Singer-songwriter Andrew W.K. writes an advice column for the Village Voice each week. In his latest column, a reader explained that his brother had come down with cancer and his grandmother suggested the family pray for him:
Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn’t help.
I obviously understand where the reader is coming from, though I don’t think you’re going to change a family member’s mind on prayer especially when a loved one has cancer… But W.K. did a nice job answering the question. At least if you completely redefine prayer:
Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.
He also offered this advice to the reader:
Think about him more than you’ve ever thought about anyone before. Think about him more deeply and with more detail than you’ve ever thought about anything. Think about how incredible it is that you have a brother — that he exists at all. Focus on him until you feel like your soul is going to burst. Tell him in your heart and soul that you love him. Feel that love pouring out of you from all sides. Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.
That’s… nice. But it doesn’t answer the reader’s question. Certainly, telling someone you love them is a wonderful thing. But W.K.’s version of humbling oneself to the vastness of the universe is a very new-age-y way to change, well, nothing. The mental focus may help you deal with a difficult situation, but it won’t get rid of anyone’s cancer.
Meanwhile, I’m assuming the grandmother doesn’t see her prayers as simply some showcase of her humility. She probably wants everyone to make a direct plea to God to change the brother’s circumstances.
I would personally advise the reader to let the grandmother cope as she sees fit, and he should do the same. As much as he’d love to tell his family that prayer won’t help, it’s neither the time nor place. It’s not like everyone’s going to unclasp their hands and say, “Oh! You’re right!”
Focus on the brother. Offer him whatever tangible help you can provide. And don’t let the grandmother’s wishes distract you from making the most of whatever time you may have left with him.