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Tough Times, Prayer, and the Ratchet Effect

I originally wrote this several weeks ago, and have been debating whether or not to actually post it. Without going into too much personal detail, I'll say that my friend is recovering well from the stroke. He still has a long road of therapy ahead of him, but he's definitely doing well. So, since tomorrow's Thanksgiving, let me say that I am thankful for all those things that I mention below.

GraceSeveral weeks ago, my wife's cell phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. One of our friends was calling to tell us that her husband (also our friend) was having a stroke, and that she was taking him to the hospital. My wife got dressed to meet her there, while I stayed home to be with our daughter.

There was nothing I could do there at the house, so I thought I'd try to be practical and at least get some sleep. That didn't work at all. I was awake most of the night, and only slept in fits.

While I was laying there awake, I guess my Christian upbringing came out, and I was tempted to pray. After all, when I still believed in God, praying would have seemed like the natural thing to do. It's such a feeling of helplessness - not knowing what happened, or what's going to happen, and only being able to lay there and wait. Well, I have to admit that I did end up praying, but not to a god. No matter how strong the emotional temptation, the rational side of me knew that Yahweh was no more real than Zeus or Thor, and praying to any of those myths would have been equally ineffectual. I figured that if any of the mystical stuff that people believed in were true, the common thread to most religions was that we have souls*. And if souls did exist, then my grandparents would be the souls who were most likely to actually care about and want to help me, so I prayed to them. And, I prayed out loud, because I figured that ghosts probably wouldn't be able to read minds any easier than living people. I did recognize that I was praying more for my own peace of mind than actually hoping anything would come of it, but I figured that it couldn't cause any harm, so what did it matter, anyway. I know it all sounds silly, but that feeling of helplessness is just so strong.

Several hours later, after I dropped my daughter off at school, I headed over to the hospital. Now, I fully expected people to be praying. That's just what religious people do in times like this, and even a former christian turned atheist like me had given in to the temptation. For the most part, it didn't bother me much. Sure, it troubled me a bit on an intellectual level, but there are more important things than trying to be right all the time, and it would have taken a real jerk to argue about such things at a time like that.

But... There was one person that really irritated me - the hospital chaplain. He shouldn't have. He didn't seem like a bad guy, and maybe under different circumstances I would have like him just fine. I was probably irritated with him simply because he was a stranger intruding on us during a troubling time. Anyway, the comment he made that really ticked me off, and made me bite my tongue, was something to the effect of, "Well, it's all in the hands of the Big Surgeon, now." Don't call your myth a surgeon. Don't compare it to the hard working men and women who are doing real good. Don't sit there all smug, and pretend that praying is going to do one damn bit of good. If our friend recovers well from this stroke, I'll thank the fact that his wife was a nurse, recognized immediately the signs of a stroke, and rushed him to the hopsital. I'll thank the doctors and nurses, who spent years going to school to learn how to treat these conditions, and acted quickly and competently when our friend showed up in the ER. I'll thank the researchers, who developed the clot buster drugs that give people now a much better chance of surviving and recovering from strokes. I'll thank the researchers before them, who spent decades and centuries increasing our knowledge, to even know what a stroke is, to give any hope of how to treat it. I'll be thankful that we live in this day and age instead of a couple hundred years ago, when, prayer or no prayer, he wouldn't have had a chance.

This also reminded me of an effect that many people have noticed and commented on before - the ratcheting effect of religion. When good things happen, like our friend's recovery, people are supposed to be thankful to God for all he's done for them. But when bad things happen, like the stroke to begin with, it's all part of his mysterious divine plan, and they're supposed to accept that it must have happened for a good reason.

Well, if prayer's what it takes for people to get through tough times, let them pray. I won't try to stop them, but I won't join in, either. What I will do is continue to visit the hospital to offer my support, to run over meals, to help out with errands and chores in the coming months, and to offer any real help that I can.


* - I've written about souls on this blog before. In short, I really do doubt that we have souls, which is why I recognized I was praying for my own peace of mind more than anything else.

Comments

I'm glad to here that he is doing better. Your article made me think of another one I had read. Similar story from Daniel Dennet on Richard Dawkin's website.

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