Talismans are a part of everyday life, even though most people are not familiar with the term.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a talisman as:
- an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune
- something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects
A talisman is a symbol. Used strictly, it can have a voodoo connotation. As a mental model, the term talisman has grown to be a representation of an idea or ideal. It is an internal reminder of values that are important to the person, or an external signal of a stance to outsiders.
Everyone projects images to themselves or others. Below are a few thoughts on the term and how they are used throughout our society.
A rabbit’s foot is a typical example of a talisman. A lucky horseshoe is another. The sign in Notre Dame’s football locker room, “Play Like A Champion Today” is another legendary good luck charm, specifically touching the sign prior to going out to play a game.
There are also symbols to ward off evil, from ancient script to animal spirits. A dreamcatcher is a common way to address bad dreams. While research on talismans often focuses on the luck side of its historical use, I find that this avoidance of negative things is equally powerful. As we get into a more expanded view of what a talisman is, my guess is that most uses of a talisman are to keep away potentially harmful judgments.
A wedding ring is a symbol used by a couple to signify to themselves and others that they have joined in a holy union. The ring, in its original meaning, is not necessarily a talisman. Yet a wedding ring says a bit more than its original purpose. It symbolizes that one believes in marriage to begin with. It affirms that the person is committed to another. It signifies worth, as another has chosen you. The design of the ring may indicate more about the person who chose it as well.
A wedding ring can revert to a more basic use of the term talisman, if it is thought of as a charm. Have you ever heard somebody say that they were without their wedding ring and felt naked, like something was missing? The loss of the ring is an all consuming emptiness; as if your left pinky were cut off.
Tyler Cowen, an economist, uses the term “talisman” often, and describes it as a symbol of what one believes, even if they don’t fully understand (or internalize) the concept. Oftentimes, this comes across in the items people buy to legitimize their beliefs and values to themselves and others. If done properly, a brand can be used to encompass the manufacturer’s values they are marketing wity their product. Here are some examples:
- Apple – I am creative
- Tesla – I am environmental
- Mercedes, Tiffany & Co, Gucci, Rolex – I care about luxury
Are the people who purchase those products creative, environmental, or taste-makers? Maybe. Maybe not. People buying those products may also be buying into ideals that are important to them, even if they may not completely live up to the associated ideology. One could be very technical and use an Apple laptop; an observer in a coffee shop may see the Apple brand and assume that the owner is creative…even if there isn’t an artistic bone in their body. Purchasing products because of what their branding symbolizes can be a very overt way to peacock that brand’s quality about oneself, even if it is not true.
Fear of Missing Out
Sometimes a talisman is procured to cure anxiety that one has about a certain subject matter. Readers buy books because they think they should stay up to date on trends in a specific field. Netflix customers will binge-watch a show if their friends start raving about it. Then they rave about it. People watch or read the news everyday so that they remain in-the-know on current events. Social Media is regularly monitored so that one can stay informed about friends and colleagues, trending issues, and what they think about them.
None of these are traditional uses of the term talisman, but they are sources people use to quell their anxiety. A bookshelf, stack of newspapers, DVD rack, novelty toys, or stickers can all visually symbolize what is important to a person, and that they are up-to-date about those things.
One way to look at a talisman is that it is an indicator that you are dealing with or addressing an issue. For example, going to therapy brings the benefit of talking to someone about your life, which is not a talisman. On the other hand, you have crossed a threshold where you are a patient of a therapist and have committed time and money to improve your mental life. This can be personal (and kept internal), or it can be a badge worn so others know about this facet of your life. If that is the case, it can be called a talisman (symbolic).
This version of a talisman takes on many forms in daily life. If you’re a member of a gym, you don’t even have to go there to indicate that you take fitness seriously, you can just wave your barcoded key fob to prove membership. If you’re a library member, and carry your card proudly in your wallet, you don’t have to be seen at the library to imply to others that reading is important to you. Similarly, if you have a home library, your bookshelf is a visual depiction that learning is important to you. Many people have not read half of the books in their libraries. In those cases, the book collections are more symbols than actual tools.
In Freakonomics, the case is made that it is not a direct causation that children are better readers when they are surrounded by books at home. Instead, it is more likely that the presence of ample books made accessible by parents is a sign that the parents focus on childrens’ learning because it is important to them. Having a bookcase filled with childrens’ books at home is a talisman to convey the importance of learning to the kids, to others and to oneself.
We have a neighbor that gives children’s books as birthday or Christmas presents (as opposed to purchasing the toy of the day). She also makes good book selections. The act of giving a book is an indicator that for the giving family, reading is important and the gift will confirm that. The gift is a talisman.
Talismans to indicate a philosophy someone follows are used extensively. As example, there are Stoicism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Hedonism; all schools of thought that are primarily highlighted on bookcases. They tell others ( and themselves) what dogmas the book owner has considered and possibly what they live by.
Better examples of talismans can be found in theology, another subset of philosophy. Religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Daoism often have symbols or idols that are sprinkled throughout a believer’s house. A shrine or a prayer corner are examples. There are also rituals that are regularly observed. Saying grace before every meal is an outward indication that religion is important to that family. There are also personal decorations that could represent religious talismans, such as the wearing of a cross, yarmulke, or robes. Some people choose to display tattoos that highlight religious symbols or text. Does one have to practice their faith regularly (and demonstrably) in order to impart its importance in their life? Not necessarily. They have talismans to do that work for them.
There are political ideologies which can be thought of as philosophy. One example can be Democrat or Republican, possibly extremist in either direction. Talismans are heavily prevalent in this political arena. Putting a political sign on one’s lawn is considered even more committed than voting for your ideology. Bumper stickers highlight your views. The MAGA hat is an outward indication of what that person thinks. A stranger knows exactly what that person believes and that they are committed to that stance.
Everyone Has Talismans
Reading through this post, it could be misconstrued that I believe talismans are a weak symbolic replacement for actually embodying the ideals for which they stand; as if people should stop having talismans in their lives. That is not the case. Talismans are inevitable. They are usually a dashboard to highlight information about the person. They indicate priorities, and are a reminder for that symbol or ideology to be a compass in how one lives their life. Here are some (not all) talismans that I have along with what they symbolize. I do not plan to eliminate:
- Wedding Ring – I am a family man
- Children’s Bookshelf – I care about kids’ education
- Old Car – I am frugal
- Bible – I have ethics
- Library Card – Learning is important
- A family heirloom – I am sentimental
- Magazines – I stay up on current events
- American Flag – I am patriotic
All of these things are symbols. They indicate what my ideologies are. They tell/remind me and others about my values. The trick is to not let a talisman be a poor substitute for actually practicing what you preach.
Lastly, I have been making the case that talismans should be congruent with one’s beliefs. However, incorporating a talisman into one’s life may take on a few forms with varying degrees of commitment:
- The person believes and practices a value and wants to symbolize it.
- Even though they symbolize that an ideal is important, their behavior falls far short of practicing it.
- A talisman is used but the person has absolutely no want to live up to what it might convey.
Here is an example of each in one person:
- Herman has prayer beads…and goes to mass and prays every day, says grace at every meal and reads the entire bible each year.
- Herman has a lime green Prius … but goes on transatlantic flights often, uses straws, eats meat, and utilizes disposable diapers. He has been informed that all of those activities are not environmentally friendly so maybe he is not as green as he wants to be.
- Herman has a pair of really expensive designer jeans… but only wears them begrudgingly because his wife wants him to stop wearing sweatpants everywhere. The designer jeans will be gone after a few months; the sweatpants won’t.
All of these are outward signs about Herman. Some are authentic to Herman. Other talismans of Herman may cause others to assume incorrect things about Herman.
Recognize a Talisman
There are times when it dawns on someone that all an object represents is an idea that is not practiced, or that actually sends the wrong message than was intended. A good example is as follows.
About a decade ago, I signed up for the website Goodreads. At least then, as part of interacting with this platform, one could chronicle all of the books that they have read over their lifetime. I became obsessed with rehashing my literary history, even going back to grade school and remembering the various books that I have read. A few days into this, and with a long list of books, I realized that a) I will never go back and reread those books b) I don’t even remember most of these books to speak to them and c) the real purpose of putting this list together was a mystery.
Upon reflection, I realized I was putting that list together simply to highlight that I was well-read (but I already knew that) to friends, family, or people I have yet to meet. Upon that epiphany, I quickly abandoned the task and deactivated from Goodreads.
The internet is filled with these talismans. How many people follow you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, LinkedIn, etc… Do you even know those people? How many likes did your last post get? If you “like” something, do you really like it or are you just being nice or do you hope that others will “like” your content in return? Are you helping to reinforce their talisman? Is their validation propping up yours?
What are more talismans in everyday life, including your own? What talismans are real signs of a person’s ideology and what are poor representations? Are your talisman’s just a poor token or do you also practice that ideology?