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By Mary T. O’Sullivan
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” – Joan Didion
Magical thinking, delusional thinking or wishful thinking all indicate a hope for something other than what has become, in the present time, tangibly real. When faced with a truth that we find impossible and unacceptable, it’s a human characteristic for our brains to reject what our senses already validate as true. To deny reality, the brain and body may go into shock, suspended sense of reality, like a patient who loses a hand, but still experiences “phantom pain” in the place where the hand once was. Or leaving a loved one’s clothes in the closet years after the person has died because we expect them to need those things.
Magical thinking, or denial, is actually a coping mechanism, giving people “shelter” from harsh reality, and living in denial may allow a person to keep a distance from the trauma until they are able to tackle it.” (The Ladders, “How dangerous is denial?”, November 18, 2018). But there comes a time when reality must set in. By living in a continual state of magical thinking, we end up sabotaging ourselves. It’s just sweeping the truth under the rug. And truth can’t be denied.
We all remember when the Twin Towers fell in New York City in 2001. It was a terrible blow to the nation and sent shock waves of grief throughout the world. Even though the disastrous event was televised globally, no one could grasp what happened right before our very eyes. How could these planes go down? Who was responsible? How could this happen in the United States, the most powerful country in the world? Never in its history had the continental United States been struck by a foreign entity. Our oceans had always protected us. But once the Towers collapsed, there was no denying it, we were under siege.
Many Americans were “shell shocked”. They had witnessed the disaster but could not accept the facts. We had been attacked. Many witnesses to the terrorist attack went into a state of denial. Two huge buildings, a quarter of a mile high had crumbled to the ground. In a daze, many people could not come to grips with what they saw. And everyone saw it. It was shown around the world, in a continuous loop. Personally, I was at work when the towers fell. Within minutes, every TV in the office was tuned into pictures of the tragedy. The following weekend, I went to New York City and saw and smelled the smoke coming up out of the manholes. I saw the devastated buildings and first responders walking around in shock. It was as if we were all attending an enormous funeral. Everyone there was paying respects to the city and those who died in the wreckage.
In the aftermath of this catastrophe, loved ones’ pictures were posted all over New York City: in subway stations and public spaces, wall upon wall of photos of those who were missing, with the thought that they might still be alive and needed to come home. The photos had messages written on them with names and phone numbers. The pictures and messages stayed in place for months and months. Somehow, the grief-stricken loved ones believed the likenesses and messages would bring back their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, or co-workers; bring them back home, for what would our lives be like without them? We could not imagine it. We now know this was magical thinking.
Magical thinking is based on rejecting what is real in life and clinging to what was or what should be and believing that it’s within your own power to make things change. You might even say it’s delusional thinking, however magical thinking is reserved for those events that seem to be out of control, unexpected, sudden. It’s not uncommon to plunge into magical thinking when dealing with a loss, grief, or tragedy. What helped New Yorkers move out of the paralysis of unreality and into action was the leadership of New York City’s top officials. They knew they had to put the pieces back together. The mayor, fire and police chiefs brought morale back to the city by rushing to the scene, keeping open communication with the public, and staying focused on rescuing and recovering as many people as possible from the wreckage.
Leadership lessons learned from New York City’s officials during the Twin Towers attack became the stuff of textbooks and scholarly writings: (Ted Talk, “How to Lead in a Crisis.”, October 2020)
What rose from the smoking wreckage of the Twin Towers could not be denied. It was living proof that the death and destruction we wanted to unsee were real. We wanted to disbelieve those horrific events, but denial only made the recovery worse. As devasting and irreversible as the loss is, how we face it and our consequential actions becomes its history, to be remembered for generations to come. No room for the luxury of “magical thinking” in that tradegy.
However, comforting it may be, we can’t allow magical thinking to fog our judgment or blur decisions Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage International) (p. 31). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In her award-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking author Joan Didion analyzes and replays the heart wrenching scenes following the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne in 2003. She retells in vivid detail each ignored signal prior to his death and relives each raw emotion through a reporter’s analytical lens. Despite her observatory style she recreates her grappling with visceral pain and loss over and over again during the year that followed.
“Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news [of my husband’s death] as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible…This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
Think of the last time you experienced a great and inexplicable loss. When you knew, at that moment, that instant, in the blink of an eye, that everything changed irreparably. As human beings, we experience these instances both personally and globally. Whatever it was that happened, we find ourselves afterwards searching for the stability that “normal” brings. Normal is gone and we want it back.
What is often ignored in life is the fact that we experience loss and grief from workplace issues as well as issues from our homelives.
As Joan Didion shares in her book, our first response is denial. We feel better by convincing ourselves the emotional issue isn’t real, it didn’t happen, it exists somewhere else just not with us. We think, “There was a mistake, my job will still be there in the morning.”
We can’t give away Mom’s clothes, because she may rise from that sick bed, throw off her life support tubes and need all the clothes again. We expect the beloved departed pet to greet us at the door.
Do we create this magical thinking to solve our problems or to run away from them? In Kubler-Ross’s landmark book Five Stages of Grief, she describesthe emotions grieving people experience:
denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
These, we learn, are not linear, we can go in and out of any of these stages at any time after a loss. Years ago, I read this book when was going through a divorce. I didn’t understand the confusing feelings, and then I realized I felt a deep sense of loss. The book helps me understand that no one sails through the grieving process. It’s a slow progression. Magical thinking can take over at any stage, or all stages until the process finally ends and the grief becomes part of who you are.
Everyone likes to avoid the hurt that grief can bring. The danger in not dealing head on with our pain, is that we might slide into that Magical Thinking because things are so out of our control, we begin to believe that our own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence our external world (according to Good Therapy.com.) Just as athletes might wear the same pair of socks for good luck or request the same lucky number throughout their careers, superstitious behavior lends some semblance of control to unmanageable events. The hope and denial, the illusion of magical thinking can seem as tangible as the first inhale of the clean, sharp scent of newly dug spring earth.
On the more ominous side, grifters, hoaxsters, and con artists may prey upon people looking for hope. Throughout history, charlatans have taken advantage of people’s fears in a crisis and created scapegoats, phony cures, or “other worldly” explanations. We want to have faith in the magical unicorn that appears regardless of our circumstances, in our workplace or personal lives, because we want to be rescued or seduced by the magic. Who could forget the disastrous 2010 BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Beaches and fisheries all around the Gulf were poisoned with oil slicks and globs of tar for months. And yet, at the height of the spill, when millions of gallons of oil continued to course relentlessly into the Gulf, BP’s CEO, Anthony Hayward, infamously stated, “I just want to get my life back”. Magically thinking his life could snap back to normal while millions of Americans and the wildlife they depended on were so severely damaged by his company’s negligence.
We’ve learned we can’t wish our troubles away. Ignoring problems makes them worse. We can’t ignore an odd-looking facial mole, we can’t ignore a leak in our gas tank, we can’t ignore our overdue bills, or our child’s bad report card. We can’t ignore disease, poverty, crime, economic distress or climate change. The consequences are too great to pretend these conditions don’t exist.
So, how do we survive our troubled times sensibly?
Is it through over analyzing, denying, or blaming someone or something else? Do we allow ourselves to embrace our “magical” thoughts even as we avoid the ugliness or brutality of our circumstances?
Yes, in our efforts to comprehend the unfortunate events that took place, we ruminate and continuously run the algorithms of every possible cause or outcome of our loss, personal or global: war, pandemics, out of control fires or floods. We relive our conversations over and over in our heads, we endlessly play “I should have said…,” or “I shouldn’t have said….” or “I could have done…”, continuously and consistently fooling ourselves into imagining we have the power to create another truth. But the truth is, there is a “new normal” and it cannot and will not be denied. When we allow ourselves to entertain “Magical Thinking,” we are merely delaying the inevitable. We need to embrace the recognition and acceptance that as time continues on, so must we all.
As the months and years progress, we must decide which direction our lives will take. Each of us must come to the realization that how we talk to ourselves and what we believe about ourselves influences how we connect with others. As this book is being written we are living the world of a global pandemic and our responses to it vary dramatically. Some people feel patriotic, others worry about health concerns, many see the recommendations from medical experts and state or national leaders an encroachment on their freedoms. Yet, we all want to come out on the other side healthy and sane. Think perseverance, knowledge, positive self-talk, and a recognition that magical thinking is only one stage in a very long process.
Joan Didion says in her book, “The craziness is receding, but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.”
Where is your resolution to the time you experienced a monumental, inexplicable loss? What did you do, once you had moved out of denial? Where are you today and can you look back and think, “I did it. I survived that.” What did you learn from it?
As in the case of New York City under attack by terrorists, an attack that felled two great buildings symbolizing America’s great financial power, leaders needed to stand up in a crisis to bring people out of stunned shock and into action. Every person in the world wished the Towers had never fallen, that the planes never crashed the buildings, that over 3,000 people hadn’t died that day.
But, as the whole world came to the realization that the United States was in the worst crisis of its history since Pearl Harbor in 1941, for many, reality didn’t gel with the recovery from this great loss, this grief. Many of us relied on magical thinking to cope, to deal, to manage our feelings. We wished, we hoped, we prayed that our loved ones would come home, that the Towers would reappear, that the death and destruction hadn’t happened. But, aside from our collective shock and despair, leaders emerged and stood up. Mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge of the emergency responses and was on the scene within minutes of the attack. A few days later, President George W. Bush stood atop the rubble of the Towers and held his famous “bullhorn moment” (US News and World Report, George Bush’s ‘Bullhorn Moment’ April 2013) as he rallied the workers and the whole country, with his encouraging words of inspiration. And Richard Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, had the market up again and running just over a week later. Emergency workers from all over the area swept into New York City to help the recovery efforts. These leaders inspired all Americans in that moment. Leaders inspired us to form a community across the United States which helped create a safer, more secure nation for our future and the following generations.
So, what was our collective learning from this crisis? What can we imagine from this tragedy? We imagined a sacred memorial where the Towers once stood, the tallest buildings in the world, we imagined a brand-new building, even taller than a quarter of a mile high, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. We imagined a stronger economy and a swift recovery.
This is the power of leadership. Crisis management protocols have evolved from the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and have been used time and time again to demonstrate calm and reassurance to others. Among them are stay positive, tell the truth, be empathetic, communicate often, don’t panic, and stand up and lead effectively.
When learning the art of leadership, we consider how individual personal values, positive action, and fealty to the general good contribute to making good leaders. There’s no room for personal posturing or promoting a filtered reality. Leadership, regardless of level, means engendering the trust of those you serve; for without trust, integrity, loyalty, and honesty, people will not follow.
When any crisis hits us, as disaster hit the United States on 9/11, and as it did in the form of tragedy for Joan Didion, magical thinking only shields us from the truth. It keeps us in a state of disbelief, of unreality, of denial. It may take months or years to break the hold of magical thinking. To truly lead well we want to take every opportunity we see to transform ourselves, and maybe even the world.
“You became a leader for a reason: use your gifts of emotional intelligence, integrity and communication skills to manage the crisis and find the opportunity to transform yourself and the world around you.” (Inc. Magazine., September 17, 2020.)
Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.
Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.
Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.
Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.