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How sneaky coincidence derails rational thought

As children, we were incredulous that an uncanny link could exist between life and the unknown

Gulf News

The voice of a choirboy. That’s what I was told I had at the age of eight. It pleased me to be chosen — along with another classmate — to sing lead parts in class plays and dramas. I know this irritated a third classmate. A few years older than us, as a result of ‘repeating the class’ a few times, his voice has acquired the tones of a baritone. So he would say to us, half in jealousy, “Sing like a man, man! Not like a girl!” Which, of course, we took as a serious affront.

Then one day the ‘baritone’ got struck down with laryngitis on the very day he was expected to sing a few ‘deep bass lines’. He squeaked his way through the performance to the amusement of those in attendance, and us ‘choirboys’ too.

I remember a teacher telling him that he’d better think twice before making fun of others because the finger of fun was fickle and could suddenly turn and point in his direction. Looking back, I think it was then that the world of superstition made itself known to me. These were also the years when we were singing songs in music class like My Grandfather’s Clock. The words, written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work, relate the story of an old man of 90 and his clock that was born on the day he was born and was always his pleasure and pride but, ‘it stopped short never to go again when the old man died’.

As children, we were incredulous that such an uncanny link could exist between life and the unknown. It didn’t help that those were superstitious times, too. My household — mum, her sisters and her mother before them — welcomed superstition with open arms. Black cats were to be avoided. No sewing at night, for the flash of the needle could draw the attention of evil spirits. If a mirror broke, an endless gloom descended on the place.

Of course, as I grew older and encountered Science, another rational began to assert itself until by the time I was a young man earning my own wage, superstition became something to be scoffed at.

“So now that you think differently, would you walk through the cemetery at midnight?” asked a friend in my hometown mischievously. I said I would and, to cut a long story short, I did exactly this (albeit with a small film of sweat lining my brow).

Anyhow, it served to satisfy him and myself that it was better to stay rational. This state of affairs has, I am happy to say, continued through my life. Then, recently, two things happened. My favourite money plant tree — a picture of glossy green good health — suddenly began showing signs of decline. This was around the same time that I developed a debilitating back injury — an old prolapsed disc that decided now was the moment to resurface with a vengeance.

My ailment and the tree’s misery appeared to continue hand in hand. Within a week, the tree had at least 25 yellow, nearly-dead leaves on it. And I, meanwhile, was told I needed two spinal jabs to hopefully help reduce nerve strain. Looking at the leaves with pity, I picked up the scissors and snipped them off. That left only about five good leaves. Then I went and had my injections — two weeks apart.

By which time, I noticed that some fresh green leaves were beginning to sprout. At the same time, my back began to feel better. And I pointed this out to my mate Barney. And he pointed out that it was simply Science that was at work. The injections were just doing what injections do. And by snipping off the dead leaves, I’d simply removed the ones that were sucking nutrition from the plant, which it could have given to the new leaves.

It just reminded me, I think, of how easily even rational thought could be derailed by the right sequence of coincidences.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.