday's Sunday Times magazine carried an interview of David Petraeus, the American's top commander in Iraq. It appears the general is a bit superstitious, at least in the way that a lot of us are. Things are going OK for the moment, he says, touch wood. He says this three times during the interview, and his staff say he is always looking around for wood to knock on.
I was a bit surprised by this in a military commander. Isn't superstition for wimps, as the guys at CSICOP might say? I can imagine Richard Dawkins wanting to sit him down and say, now David, you do know that there's nothing really out there, don't you. Touching wood isn't really going to protect you from anything, now is it. How could it? Where is the mechanism?
As a rational man Petraeus might agree. After all, it's his choices and actions which are credited with having turned round the situation in Iraq. There's a clear cause-and-effect trail. But it just feels so natural to suppose that some entity called Fortune or Providence also plays a part, especially in war. Misheard orders, failed communications and little accidents can make the difference between safety and tragedy. It's easier to deal with if we imagine there is some agency that governs these things, and that can be appealed to, shifting events in our favour. It's common for a soldier to carry lucky charms - a cross, a flattened bullet, family letters. Do they work? A survey would surely find that as many dead and injured soldiers carried lucky charms as those that escaped. That's not the point: at least they give a sense of divine protection.
One vaguely supposes that touching wood goes back to days of yore. Wikipedia says it has do with invoking the protection of the wood sprites. The article sniffily comments that historians can find no mention of it in English before the early nineteenth century, and speculate it comes from a children's game of tag called 'tiggy-touch-wood'. It then rather contradicts itself by listing all the countries round the world who have almost identical expressions: 'toucher du bois', 'auf Holz klopfen', 'koputtaa puuta' (Finnish), 'chtipa xilo' (Greek), 'tahtaya vur' (Turkey), etc. A few prefer iron to wood, and in Sri Lanka they say, 'touch gold'. So it seems to be pretty well ingrained in the human psyche.
I'm a confirmed wood-toucher myself, but not very proud of it. I try to avoid superstitious actions, walking determinedly under ladders, laughing off the black cat, the magpie, the broken mirrors, etc (although I'm a bit wary about Friday the 13th). But if I accidentally say something which, on reflection, I feel may annoy Providence, who I imagine is somewhere out there listening to my conversation, then I move swiftly to placate him/her/it with this little act of obeisance. I try to be discreet, finding wood to tap on surreptitiously, and if there isn't any I scratch my head instead.
Why do I do it? From the earliest age I have often had the sense of being punished for complacency. It has something to do with respect: I have to stay alert for things that can go wrong. If I'm concerned about not being able to find a parking space near my workplace then I'll be gratified to find one within a few minutes. But the day I think, hey relax, it's never been a problem, stop worrying, is the day I'll have to park a mile away and catch a bus.
Here's another example. If I get a new boss - as a freelance writer it would be the editor of one of my main publications - I might think to myself at our first meeting, I like this person, he/she seems really friendly and easy-going. But I should always qualify that by adding that I won't make any pre-judgements, but just wait and see how things pan out. That is always the correct, safe way. The mistake - and I've made it once or twice - is to say, this person's great, I have a really good feeling about it, it's going to be a good relationship. Then, karrang, he/she turns out to be seriously hard work.
The funny thing is, this is absolutely dependable in my life, to the point that I don't really think about it. I have tested it a few times, catching myself in complacency, being aware of the thought, and how it feels, and how I really ought to recall it, but then thinking, no, to hell with it, I'm going to give myself a break from the absurd superstition - and then getting into trouble.
I'd guess this has a lot to do with the way I view the world, and is perhaps one of the reasons why I don't have problems with psi phenomena. A sceptic would doubtless want to argue that I've got it the wrong way round: one is not the cause of the other, but both are symptoms of a congenitally superstitious nature. That's something we can argue about. All I can say is, it's my experience, I've had it repeatedly and analysed it from every angle, and however much I'd like to, I just can't explain it away.