“Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.”
Tonight I wished upon a star, the first that caught my eye when I looked up into the night sky. I recited the verse, long cached in the storage closet of memory, with the ease of repetition, and felt a sense of relief. The worry that had prompted this particular wish was alleviated, at least for now.
We wish on stars, on pennies thrown into fountains, ponds, or wells, on eyelashes blown by our breath from a forefinger. We wish on birthday candles as we blow them out, on breaking the “wishbone,” on rainbows. These are some of the wishing traditions I grew up with, and there are so many different wishing traditions around the world.
We also create our own wishing traditions. When we were children staying with our grandparents in Nogales, Arizona, my sister and I would walk down the 2 hills to school or the library, and as we walked back up the hills, near the top there was a tree stump. We named it the “wishing stump” and always took a minute to take turns standing on the stump to make a wish, before continuing home. One of my friends has named and calls on the “parking goddess” to find a parking place, and I have developed my own version of the “parking goddess” ritual — I think it helps!
Wishing rituals are often outside traditional religions, though there are certainly wishing traditions within religions. In my religion, Judaism, there is a ritual of placing pieces of paper with wishes written on them into chinks in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
We read all kinds of fairy tales in which wishes play a central part. Sometimes three wishes are granted. Sometimes the wrong wish is hastily made, and sends the story in a different direction. Powerful fairies grant wishes to a newborn baby, as in Sleeping Beauty. The central longing in The Wizard of Oz, one of my favorites as a child, is the wish to go home.
As modern scientific adults, we often think of wishes as childish and unproductive. However, in actively wishing, we exercise a powerful tool that utilizes practices which are known to benefit physical and mental health. Hope and positive thinking have been studied and found to increase a sense of well-being and alleviate stress. Even the simple act of making a wish helps us to feel more in control, calmer, and without as much anxiety, more able to access creative problem-solving.
Furthermore, we are using imagery, which can positively affect the immune system and many other physiologic processes. The words we say actually can cause the body to activate release of transmitter chemicals and hormones, either harmful or healing, depending on what is said. Consider being in the kitchen, accidentally cutting your arm, calling out, and then someone comes to help you. If that person says “oh my God, I’ve never seen so much blood,” the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone, which can cause elevated blood pressure and heart rate, thus possibly increasing the bleeding. If that person says “I’m here to help, the worst is over, relax and let me see your arm,” the chemicals that are released are likely to be parasympathetic, which lower blood pressure and heart rate, which is likely to make it easier to stop bleeding.
Finally, there’s magic. All human cultures have some longing for magic — a way of using personal power to affect what is around you. We live with the reality of events which we cannot control. Perhaps wishing on a star is much more than a ritual of childhood. Perhaps the ability to do so is actually one of the heroic qualities that sustain us. When we really, really wish with all our strength, when we can imagine the future we want so much, and find a ritual into which we can channel our love and longing and hope and dreams, we internalize that hope and find a way to articulate our dreams. At the same time, by speaking the truth of our desires, by acknowledging them, we can unlock the creative thought process that will help us find a way to change or find peace with our lives.