Prayers from the Nonreligious

Life is full of tragedy. It’s also full of happiness and light, and for that we can take comfort, but there’s simply no denying or escaping life’s sorrow.

In fact, I believe that to endure it is part of what makes us human. Our tragedies, both individual and shared, lead to periods of reflection and evaluation. They are the impetus for change and growth, adding a new layer to our unique stories and redirecting the trajectories of our lives. No matter the degree, grief and anguish do not leave us unscathed. Though the wounds may heal, tragedy cuts deep. It transforms us and often rightfully compels us to redefine ourselves.

It’s easy, of course, to so blithely describe tragedy given the benefit of time and distance. In the moment, tragedy leaves us raw and aching. It’s awful and, in many cases, unavoidable. Melancholy, restlessness, misery, depression, illness, separation, violence, loss; tragedy presents itself in various ways. It is simultaneously relatable and singular. It is abundant.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve matured into a more cognizant member of society. Perhaps it’s because I’m of a certain age and my peers and I now have real adult responsibilities and problems, like divorce or aging parents. Perhaps it’s simply more prevalent now than ever before, though I sincerely doubt that. It’s clear to me, regardless of why, that tragedy is everywhere and affects everyone to some extent at some point.

As a decent human being with self-diagnosed heightened levels of empathy–it should come as no surprise to hear that I’m a deeply emotional being–my chest hurts when someone I care about is suffering. I am keenly aware of how it feels to have a heavy heart and am grateful to whomever first coined the term as it is incredibly apt in many circumstances. I try my best to listen and help, or, at the very least, let that person know I’m there for support. But depending on the situation, saying “I’m here for you” just doesn’t seem like enough. Finding the proper words, however, is tough.

Beyond offering to “be there” for someone, my first instinct is usually to say that I’m “thinking and praying” for them as well. They’re words I grew up saying and somehow continue to feel right because they suggest that I’m spending a good deal of mental and emotional energy trying to conjure positive and supportive vibes. The problem, though, is that I’m no longer religious and don’t technically “pray” either.

While many of the people to whom I say this may not know this fact about me, those who do may wonder about my choice of words. Over time, I’ve become hesitant to use them, often leaving out “prayer” altogether at the risk of sounding irreverent or disingenuous, especially to those who are also nonreligious. Neither is the case; I am very sincerely issuing some sort of prayer to the universe about that person and his or her situation. It’s just that my version of a prayer is not directed to any single god or any god at all, necessarily.

My history with religion is not all that unique or interesting. Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up Catholic but lost my connection to it for a variety of reasons. I’ve dabbled with other forms of Christianity, mostly to be supportive of family members who are religious, and have tremendously enjoyed the sense of community I feel in each church I’ve attended. I don’t have anything against organized religion (unless it’s a church that spreads harmful rhetoric, in which case I’m very much against it) or people who take part in one; I respect the people for whom it works.

I understand that there are many reasons one might be drawn to a particular religion. I also appreciate that, for many, religion provides a great moral guidepost. It’s possible my own morality was partially derived from the religion in my upbringing (though I attribute it to my parents, family, and community). I even admit that the current pope seems like a pretty relaxed and open-minded guy (finally!). I’m thrilled that many religious sects are becoming more accepting of all walks of life, all religious affiliations, and all identities, sexual and otherwise. In my opinion, the ones that don’t are doing a disservice to religion in general. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t want to delve any more into religion as a concept. I’m not here to talk about its presence, or the lack thereof, in my life.

I’m simply here to convey that I’m not being disrespectful or facetious when I tell someone who is going through a hard time that they’re “in my prayers.” I don’t think my non-believing (or not-sure-about-believing) should affect the weight of my words; to me, religious is not synonymous with goodness. A good person is a good person and their good intentions should be taken at face value. This is why I take no offense to someone who relays these words to me, either.

So please, if I tell you that I’m thinking of and praying for you, know that I am neither pushing religion down your throat nor belittling your belief system; I’m just thinking of you deeply.

I may not be sending my prayers to any specific or commonly accepted deity, but I do believe in the gods of healing, kindness, grace, and mercy. It is to those whom I am sending my thoughts. To you, I send compassion. I hope you are able to find solace in my words and in knowing that you are not alone in your despair.

To anyone experiencing some kind of tragedy as you are reading this, know that I see you, I feel you, and I recognize your pain. My sincerest thoughts and prayers are with you.

A Reminder That Some Tragedies Are Avoidable

Though not my original intent, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to end today’s post without acknowledging the fact that many of the tragedies we see today are within our means to avoid. For instance–a big instance–the implementation of simple, common-sense laws may actually help decrease the frequency of gun violence. It’s after such violence that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is truly insufficient, so much so that the words themselves have become trite when spoken by a politician who has the real power to effect change and instead offers insincere regards.

Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. Twenty. five. Our gun-obsessed culture combined with the oversize presence of gun lobby money flooding our political system has created a real problem with real consequences. We, as Americans, laud our country as the land of greatness and opportunity, a real powerhouse on the global stage. Yet we do not even come close to comparing to the rest of the world in terms of gun safety. Instead, we rank among the top in terms of gun violence. With such a strong-arm reliance on guns in our twisted-priority culture, are we really the land of the free? I’d argue that until we can send our kids to school without the fear that they won’t return, the answer is no.

While many of you, my dear readers, are of like mind and have no need for the reminder, I do think it prudent to add that this is not about taking away guns. Instead, it’s about making it really hard to acquire them and about keeping them out of the hands of people with a history of violence or who are unfit to handle them safely or responsibly. At the end of the day, a gun is a weapon designed to kill. We mustn’t forget that.

Readers, it’s already way past “too late.” As a result, people are dying–our kids are dying–because of our inability to do our jobs, as adults, to protect them. Don’t let those people die for nothing, readers. Take action now. You better believe that when it’s in my power to offer more than “thoughts and prayers,” I do.

 

 

 

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Hard is Hard

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Today I sat down and started writing a post about infertility, specifically what not to say to someone struggling with it.

Infertility is an emotionally loaded topic and one that is tough to unravel. Despite it being profoundly common–one in eight couples has difficulty conceiving or sustaining a pregnancy–infertility still carries a stigma. While it really sucked to have to deal with it myself, I like to share my experience to help break down the walls that make it so. Maybe I can help other infertile couples, or, almost more importantly, help their support networks feel better equipped to provide the kind of support the couple needs. 

But that is neither here nor there. As I was writing the post, something made me pause. When dealing with infertility, one of the most frustrating things people told me was that they “understood completely” what we were going through. As I was trying to describe why, it occurred to me that this frustration is not exclusive to infertility. This is something we all face in some way or another.

You know those memories that make you cringe when you recall them? Even years later, I feel nauseated when I think of some of the stupid, insensitive things I’ve said and done. I like to think I’m a good person, and that my friends and family know I would never try to make them feel bad. If we were purely logical beings, it wouldn’t be a problem because we wouldn’t take everything to heart. But we are human beings, and emotions are fortunately or unfortunately part of the package.

Humans are programmed to empathize. We thrive on forming connections to better understand, relate to, and support each other. But empathy is tricky. Unless we’ve experienced exactly what someone else is going through, we’d often be better off trying to show sympathy, and showing compassion for that person’s struggle instead of trying to relate to it our own.

In the case of infertility, I didn’t want people telling me that they understood because it took them “four whole months” to conceive. I also didn’t want people telling me that they understood but that we were lucky because it took them “much longer.” Either one seemed to downplay the pain I was feeling. I just wanted to wallow in a little self-pity and experience my struggle for what it was to me. I wanted someone to say they were there for me and that it sucked. That it must be hard for me. That self-pity may not have been healthy, but it was important that my emotions and feelings were validated for what they were.

Basically, I didn’t want my difficulty being compared on some kind of scale to what someone else had experienced.

Just by nature, when we empathize, we compare. We relate what we are hearing to what we know. Don’t get me wrong, we need empathy. Many of us have experienced similar things and it does feel good to talk about them. Therapeutic even. But here’s what I’ve come to realize:

Hard isn’t relative. Hard is hard.

Just because what we struggle with is different and may carry different consequences doesn’t mean one thing is easier than the other. Even when dealing with my own challenges, there is no need to belittle my current feelings because something I dealt with in the past was “harder.” It was hard then and it is hard now. This is true for anything: loss, illness, relationship struggles, weight gain, weight loss, trying to quit a bad habit, etc.; the list goes on and on. It doesn’t matter, and that’s the most eye-opening part of this realization for me.

Sometimes bad news is awkward to hear. We often don’t know what to say or how to respond, so we stammer out the first thing that pops into mind. We mean well, of course, but a lot of times whatever we say is just not helpful. In a lot of ways we’re automatically programmed to find common ground when instead we should accept that our problems aren’t relative to each other. They are problems and they are hard. Period.

The idea of giving ourselves space to feel what we feel is freeing. It’s important to know that when someone does compare your hard situation to one of theirs, they are most likely trying to be helpful. We’re all just trying to relate to each other, so there’s no point in harboring resentment. It doesn’t matter if what you are going through seems to you to be miles ahead of where they are; hard is hard.

Similarly, we should cut ourselves some slack when feeling guilty because we can’t relate to someone else’s challenge. It’s okay to sympathize and not quite understand. You don’t need to apologize for your life’s challenges or lack thereof. At some point, you’ve surely faced some kind of problem. It doesn’t matter to what degree we experience pain or sorrow; hard is hard. We don’t have to live the same lives to support and acknowledge each other.

Most of the time, no matter the struggle, we’d be better off just saying, “I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I am here for you.” Accepting and practicing this would probably make all of our relationships richer.

From now on, I pledge to do my best to put this revelation into practice. When my friends and family are struggling, I want to be there for them in a supportive way and will try not unintentionally diminish or undermine their feelings by comparing my struggles to theirs, even if I’m just trying to connect with them. Instead, I will try to be better at lending a sympathetic ear and acknowledging their struggle at face value, without figuring out how it fits in my own life’s spectrum of difficult experiences.

Let’s all embrace that life can be hard, no matter what “hard” means to you. We’re all just trying to figure out what it all means anyway. There’s no sense in making in making that harder.