What I Learned from People with Magical Thinking

When I worked for the state employment commission as part of the federal government’s War on Poverty in the 1970s, I encountered some … different, interesting , unusual … characters. Our clients were “hard-core unemployed;” some turned out to be unemployable.

The program was a collaboration between several governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations contracted to provide training. Participants attended classes to learn the basics of the world of work – from how to dress for a job interview to why it’s important to show up to a job when hired. They received a small weekly stipend during their training.

We counselors created an employability plan to determine what steps were required to make them ready to hold a job, and the job developers tried to find employers willing to hire those who had been through the program. Clients had to report for counseling if they were absent from class or exhibited behavioral problems, and we referred them to other services as needed.

One young veteran of the Vietnam War did not disclose that he was discharged with a mental disability. (One of the problems with the program was that we weren’t allowed to verify information; we had to accept whatever the applicants told us.) He missed classes for an entire week but showed up Friday afternoon for his paycheck from the previous week. When I asked him why he had been absent, he said his wife had left him, and he had followed her to Houston to try to convince her to return. He told me she left him because he didn’t have any money, and he needed money so she would go back to him. I’m quite sure it was his disturbed behavior and not lack of finances that caused her to leave, but he couldn’t be persuaded that he needed anything except money. He did agree to an appointment for family counseling Monday morning – probably just to get me to authorize the release of his check. That night at midnight, he showed up at the back door of a fast food restaurant where he had once worked. Because the manager recognized the former employee, he opened the door to him while he was counting the day’s receipts. The veteran slashed the manager’s throat and grabbed the money. In his confused thinking, he believed that slitting the man’s throat without killing him would keep the manager from identifying him; he didn’t realize the man would simply write his name on a notepad. The disturbed young man was arrested, convicted, and committed to a mental institution.

In another case, a young lady with a two-year-child was found to be pregnant. She said and asked very strange things about pregnancy – things that most women would know, especially if they had already borne a child. One day, she came to me in a panic and said, “They took my baby.” When I finally made sense of her confused and confusing statements, I realized that she had taken her two-year-old to the county (charity) hospital for medical treatment, and the hospital would not release the child to her. I made some phone calls to find out what had happened and learned that the child was not hers. As a tiny infant, the boy had been left with her to babysit. When the parents returned a few hours later, the house was empty and the babysitter and baby had disappeared. I confronted the client with this information, and she said, “But God gave me the baby. I wanted a baby so bad, and I prayed to God, and He sent me the baby.” She was charged with kidnapping, but I believe she was determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.

These are tragic stories of people who were seriously ill. However, they are more severe cases of a phenomenon I see far too often, what I call magical thinking. A lot of people who are not clinically ill suffer from magical thinking.

There are two elements of magical thinking:

  1. Magical thinkers feel a sense of entitlement. Because they want something, they believe they should have it.

  2. They expect someone or something outside themselves to give them what they want. I believe in the power of prayer, and I know God gives us good and perfect gifts we don’t deserve. But he doesn’t answer a woman’s prayer for a baby by giving her the opportunity to kidnap another family’s child.

Often magical thinkers expect the government to give them those things to which they feel entitled: health care, education, job security, retirement income, a bailout from financial problems … Now, I’m all in favor of the government protecting the most vulnerable among us – but the Constitution says we’re all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We aren’t entitled to happiness, and we aren’t entitled to a life free of challenges.

Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings has challenged us to write about “What I Learned from People.” I’ve learned there are two kinds of people. Of course, there are many superficial differences – race/ethnicity, intelligence, appearance, personality, and dozens more. But these are superficial. At the core, we all want the same things – love, family, security, happiness.

The only real difference between people is whether they are magical thinkers or not. Those who aren’t magical thinkers recognize they aren’t entitled to everything they want and are willing to work to make their dreams come true.

“Pray like everything depends on God; work like everything depends on you.” (I couldn’t find the citation for this quote; if you know who said it, please let me know.) (St. Ignatius of Loyola) Thanks, Brad Shorr.

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