What you believe in is of vital importance; it may even kill you.
About half a century ago, a woman died in Baltimore City Hospital on her 23rd birthday because of a belief of hers. She was born on a Friday the thirteenth. The midwife who helped in the childbirth was a member of a voodoo cult in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. Friday the 13th was an ominous day for this woman and so she placed a curse on all the three children whose births she assisted that day. She cursed that each child would die before its 16th, 21st and 23rd birthday respectively.
The first child died in an auto accident at the age of 15. The second died on her 21st birthday during a shooting incident in a nightclub. The third was stricken with terror as her 23rd birthday approached and was admitted in Baltimore City Hospital. She had no physical illness whatever. The doctors assured her that nothing fatal would happen to her. She was given all the care in the hospital. Yet she died in the hospital bed. There was no rational explanation for her death.
This is not a story, but a real incident described by psychologist M E P Seligman in the book, Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. What killed the woman on her 23rd birthday was nothing but fear, fear engendered by her belief in the power of the voodoo curse. The fear was reinforced by her knowledge of the fate of the other two persons whose death had seemed to comply with the curse. The woman was not a follower of the voodoo cult, but she feared its curse. She feared it because she believed that it was powerful enough to affect her life. It is that belief which killed her.
What we believe will change the course of our life. The firmer the belief, the greater its impact on us.
Soon after the war in Laos in 1980, a phenomenon which came to be called ‘the Hmong sudden death syndrome’ was noticed in America. About 25 Laotian refugees in America died of this phenomenon. There was no rationally explicable cause for their death. They suddenly developed a breathing difficulty and succumbed to it too soon. One such patient, Vang, was taken to a Hmong woman who was a shaman, a priest and a doctor in the Laotian tradition. The shaman declared that the illness was caused by the unhappy spirits. She conducted some religious ceremonies to appease the spirits and Vang was cured totally.
Vang’s belief in his traditional medicine saved him. But the same belief could have killed him had not the shaman been found in time. Not even the best of the Western scientific medicine would have saved his life.
Belief is such a powerful thing. No wonder we have thousands of people today who are ready to kill for their beliefs. Religious fundamentalism and terrorism is spreading its tentacles farther and wider day by day. The beliefs of these fundamentalists and terrorists are not any more rational than the fear-generated belief of that 23-year old woman or that of Vang. But the more rational world is held to ransom by such beliefs.
It is the tragedy of our times that even if we escape the threats of our own belief, we may fall prey to other people’s beliefs.