Years ago, after a great deal of soul searching, I finally shed the religious beliefs that had been part of me from my earliest memories. As much as part of me wants to believe in something else, in some supernatural force beyond the pale of science, I simply do not. Now this is not a post condemning religion, or emphatically stating that there is no god, no magic, no spirit realm. The murky view from my insignificant place in the universe does not provide me the scope to make such a sweeping declaration, only that I myself do not believe in such things.
Even so, I still enjoy the trappings associated with many religions and supernatural beliefs, observing holidays and festivals, even giving a nod towards certain superstitious practices. These things add a bit of color to our lives, and hopefully make us think of things a little beyond our ourselves once in a while.
It also seems that there is something deep inside me that just does not want to stop believing. Every so often I see something that just should not be there; a gnarled little man crouching by the side of the road, a great beast slumbering on a hillside, the glowing eyes of some creature watching me from the shadows. Of course a double take always reveals the mundane explanation for such things. That dwarf of a man was just an old stump, the slumbering beast a fallen log overgrown with moss, and the watching eyes nothing more than a stray reflection off a wet leaf. There is an easy explanation for this. Hundreds of thousands of years worth of evolution have produced brains that are very adept at recognizing patterns, even where none exist. We see faces in the gnarled trunk of a tree, a sleeping dragon in a pile of stones, and the Virgin Mary in a pastrami on rye because we are programmed to recognize elements of our surroundings that might have an effect on our ability to survive. A few false positives are less detrimental to our survival than missing the cougar waiting in a tree to pounce, or the thief hiding in the shadows with a knife.
This tendency for our brains to fill in the details and make us see things that are not there is likely where many myths and beliefs came from. Even in our world of scientific understanding, many people still believe in things that there exists no scientific explanation for. How would people with no understanding of science react to such tricks of the mind. My guess would be by literal acceptance of what they saw.
I see something that does not exist and after a brief moment of surprise, my rational mind kicks in and gives me the explanation. In fact, this ability to explain away the unexplainable has become a standard trope in many modern fantasy tales as a way to explain why most people never notice all the supernatural happenings going on around us. And while I place my faith in reason, I still enjoy those brief moments when my conscious mind bypasses rationality and lets me walk with the spirits.
Tonight is Halloween, and as the parade of trick-or-treaters tapers off I will head out into the night to hike some dark trail through the woods. Gnarled branches will twist and dance in the fey light of the watching moon, stirred by the chill breath of winter’s approach. I will know that there is nothing to fear in the darkness, no dark spirits waiting to prey on the living. Yet I will still feel their ominous presence, and see their faces in the dancing shadows. And for that, I will be glad.