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 Inaugural LDS Women’s Meeting–Part 2

Like Mraynes, I was eager to experience the first LDS Women’s meeting, and was curious to see how the wider audience would be addressed. I watched it in a stake where I used to live, and was surrounded by women and girls I admire. Several of those women and girls took turns holding my little babe, which allowed me to listen attentively, and take notes to boot. I will offer my report on the second portion of the evening.

My first note is small, and personal. It involved one moment right after I walked in the chapel that gave me pause. The Stake President was present, and said the single word, “Welcome.” I thought briefly that perhaps it should be I, welcoming him to the Women’s Meeting, rather than the other way around. My second note is also small, and personal. It involved the delight I felt at seeing all of the purple in the choir, and thinking that many of my friends and co-bloggers were in good company. Now to the presentations:

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The Inaugural LDS Women’s Meeting–Part I

I have looked forward to this historic women’s meeting for many months despite sharing the concerns of some that the audience may be too broad. I arrived at my stake center, wearing my subversive purple dress, vowing to keep an open mind and to stand with my sisters, no matter what.

I will be sharing my thoughts on the first half on the session but I have to say, I loved every minute. I was moved and inspired by each talk, I found the videos and music uplifting and heart-expanding. I am grateful that I live in a time where a meeting like this can be held and that we can be taught powerfully by the women leaders of my own faith. I look forward to the time when my daughter can join me.

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Guest Post: Thoughts on Equality in the Church

by Tom P

My wife follows the Exponent and from time to time shares articles with me that raise many fascinating and legitimate points, particularly when it comes to gender inequality in the church. Without downplaying in any measure the concerns expressed in this blog, I have lamented the gender inequality in the church for many years but from a different perspective.

Having served primarily with the youth for about 30 years I have often wished that the men called to work with the youth were as faithful in their callings as the women in equivalent callings in the Young Women or Primary organizations. I cannot count the number of times I have been let down by male leaders on Sundays, activity nights, camping trips, or other events. On the other hand my wife, who has served in the Primary for as long as I have with the youth, probably could count the number of times she has been let down by a sister in the ward and not exceed her fingers and toes.

Based solely on my experience, there is a huge gender gap in the church when it comes to faithfully fulfilling our calling; and the men come out on the bottom by a considerable margin.

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Y me dolió (And it hurt me)

By Anya Tinajero Vega
Co-founder of Mormonas Feministas. Convert of 19 years. Inquisitor, eternal student and daughter and granddaughter of exceptional women. To question is to live.  (English translation included below the Spanish text.)

Por Anya Tinajero Vega
Co-fundadora del Grupo Mormonas Feministas. Conversa a los 19 años. Preguntona, eterna estudiante e hija y nieta de mujeres excepcionales. Cuestionar es vivir.

¿Alguna vez se han preguntado cuántas veces ejercieron violencia (de todos tipos) hacia otra mujer (sin importar la edad) en la iglesia? ¿Cuántas veces vimos mal a una hermana por no llevar falda los domingos o por no querer aprender a cocinar/coser/bordar?

Esta vez quiero hablar de mí, de cómo es que después de años me encuentro escribiendo esto, de cómo desperté. Hablo de un “despertar” o de un “hasta que duele”. Me explico, yo hasta hace unos meses no me definía como feminista, tenía esa visión que predomina: que eran unas locas exageradas, odia hombres (seguramente lesbianas), amargadas, etc. Entonces un día me tocó y me dolió.

Por cosas del trabajo conocí a una organización que promueve los derechos sexuales y reproductivos de las mujeres, me hice su amiga y empecé a aprender sobre el tema. Pasaron algunos meses, hasta que la mamá de una amiga de la iglesia fue brutalmente golpeada. Entonces me enfrenté cara a cara con la violencia hacia la mujer. Lo más triste fue que cuando pedimos ayuda en la iglesia existieron muchos comentarios, pero el que más recuerdo fue: “pues es que ella estaba haciendo cosas no muy correctas, es su consecuencia”. Eso, lo dijo una mujer. No pude más que bajar la cabeza, sentir tristeza y coraje.

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Relief Society Lesson 7: Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Witnesses for Christ

Joseph and Hyrum 2I still remember on my mission, one particular day when one particular investigator told my companion and me that he admired many things about our church, and had many LDS friends whose families and lives he respected, but that there was one thing he could not get over: we worshipped Joseph Smith. We tried to explain the distinction, that we worship God and Jesus Christ, but are grateful for Joseph Smith because he helped us know Them more. We also brought in ancient prophets who helped us do the same.

And then my companion said a prayer. She began it, “Dear Heavenly Father,” and closed it, “In the name of Joseph Smith. Amen.” I was mortified, and thought this guy would never believe the story we just told, or that 99.99999999999% of Mormon prayers end, “In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” My companion told me later that she was nervous. I told her that it was fine. And it was, mostly, but the issue that the man raised is an important one, because it is a real concern for many people.

I thought of it again when I first read the 7th chapter in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual: “Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Witnesses for Christ.” And I thought of some questions. Let us keep them in mind as we consider this lesson.

  • Why do we sometimes focus so much on Joseph Smith?
  • What can we learn from his life, that can help us in our own?
  • What can we learn from Hyrum’s life? (He is included in this lesson too.)
  • What can we learn from their relationship.
  • What can we learn from their willingness to be martyrs for Christ’s sake?
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From the Backlist: Favorite Quotes by Women about Leadership

Nobody-cares-if-you-cant-dance-well.-Just-get-up-and-dance.-Great-dancers-are-not-great-because-of-their-technique-they-are-great-because-of-their-passion-Martha-Graham-quoteApril: My daughter’s PTA just sent an email saying they are decorating her school with quotes about leadership. The email listed 17 quotes and asked if anyone had any other quotes to suggest. All 17 quotes are by men. I think I need to make a lot of suggestions to balance it out. Anyone have any fave quotes by women about leadership? It looks like anything related to vision, hard work or integrity counts.

Deborah:  This is from a rotating list of quotes I used to have in up in my classroom:

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