In the short time I've lived in Los Angeles, I've met people into energy healing, animal communicating, channeling, psychics, astrology and realigning vibes. Oh, and aura fluffing. I would mock them, but I think everyone believes in some crazy shit. They just don't always admit it as easily as people do in LA.
This is one of the conclusions of a lovely piece over at Bold Italic from LA native Summer Block Kumar, who guides us on how to navigate fringe beliefs in a city where they seem to occur at peak frequency. Kumar warns that one of the first things you have to do to make friends here is to lean into it:
If you want to make friends in LA, one of the first things you must learn to do is to socialize with crazy people. Or rather, to socialize with otherwise sane people who will wait until several hours into a casual conversation to nonchalantly reveal a belief in elves, or telepathy, or the Hollow Earth.
It's often less than several hours, especially if you live on the Westside. This is why I love the "Overheard in LA" segment at LAist, which always includes at least one such conversation such as, "I dunno, I just feel like transformed by the energy of it."
And such proclamations are built into the city's history, Kumar notes:
We Angelenos have a proud history of fringe beliefs, going back to est and the primal scream of our parents' generation, all the way to the seances favored by turn-of-the-century Hollywood. And as an LA native, I have my own proud history of noncommittal smiling that extends to the first time someone told me about their mother's astral projection when I was in the fourth grade.
She goes on to recount the sort of run-of-the-mill incidents I'm now quite familiar with after living here four years: the woman really into the power of positive thinking; the person who believes the moon landing was fake; the person who talks to their cat (which I totally did once—on 'shrooms). The guy who can summon UFOs at parties. And, of course, Mercury in retrograde.
Her suggestions for navigating this are useful. One, you can repeat their words back to them sincerely:
One trick to making it through these moments is to furrow your brow in an earnest way while repeating back to them a few of the words they've just said:
"I'm sorry I'm late, I should have known not to buy a new car when Mercury is in retrograde."
"Yep, buying a new car."
Or try a simple "Oh yes, I've heard of that," response, which Kumar suggests allows you to nod in agreement, if not solidarity. She thinks the greater tolerance for the nutjobbery here is the "loopy optimism" that brings people to LA in the first place—the possibility of reinvention, fame, happiness, anything but whatever they left. And yes, there's a smidge of opportunism built in:
Leave cynicism to the East Coast – in LA we are kind and encouraging, and perhaps also a little worried that the person we're mocking today might be in the position to hire us tomorrow.
Something about all this New Age shit: it's refreshingly, nakedly hopeful, and I would often rather be surrounded by that than more people like, say, myself. But where her essays gets me really excited is when she suggests these affectations are always present, in everyone, in some buried form:
The truth is, deep down everyone believes at least one crazy thing. My mother predicts earthquakes; my father isn't entirely willing to discount the existence of reptoids. I consider myself a skeptic, but I still wouldn't set foot in a haunted house. The problem is no one in Los Angeles ever challenges another person's assertions aloud, so you never know who may be privately judging you. Instead you just continue blundering along through conversations thinking you're being charitable with all your rapid pursed-lip nodding about alkaline water while meanwhile the alkaline enthusiast is thinking, "Did she just say something about her horoscope? What a wacko."
It's true: Whether it's alkaline water or the Blood Type Diet or a near-religious aversion to commercially prepared deodorant, everyone believes at least one crazy thing. It's not just Los Angeles. It's you too, pal.
So here goes: I sometimes think I will get things simply because I really want them. I sometimes think I will not get things because of some kind of karmic justice coming back around. I sometimes have a well of emotions about a thing about to happen and take that to mean it is going to happen; and then it actually does. I have tried more times than I care to admit to will a person telepathically to say a certain word while we are talking (say delineate say delineate say delineate). That actually never works.
I asked my friends what dumb shit they secretly believe:
- Mine is probably the achingly sincere hope that I will get to time travel or win the lottery
- Still want to believe in "wishes"
- I definitely want to believe in metaphysics
- I believe in the presence of the Yeti
Magical thinking is silly, childish, wishful and—most importantly—harmless. (And of course there's a difference between the belief that a room must be cleansed of bad energy versus, say, a belief that vaccinating your children will kill them. Don't throw me in with the real crazies, dig? And I'm aware that the line between harmless and harmful is about as easy to delineate as it is to make someone say "delineate" in conversation simply by willing it.
But the messy middle is important. A universe of facts is available at our fingertips, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the growing truism that there are only two types of ways to believe: to be a science person or a nut job. There is a significant, and harmless, middle ground: reasonable, science-supporting people who believe in research and critical thinking and skepticism, but still give magic a bit of a chance.
I'd say I'm an open-minded skeptic. I went to an energy healer once to get my aura cleared. I knew it was probably bullshit, and yet, it was not remotely difficult for me to understand why people do it and swear by it. As a human on earth with no real clue what we are doing or why we are here, I submit that it is weirder to believe in nothing unless proven than to go with whatever works, feels good, seems intuitive.
And yeah, I know: science says crystals don't do shit. But the people who use crystals say they don't give a shit, because crystals feel good and have since forever. Who wins? Who cares? I'll decide next time I'm at a party in Los Angeles talking to a Yeti who might be my next boss.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.