When I was young, and Catholic, and learning the world was awful, I leaned into two things to be OK with it.
1) God is going to bring justice in the afterlife.
2) The belief that I could have some effect on far-off suffering by praying about it.
I prayed a lot. I remember praying about poverty, homelessness, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, car accidents, people in my social networks, Africa, AIDS, people wrongfully convicted, various illnesses… I was really bothered by stuff as a kid.
As I became older, and significantly less Catholic, and significantly more aware of the abundance of suffering in the world (shout out to the adults in my life during childhood for doing a decent making sure I was sheltered from that in an age-appropriate way), I struggled to cope. Without heaven or an arbitrating higher power, it seemed that terrible things just happened, usually unanswered. And without a higher power who could bend the wills of people, there really was truly little to nothing I could do to affect a person’s suffering far away.
Then there was the whole realization that we all have free will. If this higher power existed in the manner the stories of my youth suggested it did, well it’s just sitting back and doing what exactly? Also what does an all powerful being care about me in particular, one of seven billion, in a universe so vast? Really? All of these sounded like pretty self-serving stories of a race of beings seeking to create meaning in a context of a lack of understanding of science and mechanics and how people operate. This was my descent into agnosticism.
So I came to a point where I believed petitioning a higher power was pointless because it seemed most likely that if one existed, we don’t understand it, and I’m not so sure it does exist.
…I did not stop praying. Old habits die hard, especially the stress crutches. Usually when I screwed something up. Usually when I felt inadequate. Usually when I felt like I was failing or needed to be better.
In that way, praying shifted from my efforts to right the world to my efforts to right myself, to take a minute to assess in what ways I am deficient and figure out ways to do better.
“God grant me the wisdom to figure this out.”
“God grant me the bravery to see this through.”
“God grant me the humility to admit I was wrong.”
“God grant me the patience to endure this tension.”
“God grant me the calm to get through this conflict.”
“God grant me the grace to forgive to those who’ve hurt me.”
Who’s this God that’s going to make me a better person? Uh. Hmmm. Well… Details, details.
I do not think I am actually talking to anyone so much as I am indirectly talking to myself. I am petitioning some nonexistent force for assistance to tap-into the nonexistent better version of myself. Nonexistent because I am, and always will be, just me. I belong to the universe, I effect the universe, and maybe this is one way of pausing and letting it affect me. Or I am just talking to myself.
Talking to one’s self is the domain of children but listen: they are on to something. This works.
I think my prayers are more effective now.