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.

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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.

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Young Women Lesson: How Can I Develop Christlike Love?

As I was reading through October’s lessons, I was very excited about the focus on Christ and love. The lessons on the Come Follow Me website are very good. In this lesson, I tried to get away from the cerebral aspects of “we need to love everyone” and go into the “how” to love everyone.

Washing of Feet

Lesson Prep/Intro

The week before the lesson, I think it would be good to ask the students to spend time thinking of their favorite story of Jesus. You could ask some of the older girls who studied New Testament last year in seminary to share a story they learned about that was important to them to share with the younger girls, or you could ask everyone to spend some time reading in the Gospels this week in their personal study. Then when you start class, you could ask each to share the story they picked and write it on the board in a list.

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Plowing the Fields

In Primary, I learned the story of the Whitmer’s fields being plowed mysteriously by strangers.

“When he went out to start plowing the soil in the morning, David discovered that someone had plowed part of the fields already….The next day David went to the place he had left the plaster, near his sister’s house, but the plaster was gone. His sister told him that the day before, she and her children had seen three strangers spreading the plaster with great speed and skill. She had assumed they were men David had hired, but David knew they were helpers provided by the Lord.” Primary 5, Lesson 9 “Witness to See the Gold Plates”

This story captured my imagination. Who were these helpers? Angels? The Three Nephites? It was a great miracle and it followed me for years.

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Baby blessings

My great-grandparents holding my grandfather on his blessing day

My great-grandparents holding my grandfather on his blessing day

About a month ago, my father decided to clear out his collection of family memorabilia and give it to me, the de facto family historian.  I was thrilled.  In my free time I have been perusing the journals, albums and family records.  I came across my Grandpa’s baby book, a more thorough record than most of its kind.  It goes all the way through his high school graduation and includes a map of the Pacific Ocean with the route his ship took during World War II carefully inked in.  Evidently my great-grandmother was a diligent scrapbooker.

The book contains a page for “baby’s first prayer” in which my great-grandma transcribed the words of my grandpa’s baby blessing.  They were not Mormons.  My great-grandfather was a minister of a protestant denomination, and my grandfather later followed in his footsteps.  The fact that this was a father’s blessing therefore had more to do with the family profession than the biological relationship.

 

 

July 5, 1917

Our Father in heaven – thou who has given us this child to make glad our home – we give him back to Thee today.  Use him we pray in Thy great purpose for the world, and through him bring in some small way the Kingdom of God.  Teach him that the only failure is selfishness and the only success service; and when his life is ended, grant that the world will be more Christ-like for his years in it.

We pray too for ourselves.  Help us to live such lives that this boy will find it easy to believe in God, and help us to build such a home that in it he will naturally discover Jesus Christ.  As he works with us, may he see in our lives the spirit of Thy Son; and as we play together may we never do anything that will drive God from his life.  Take us and take him, we pray, and use us in Thy work on Earth.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

 

I really love this prayer.  Every time I read it I get goosebumps and I think “that is what I want for my family.  That is the blessing I would want said for my children.”  I also feel that it was a blessing that was fulfilled.  My grandpa did devote his life to service.  He eventually left the ministry in order to work full time in fundraising and philanthropy.  Even in retirement he constantly volunteered.  I do think the world was more Christ-like for his years in it.

In our church we would teach that my great grandfather had no priesthood authority, though I am certain as a graduate of Harvard Divinity he would have disagreed.  Yet when I read this blessing I can’t help but think that this is the baby blessing par excellence.  I wonder what difference having the priesthood could possibly make in blessing a baby.  It isn’t a covenant, it isn’t necessary for salvation by our doctrine.  Why then do we need a priesthood holder to perform this blessing? I myself was blessed by our home teacher as a baby because my father is not a member and probably wouldn’t have been interested anyway.

 

What role do you think the priesthood plays in offering a baby blessing? Is it different from a father who does not hold the priesthood offering a prayer on behalf of his baby? What about a mother blessing her baby?

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Dedicatory Prayer

Day 110-Time...Morning prayers never made sense to me. Evening prayers, I get: reflect on your day, be grateful for the goodness it brought, repent for the things you did wrong, and bless the people who crossed your path. But morning prayers? Doesn’t the prayer from the evening carry over? It’s not like your life has changed much between going to bed and waking up. In general, your life is still the same and it’s unlikely you committed grievous sins in your sleep. What is there to pray about in the morning? “Please bless this day,” feels empty and passive.

So I stopped worrying about morning prayers. I did evening prayers, and they’re pretty much the same. “Dear Heavenly Father, Ditto to what I said last night.”

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