When you go to fertile Naxos, Greek island in the Cyclades, tell a proud, playful Naxian that his island is the best. He’ll wink and tell you, “I know.” Tell him it has everything: potatoes, antiquities, xinotiro cheese, wine, olive groves, herbed honey, kefalotiri, miles of beaches, terraced mountains, bougainvillea, kitron, and robust people. He’ll say, “I know!”
One thing you can find only in Naxos is the lucky eye of the sea. It is the oval opening of the shell shaped by sea and sand- smooth swirl on one side, rugged on the other. Creative Naxian jewelers incorporate them into earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, promising good luck. My lucky eye’s companion is my evil eye amulet from Lebanon. As they hang out on my wrist together, overlapping and intertwining, they get me thinking: What’s better? Something that protects you from harm, or something that brings you good luck? Which would I rather have, and which would most people rather have? Is there a difference, or is this a question of semantics and framing? How contextual is this choice? Do people in distress prefer protection, and people with security prefer luck?
In his influential book Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov claims that “people are motivated by the positive far more than the negative.” His technique #43, “Positive Framing”, involves assuming the best and talking aspirations. I see this work in classrooms every day. Teachers who narrate the positive while making least invasive corrections are highly effective in establishing a positive culture and climate in their classrooms. It’s palpable. When the teacher begins broadcasting what students are doing well, the mood matches the message. When teachers instead exhibit negative control or manage by fear, they may get short term compliance, but they don’t foster intrinsic motivation.
Is it negative control to clutch at an amulet to ward off something you fear? For millennia, people from East to West have believed in an evil eye. It’s a look from someone who envies or dislikes you, and it will cause you to suffer illness or even death. What’s extra scary about the evil eye is that its infliction can be unknown by both the giver and the receiver. In order to protect against the evil eye, various cultures have developed amulets or talismans such as hands, horns, or concentric circles that look like an eye and boomerang the evil gaze back to the envious onlooker. Fear of the evil eye is pervasive because you never know when you will be struck– envy is omnipresent. Do you have any small talent, subtle beauty, are you pregnant, or a baby? You are prey. Better keep that talisman around, because jealousy may lurk behind any set of eyes.
People also historically tote good luck charms. Rabbit feet, four leaf clovers, and and the lucky “mojo” bag are examples. So what would the people around me, 21st century Americans living in relative security, prefer? The charm or the protector?
If you want to find out what people think, one lazy way to do it is create a survey using SurveyMonkey. You can do it from your computer without having to ask anyone a question to his or her face. Besides granting you ease, it provides an anonymity that may incur a most honest response. I created a SurveyMonkey survey asking this simple question:
Luck won over protection, though not by a landslide. As I imagined, the written responses showed varying interpretations of the question and the terms “luck”, “protection” and “harm”. Many of the commentators saw the two as synonymous, something along the lines of “if it brings good luck, it will protect me from harm.” Others felt more empowered to take control through protection, such as the responder who said “Harmful things are everywhere, but I can do what I can to protect myself.” Some who chose protection did so because they didn’t believe in luck, or felt that they “made their own luck”, viewing luck as something akin to fate or destiny. Some who chose luck did so because it sounded more positive, and they’d rather not live in fear, one stating that a “unique kind of luck would be not to be afraid all of the time”. Some people sought harder lines, claiming that luck felt “nebulous” and harm felt “concrete”. Others went for protection as a means to a lucky end: “I think luck might be something you make yourself when you are feeling confident and grateful, which is more likely if you have protection (security).” Still others thought about gain pragmatically: “Protection from harm is more conservative and therefore has a more limited benefit set. Presumably having good luck would translate into being less likely to be harmed, but it also would have other benefits.”
I was most moved by those who chose luck because they wanted a little harm. I was reminded by their words that “a little harm can be good for you”, we “need pain to go through life”, and “without bad (and good) life is very mediocre”.
As for me, I think I’ll continue to let my two bracelets entangle, those concentric circles that shoot back envious gazes and that smooth shell that reminds me of how lucky I was to set foot in Naxos. And if I ever get to stand again with my back to the Temple of Apollo overlooking the Aegean Sea, one rough inlet to the left of the path, one placid to the right, I’ll enjoy that mixture of fortune and fear that makes us mortals what we are.