Cheap Shots #25: “If Wishes Were Horses . . .”

A philosophy professor of mine who was also a Protestant minister (and, for what it’s worth, a heart transplant survivor – the very definition of “ on a wing and a prayer”), once told our class that, according to Pascal’s Wager, “It’s safer to believe in a God even if there isn’t one, than to not believe in one if there is.” In the first case, the belief is harmless if it makes you feel better (after all, Israel Regardie remarked that “Man is only potentially immortal,” so don’t get your hopes up unless you’ve done the work to deserve it), but in the second situation you’re asking for trouble. It brings to mind God’s conversation with Abraham in the Bob Dylan song Highway 61:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

For the record, I’m basically an optimist in that I believe that the sun will rise once again and I’m not going to die tomorrow (but the odds beyond that are open to debate). On the other hand, I’m also a student of human nature, so that necessarily makes me a cynic. It may be charitable to always assume the best of everyone and never doubt their sincerity, but it’s more expedient to bow to previous experience and keep an eye on your wallet, both literally and figuratively.

Which brings me to the subject of what I call “affirmational positivism,” once known as “wishful thinking.” This is a recurring theme in the annals of human history, the notion that hoping for something to come true will make it so if one only cultivates the proper frame of mind to encourage its arrival. The old Scottish proverb sums it up succinctly: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” This delusional mindset amounts to putting a benevolent face on what is essentially a disinterested cosmos. To cherry-pick a few choice observations from a business article by entrepreneur Nancy Myrland:

“Some of you might remember the 1970s Smith Barney commercial starring the famous actor and producer John Houseman. This line, which he delivered at the end of the commercial, will be remembered for generations to come, not only because of his brilliant delivery, but also because of the profound message it carried.

“Why in the world do they work so hard? Because Smith Barney knows that old-fashioned hard work is often the difference between getting stung or getting a taste of the honey.”

“How do they make money? The old-fashioned way…they earn it.”

We live in an era of instant gratification. We want phone systems that connect to our customers and clients before we even pick up the phone. We want laptops that are lightning-fast so we can have 50 tabs open at once on our browser and not experience a slow-down. We want phones that either allow multiple apps to be open at once, or are so fast and smart that they begin to think for us”

The key phrase in Nancy’s essay is “We want,” which these days is tantamount to saying “We expect.” The fiction that whatever we desire will simply fall into our hand if we hold it out with enough conviction is a fantasy of the “entitlement generation,” but it has enjoyed many previous incarnations; the current version just seems more temptingly glamorous and therefore even more illusory (think “7 of Cups”). This assumption has crept into the practice of tarot divination via the perception that “there are no bad cards,” the belief that anything can be given a positive spin if enough intuitive horsepower is brought to bear on it. This is a distortion of the concept of empowerment, which converts the harsh tone of “making the best of a bad situation” into the credulous excuse of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss: “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible words.” Better advice might be “Don’t hold your breathe.” This argument is also the main reason I’ve largely tossed out the traditional – and entirely passive – meaning of “hopes” for the ninth position of the Celtic Cross spread and replaced it with “aspirations,” or what one not only wants but is willing to work to get.

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