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Magical Thinking

July 31, 2012

In February 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama said something that was at once disconcerting and familiar:

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Disconcerting because the words assume mass disconnection from ourselves. Familiar, because the disembodiment from where we actually are and the place we want to be is exquisitely human – as is the desperate desire to span that gap.

Fat people (I was one, and am still of dubious BMI) are champions of making the person we are shape shift into where we would like to be.

Every child of an alcoholic guesses at what normal is, and tries to connect a wildly distorted family life with some assumed measure of happiness. A 60 year old friend, whose mother and alcoholic father were long dead, once noted to me; “I can make my childhood happy if I remember it that way.”

There is a way we all deal with problematic realities that simply re-frames them: “Magical Thinking.”

In a 2010 article, Scientific American defined magical thinking as the way superstitions hold sway on otherwise sober and grounded people. About.com connects Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other mental conditions as having magical thinking as a symptom.

But neither my friend, nor President Obama are, to my knowledge, superstitious or have OCD. But they, like me, and everyone else want to make sense of things we cannot control. When our country is adrift, it’s empowering to believe the answers are already within us. The bent wheel of wrecked childhood vanishes if we recreate the memories of those people and events that bent the wheel in the first place.

And if I avoid mirrors I can be as thin as I want.

But personal make-up calls and mulligans may be self-serving, but they are usually harmless. In fact Magical Thinking can be ascribed to the irrational hope that allows for religious faith, ignoring a doctor’s prognosis to survive the odds or marrying someone who is from Mars.

But it has a dark side. Fourteen years ago I was asked to help a woman who had spent several years trying to create a unique facility for families with children who had life-limiting chronic health conditions. Her insight, intelligence, drive and positive focus got the project a large federal grant, enabled me to get a friend to front the money to buy the site for the facility and allowed me to commit about $100,000 of pro bono services to create a design for a facility that had never been envisioned before her inspiration:

http://www.duodickinson.com/ProjectsHousesSunshineHouse.html

But as the project got approvals, that same magical thinking that connected dots that weren’t always there yet saw a way to spend that federal grant she “knew” was appropriate; she had written the grant application after all!

And when I pressed to begin real fundraising, (because $20 million in the Great Recession was a tough nut), she essentially pushed all advice aside and focused on “special” people who could give all or most of the money with no strings attached, without messy fundraising.

I have no idea if those people even existed, despite regular reports – I do know my visionary friend plead guilty this week to lying on her grant draw downs and will in some way be penalized for the rest of her life.

I do know the investigation of the consequences of her magical thinking ended any hope of building a place for people who otherwise have no solace, hope or rest.

No federal penalty, no sadness over my lost ability to help build the most important job I have ever had to design matches the tragedy of those families this design was intended to vitiate.

The children of these families are incapable of functioning without extreme medical interventions, and happiness devolves into how much pain was avoided in any given day. There will be no respite for the parents, no space for their siblings to be themselves, no end that gives peace beyond the end of exhaustion.

The irony is that those families do not have the luxury of magical thinking. They are in the all-too-real world of life-and-death coping. Dashing their hopes on the magical thinking of the one person who saw a way out just creates another wound that will never fully heal.

No magic here, just sadness…

Consequences of Magical Thinking run amok…

NH Register: Director of planned Madison facility for sick children pleads guilty to making false statements to feds

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Dobuler permalink
    August 3, 2012 10:45 pm

    Duo, I’m so sorry for you and all involved here. Unfortunately it is an example, perhaps, of magical thinking gone awry. Or the often unclear boundary between magical thinking and mental illness (or sociopathy?) I don’t remember what, if any, this woman’s personal connections to this project were; unfinished or resolved mourning for a child? A tragic personal experience with a child with a life-limiting chronic illness is life-altering but can grief lead to psychosis or at least a loss of good reality testing? Or criminality?? I hope not.
    Thanks for this beautiful piece, Duo.

Trackbacks

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