Magic Words






I could tell from looking at the woman that she had fallen on hard times. She may have been homeless, and she certainly had some kind of substance abuse problem. She was gaunt and dirty, with bedraggled hair and wearing stained sweat pants. The emergency room attendants had been ignoring her for twenty minutes, as best they could. It was obvious they knew her, had seen her come in dozens of times, and they were frustrated and on edge.

Her tirade continued, as she paced the floor in the waiting room. Why wouldn’t anyone help her? she screamed rhetorically. How long did she have to wait? Didn’t anyone care?

I realized I was witnessing something bizarre and sad. Some drug addicts, who can’t get a fix any other way, will try to get admitted to a hospital. Even if they only stay a few hours, they get some medication out of it. Anything is better than nothing. The simmering anger of the clerks I could understand; they felt manipulated, and they were already overworked.

The whole scene reminded me of the ceremonial magic of the Middle Ages. To invoke a spirit, you must chant a specific phrase repeatedly, with just the right pronunciation, just the right tone, with exact preparations. Or the spirit won’t appear, and the conjuration won’t work. Frame of mind matters.

“I’m gonna hurt myself!” She began shrieking. “I’m gonna hurt somebody!” She paced the floor and repeated these magic phrases over and over and over. I don’t know who taught her these magic words: probably a therapist or a case worker. But she knew these are the words of high magic. When in total desperation, these are the words that make the magic happen. She would get relief. The spirits would appear and do her bidding.

Only they didn’t. The clerk muttered under her breath, “Go ahead.” She was tired of it all. She’d seen this woman come in too many times before.

Magic words. Unfortunately they only work for the disciplined magician.


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