Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Prayer for Atheists

I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my younger and more vulnerable years I could measure the value of life in amounts of hoardable material. Living could be tallied and assessed. Then at some point I noticed that love had coated the machinery of reason with an insistence of intangibles. The arbitrary basis for value eroded the illusion of precise transitions from one level of measure to another.

Events fought each other for importance across the swaying span of my attention. Some events dislodged by more powerful images would scream as they plummeted into the yawning abyss beneath that span. Sometimes an event that had barely edged out onto the span before being flung over would bounce against the stony walls that anchor the span; in the sound of the impacts (and often a muffled splash) would be a name that I had forgotten. I've always been very poor at remembering names.

How can I look into someones eyes long enough for minutes to turn awkward and back again yet not remember the color of those eyes? How can I remember the warmth of a quickening pulse, yet not remember the temperature of the room, or the color of the room, or even if there was a room at all?

Some of the more powerful events that cross the span of my attention are armored in irritation and insult. This armor acts like the magic plus-ten possession of some upper-level Dungeons-and Dragons hero who slashes across the span knocking level one players to their death; he gains levels and power at the expense of the more delicate events.

I would like that span to be wider, and more solid. There are so many events that I would have coaxed across that span that I would be better served with a golden-gate Brooklyn bridge of an attention instead of the rope-and-plank footbridge with which I make due. It would also be nice if it could better accommodate two-way traffic.

This past long weekend I spent many hours talking to people who called themselves Christians. I was reminded repeatedly of why I do this blog. I do not want to attack Christians; I want to tease out from Christianity those human qualities better served through reason. One of the things I would love to steal from Christians is prayer.

Talk to a Christian about an emotional subject for a few minutes and they will bring up praying. One might get the impression that every good Christian must pray a dozen or more hours a day. Some give to prayer a magical power to effect reality, but even those who equivocate on the idea of breaking the law of gravity with a few hail-Marys are convinced of the usefulness of prayer. The atheist will usually ask (and reasonably so): “How useful can something be if it does not do anything”.

The most common use of prayer is as an expression of powerless interest. The statement that “I will pray that [something good] will happen to [someone]” expresses interest in some positive future without commitment to the activities required to realize that future. I say things like this all the time. I would like many things to occur in the future which I am unable (and often simply unwilling) to substantively help realize. Such statements are a nice part of a conversation, and they sound more genuine when the word “pray” is used instead of something flaccid like “hope”. I would love to have a cool word like “pray” to use in conversations.

However, prayer is more than a knockoff phrase. It is a practice. Using it in reference to special events helps to secure their passage across the span of attention. Resolving the details of an event in order to pray for its resolution helps speeds it's passage. Making time to re-examine a day's events may widen the span a tad, and increase the safety of an event's passage.

There are so many people who touched me this weekend. I would like to write about every one of them in detail, but I cannot.  There too many folks who I would love to write about touching me in detail this weekend, but I missed them.

One man told me of a story involving motorcycles and kids. It was a bikers-for-Jesus gang that brought nurturing and attention into the lives of marginalized kids. On-and-on he went about the differences they were trying to make. When he mentioned Jesus and I mentioned being an atheist the conversation did not skip a beat. He spoke of praying for these kids, and of how he remembered their names. I would tell you his name, but I've forgotten it.

One older woman told me of her second diagnosis of breast cancer. It had been a decade since her first. I may remember her name, but the particulars of her children and grandchildren and loved ones who would be affected were lost behind the film of air that held back her watery eyes as she described her tentative fear. She spoke of praying for strength, and the ability to “make it through”. When I touched her hand and said “you've made it here, and from here you will go places that will be better because you are there” she found a misplaced smile. When she mentioned Jesus and I mentioned being an atheist the conversation did not skip a beat.

Because we have evolved to know each other there are bonds between people.

Some people have suggested that the span of attention can be propped up with moderation in  emotion.  That if we rigidly sandwich our attention between abortive sorrow and short-winded elation it would serve us better.  In some ways it may be poor logistics management to allow a crushingly diverse press of bodies to try and cross my span of attention.  I do not know how many more dreams lie broken at the bottom of that abyss because of my aversion to closing my eyes, but it is no small quantity.

Not everything from this weekend has made it across my attention span. I would like to have brought more across. Perhaps I should more closely examine one psychological tool that might help facilitate that.


Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jones said...

Jones said...
The attitude of the "mystery" of attention and its magnitude as a function of emotional connection seems echoed by that talking heads song - once in a lifetime.
I like this permutation of it.
"regardless of what any of us are, we're all human"

adult onset atheist said...

Someday Mr Jones, I hope we may all be part of a greater humanist culture.