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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts – On occasion there’ll be an item on TV or in the newspaper about someone who has done something seemingly irrational, like purposely driving on the wrong side of a divided highway or running naked across the outfield of a baseball park, and my wife will ask why people do such dumb or dangerous things. The response I give is always the same, that I cannot understand my own behavior half the time so how can I possibly figure out the motivations of others.
That answer is said in jest of course but there’s more truth in it than one might imagine. All of us do things automatically without bothering to investigate the reasons behind our actions, merely because we’ve either been taught to do them in childhood or we’ve observed others doing those things and just automatically followed suit.
I once heard a story that provides a perfect example of the above. There was a woman who whenever making a roast, would cut off a piece before putting the meat into the pan. She did this for years until her daughter asked the reason for the odd routine. The woman did not have a logical answer other than to say it was a behavior she had always seen her own mom perform, but now that her curiosity had been aroused she asked her mother for the reason. The old lady laughed, saying she did it because the roasting pan she had was usually too small for the piece of meat so she lopped off a portion for it to fit. That was it.
Perhaps an even better reason for not questioning a behavior is when it’s just assumed the entire world acts in the same fashion. At every wedding I attended the couple always stood under a canopy, so I naturally thought it was a usual part of the ceremony, like the guy performing the marriage, the bride’s white gown, the groom’s tuxedo, the flowers, etc. Everybody had those things, right?
Well at one wedding a niece of ours brought a date who wasn’t Jewish, and after the service he asked the purpose of the canopy. Huh? What was he asking that for… wasn’t that part of every wedding ceremony? It turned out that only Jews get married under such a structure, and no one had an answer as to why the thing was used. Upon later investigation it was discovered that the canopy represents a roof that the couple should always be able to live under throughout their marriage, symbolizing the groom’s home and the bride’s new domain, a really nice tradition that anyone could adopt regardless of religion.
Speaking of nice customs my wife and I have one of our own, that of putting a red bow behind the rear view mirror of every car we’ve ever owned, including the autos of our children and grandchildren as well. It’s done for good luck of course but stems from a practice I had observed as a child but never knew there was a motive attached.
Whenever there was a birth in my neighborhood I’d shortly see the new mother wheeling the baby carriage with a big red bow on the back and as usual just assumed it was a nice adornment. In adulthood I learned that the bow was in reality a means of keeping away the evil eye, an old wives’ tale held over from their European heritage and similar to objects used in other cultures such as a red pepper or horn, or the piece of jewelry known as the “hand of God.” Superstitions or not, they’re pretty ornaments that make nice things look even nicer.