My son and I took a quick trip down to New Orleans over his winter break from school.
I had visited the city a few times as a child and remembered the vivid combination of fear and fascination that accompanied family tours of voodoo shops, above ground cemeteries, and the Historical Pharmacy Museum.
Bourbon Street held its own fascinations, of course: discarded beer cans and shuttered brothels offered daytime hints of elusive adult activities.
Nearly 15 years old and always up for an adventure, my son was sure to appreciate the creepy complexities of this unique American city.
On our first afternoon, we visited several voodoo shops and the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. To my surprise and delight, my son seemed genuinely interested in the history of this complicated, diverse, and misunderstood religion. I had it all wrong, as it turns out, believing in the Hollywood portrayal of voodoo as a kind of “dark magic” used to inflict harm on one’s enemies.
In truth, voodoo is about healing. It’s a tradition designed to bring good fortune, health, and other desirable attributes (e.g. love, safety, peace, wisdom) into one’s life.
It was amusing to see the items folks left behind in the spirit of such optimism: cigarettes, mouthwash, money, condoms, whiskey, beads, flowers, and even the occasional train ticket. Attempts to earn favor with the gods? Perhaps. Regardless, it all seemed very kitschy and good-natured.
One offering in particular caught my eye. It was a dollar bill to which someone had taken a Sharpie and written the words: “You are better than the worst thing you have done.”
Huh. An unexpected bit of wisdom amid the kitsch, worth far more than the pennies scattered on top of it.
I suppose it struck me because, let’s face it, I’ve done some pretty awful things in my life. I will say this: I have never hurt another person on purpose (out of revenge or cruelty or what have you). I have, however, lied, hated, hollered, betrayed, given up, gossiped, resented, taken for granted, and judged. That dirty, crumpled up dollar bill—written and deposited in this voodoo museum by lord knows who—brought me a surprising amount of peace and relief from feelings I wasn’t even aware I was carrying.
How often do we judge ourselves based on our worst acts, our least desirable qualities, our biggest mistakes? We’re like our own version of the evening news, highlighting tragedies, scandals, and impending disasters rather than all the good that’s happening in the world.
When we ruminate on our mistakes, aren’t we treating ourselves like the voodoo dolls I’d believed in prior to my visit? Poking our spirits with sharp, negative self-talk and reliving our own shame and suffering over and over again?
I’m going to butcher this next concept a little bit, but please bear with me.
In voodoo and similar traditions, several terms are used to refer to (roughly) the same idea. “Gris gris” (pronounced GREE-gree), “mojo” (MO-jo), and “juju” (JU-ju) are all versions of what many of us would call a good luck charm. Often, the charm comes in the form of a small bag containing multiple trinkets, roots, bones, or spices, the combination of which is designed to bring a specific kind of good fortune to its owner.
What if, instead of beating ourselves up and defining ourselves by the lowest common denominator, we applied the tenets of voodoo to our sense of self-worth? What if we brought positivity into our lives by reminding ourselves, on a daily basis, what we’ve done well, where we’ve succeeded, and the times we’ve lived up to our highest standards? What if we defined ourselves not by our worst acts, but by our best?
What are some of the best things you’ve ever done? Married your partner? Forgiven someone? Raised your children? Helped a fellow human being? Been part of the solution? What if we put all of those acts into a little, mental bag of mojo and carried it around in our hypothetical pocket? Tossed aside the “evening news” version of ourselves and embraced The Ellen Degeneres Show version, instead?
In these shops, you can purchase prepackaged mojo bags (this one for health and that one for forgiveness), or you can buy an empty bag and fill it yourself.
If you’re attending to matters of the spirit and choose the latter, for goodness sake fill it with something wonderful.