Giving Up Magical Thinking

I learned to pray from my parents, not that I remember it. I don’t remember my first prayer any more than I remember my first word. I assume I learned to pray the same way I learned to speak – by listening and imitating. My parents no doubt instructed me to repeat their words, showed me how to begin and end, and taught by example what goes between the bookends of a prayer. I learned to thank God for blessings and to ask for things I needed.

While I’ve always known the importance expressing gratitude in prayers, I’ve sometimes felt that thanking God was a preamble to the real business of prayer – asking for what I need. All my life I have given God lists of things I wanted and needed. I’ve prayed for myself and for people I love. Occasionally I’ve even prayed for my enemies. I’ve prayed for my kids, for employment, for health, and for a testimony. Sometimes those prayers were answered. Or rather, sometimes events unfolded in ways led me to attribute outcomes to God’s intervention. But I no longer believe I can ask for a specific outcome in prayer, and no longer attribute life events, good or bad, to God’s direct intervention in my life. If that sounds cynical, let me explain.

Some years ago I was a graduate student working on biology research that was not going anywhere. I’d started out with a promising research project, but after several years of working on it, useful results were not in sight. I felt frustrated, but I had faith. Faith that perseverance in the laboratory was going to pay off, and faith that God would help me with my work. So I kept at it for a few more years, but my research was still not giving me the results I needed to graduate. Seven years into my doctoral training I found myself an exhausted new mother who was commuting 40 miles round trip every day, facing tension in my marriage, running low on money, and getting very little support from my thesis adviser. I badly needed to be done with graduate school. So I wrote a letter requesting a master’s degree so that I could quit school but still receive a degree. My husband and thesis committee chair talked me out of quitting, however, so I resolved to finish the Ph.D. I felt I desperately needed God’s help to get it done.

I fasted and prayed that my research would produce results. I worked as hard as I could in the lab and believed that if my efforts weren’t enough, that God would make up the difference. I fully expected God to help me with some kind of miracle. But it never came. After an additional year of working in the lab, my project had failed. My thesis committee decided to let me graduate on the results of a backup project that was not impressive, but passable. My poor publication record and poor relationship with my adviser made it impossible for me to continue a career in science.

In the end I got the diploma, but it was a pyrrhic victory. My faith in God had not weathered the strain of finishing my Ph.D. at all well. God had not answered my prayers, which either meant that he didn’t exist or that my understanding of things was very wrong. I was familiar with the rationalization that God always answers prayers, it’s just that sometimes the answer is no, but this argument was cold comfort. It also seemed like a tautology. God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer. During my worst moments, my feelings of abandonment caused me to doubt God’s existence. The idea that God doesn’t exist was too hopeless for me to accept for very long, however, so rather that giving up belief, my doubt became anger. I was angry with God for leaving me alone when I needed help – so angry that I quit praying for a while. I’m not proud of the fact that I gave God the silent treatment because it shows how petulant I can be, but my feelings of disappointment and loneliness were overwhelming, and I simply couldn’t see the point of praying at that time.

After some time I resumed praying, but I still had to grapple with the fact that God hadn’t answered my prayers. Perhaps it was self-centered to believe that they’d be answered. But my religious education had been replete with the idea that God answers prayers. What was wrong with my expectations about prayer?

With a little hindsight, I can see that I was indulging in magical thinking regarding my research. I believed I had a connection with God such that asking for what I needed would result in God intervening in the physical world. I fully expected that prayer would result in God taking action to intervene in my life, as if prayer were part of an equation: Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I could not have been more wrong. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.

Praying for God’s intervention is a risky endeavor. If you really believe God will intervene, it can devastate you when he doesn’t. All my life I had prayed for things I wanted and needed. Please bless me to get well, to drive home safely, to have a good day. And when I was praying for things of small importance, I didn’t pay too much attention to whether or not those prayers were answered. But in praying for something that really mattered, the lack of an answer was a real shock. My experience with unanswered prayers has made me wary of asking God for many things. Asking for something intangible like patience or inner peace feels safe and proper to me, but asking for God’s intervention in my physical world no longer does. Perhaps I am afraid I’ll be disappointed again; perhaps I simply lack faith. But I suspect that my faith is not the issue. Rather, lived experience tells me that wars will rage, children will die of cancer, criminals will go unpunished, graduate student research will go awry, and God will let it all happen in spite of our pleading for him to intervene.

For much of my life I’ve engaged in magical thinking; I believed that if I asked for something righteous in prayer, having faith that it would happen, my request would set metaphysical gears in motion and the divine vending machine would spit out an answer for me. And even after realizing the error in this kind of thinking, I still find myself believing that my thoughts and prayers may actually affect the world around me. Whether it is habit or hope, I still sometimes find myself asking God to intervene in my life. I just can’t stop myself, although my prayers have changed significantly.

I am not sure if I should stop praying for material help altogether. But I am sure that God is not going to intervene in my life just because I ask. Even if I ask in faith. Even if I’m asking for a good thing. Even if I’m praying unselfishly for someone else. And even if someone is suffering. Christ has said he will heal our wounds, but he will not prevent us from being wounded. And if God is going to stop short of solving problems for me, I think I should stop asking him to solve them. Believing that he will is magical thinking, and I am trying to give that up.

Read More

As Saints Building Zion

“We’ll sing this one fast – I like it that way.  And skip the part about the errand of angels being given to women.  That’s false doctrine.”

That’s how our Relief Society chorister introduced “As Sisters in Zion” one Sunday.  I was a little surprised this faithful Mormon woman would so bluntly declare something printed in the hymnal as false doctrine, and I silently cheered her speaking the truth.  I’ve never like the hymn, with its particular view of feminine virtues and its weakly meandering melody.  How can the errand of angels be given just to women when the next stanza says it’s about being human?  Where does that leave men if all the angelic ministering is done by women?  And why are all the angels in the scriptures men?  The hymn text seems to assume that men preside while women nurture because these are God-given roles, but also seems to hope for something more – a vast and even unlimited mission to build Zion by doing God’s work on earth.  This is a work that transcends gender and requires us to partner with our Heavenly Parents, bringing the gifts they’ve given us to all our labors.

This broader vision would be in keeping with the life of the author, Emily Hill Woodmansee (1836-1906).  According to the scholar Karen Lynn Davidson, “Emily H. Woodmansee was one of the many gifted and intellectual women of early Utah who were dedicated to bringing culture, idealism, and education to their community.  These women were committed to carry out a vast number of responsibilities in the name of Relief Society.” (Davidson, 309)  Emily Hill was born in Wiltshire, England and was baptized at age 16.  She emigrated to the United States with her sister at age 20 and pushed a handcart across the Great Plains with the Willie handcart company.  She married at 21, but her first husband deserted her and their child.  At 28 she married Joseph Woodmansee and they became parents to 8 children.  They suffered financial reverses and she went into business and real estate with great success.  Apostle Orson F. Whitney said she was the “possessor of a poetic as well as a practical mind.” (Davidson, 462)

The text for “As Sisters in Zion” was first published in 1874 in the Woman’s Exponent (the forerunner of Exponent II*).  It had 10 verses, the first and last two of which were chosen for the 1985 hymnbook.  The Hymnbook Committee commissioned Janice Kapp Perry to compose the tune for this text, which she did in a matter of hours while stranded due to a broken tour bus (Davidson, 310).  Emily Woodmanssee wrote a great deal of poetry, and while the 1985 hymnal contains just one of her texts, the 1927 hymnal had eight.  I love that “As Sisters in Zion” speaks of the things that are most central to discipleship – to love one another by comforting the weary and strengthening the weak.  In Zion, all work together until there are no more weary and there are no more weak.  But I would love it more if it didn’t make being female a prerequisite for this errand.  I think it’s an artificial and ultimately false dichotomy to say that women excel in some spiritual gifts and men in others.  So with respect to Emily Woodmansee, in a future edition of the LDS hymnal I would like to sing something like this:

As Saints building Zion we’ll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up the kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.

The errand of angels is given in wisdom;
And this is a gift, as God’s children, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human;
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.

How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the spirit’s divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.

There is precedent in many Christian hymnals for changing language to make it more gender inclusive, and there is precedent for changing (or more often, omitting) text in the LDS hymnal for doctrinal reasons.**  This revision of “As Sisters in Zion” is my best attempt at keeping the verse intact while making the content of the poem both more gender inclusive and more in keeping with the doctrine that building Zion is everyone’s responsibility.

Davidson, Karen Lynn, Our Latter-day Hymns: The stories and Messages by , Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1988.

*The Woman’s Exponent was discovered by Susan Kohler in the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library.  It was published from 1872-1914.  You can read the fascinating history of establishing Exponent II here, here, and here.

** In the Winter 2011 of Exponent II I give some examples of hymns texts that have been altered in the current LDS hymnal and in other hymnals.  The article is on page 20.

Read More

Remembering Coretta Scott King

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I wanted to honor his life and work but also remember the women of the civil rights movement. I began by reading about Coretta Scott King, and learned she is the reason we have a federal holiday to remember Dr. King. Following his assassination in 1968 she founded The King Center and led an educational and lobbying campaign to establish his birthday as a national holiday. After 15 years of work, a congressional act signed by Ronald Regan made the day official in 1983.

Born in 1927 in Marion, Alabama, Coretta Scott must have been remarkable from the time she was quite young. She graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, then earned a B. A. in music from Antioch College in Ohio. She went on earn another bachelor’s degree in violin and vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. There she met Martin Luther King, Jr., who was studying for a doctorate in theology at Boston University. They married in 1953.

Read More

Poetry Sundays

Boat_front_breaking_water

Here at The Exponent we are starting a new series one Sunday a month where we’ll share poetry.

Following the Christmas holidays, this poem by Wendell Berry came to my mind.  We have so many opportunities  to digitally capture our lives that sometimes it starts to feel like an obligation to get a picture or video of every event, big or small.  This poem reminds me that pictures can’t replace the experience of being really present in life’s events.  Sometimes it’s better to put down the phone and enjoy the moment.

The Vacation
By Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

I’m sure there are other ways to read the poem.  What is yours?

Read More

The spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind

I recently read this article in Wired about eradicating polio.  It says last year there were only 223 cases of polio in the world, which seems pretty close to eradication of the virus.  But it turns out eliminating those last cases is really, really hard.  The reason being that the places where polio is still found are, almost by definition, very hard to reach. They include Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Nigeria.  A worldwide campaign to eradicate polio began in 1988, and its success is measured by the fact that there were 350,000 cases that year.  There is reason to think the campaign will eventually succeed, but it isn’t and won’t be easy.

This made me think of other kinds of problems and human needs.  I think a lesson from the polio eradication effort is that people who greatly need help are often, almost by definition, very hard to reach.  This thought has been with me for a few weeks since I read the Wired article, and it makes my heart very heavy.  Human suffering seems infinite, and efforts to stay it feel puny.  But I’m also thinking of Paul’s words in 2nd Timothy chapter 1: “For God hath not given you a spirit of fear [or of despair]; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”   I also have a little mantra for myself that I repeat when I need hope, which is it’s that I’ll try to 1) do no harm, 2) help who I can help, and 3) create beauty.  A friend just reminded me that we can only help who we can help.  I recognize that this is true.  But I also want to see people who are hard to see and not close my eyes to their problems.  And so I pray to see more so that I can do more.

Can you tell me a story of when you’ve been able to help someone?  Or when someone has helped you?  I need to hear some stories about goodness.

Read More