The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 19 Mar 2016

Sympathetic magic for four-year-olds

When Katara was about four, she was very distressed by the idea that green bugs were going to invade our house, I think though the mail slot in the front door. The obvious thing to do here was to tell her that there are no green bugs coming through the mail slot and she should shut up and go to sleep, but it seems clear to me that this was never going to work.

(It surprises me how few adults understand that this won't work. When Marcie admits at a cocktail party that she is afraid that people are staring at her in disgust, wondering why her pores are so big, many adults—but by no means all—know that it will not help her to reply “nobody is looking at your pores, you lunatic,” however true that may be. But even most of these enlightened adults will not hesitate to say the equivalent thing to a four-year-old afraid of mysterious green bugs. Adults and children are not so different in their irrational fears; they are just afraid of different kinds of monsters.)

Anyway, I tried to think what to say instead, and I had a happy idea. I told Katara that we would cast a magic spell to keep out the bugs. Red, I observed, was the opposite of green, and the green bugs would be powerfully repelled if we placed a bright red object just inside the front door where they would be sure to see it. Unwilling to pass the red object, they would turn back and leave us alone. Katara found this theory convincing, and so we laid sheets of red construction paper in the entryway under the mail slot.

Every night before bed for several weeks we laid out the red paper, and took it up again in the morning. This was not very troublesome, and certainly it less troublesome than arguing about green bugs every night with a tired four-year-old. For the first few nights, she was still a little worried about the bugs, but I confidently reminded her that the red paper would prevent them from coming in, and she was satisfied. The first few nights we may also have put red paper inside the door of her bedroom, just to be sure. Some nights she would forget and I would remind her that we had to put out the red paper before bedtime; then she would know that I took the threat seriously. Other nights I would forget and I would thank her for reminding me. After a few months of this we both started to forget, and the phase passed. I suppose the green bugs gave up eventually and moved on to a less well-defended house.

Several years later, Katara's younger sister Toph had a similar concern: she was afraid the house would be attacked by zombies. This time I already knew what to do. We discussed zombies, and how zombies are created by voodoo magic; therefore they are susceptible to voodoo, and I told Toph we would use voodoo to repel the zombies. I had her draw a picture of the zombies attacking the house, as detailed and elaborate as possible. Then we took black paper and cut it into black bars, and pasted the bars over Toph's drawing, so that the zombies were in a cage. The cage on the picture would immobilize the real zombies, I explained, just as one can stick pins into a voodoo doll of one's enemy to harm the real enemy. We hung the picture in the entryway, and Toph proudly remarked on how we had stopped the zombies whenever we went in or out.

Rationality has its limits. It avails nothing against green bugs or murderous zombies. Magical enemies must be fought with magic.

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