It’s a challenge to “learn” how to hope. There’s no recipe, no map. And yet, that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I confessed that, late at night, the only thoughts that could pacify my staunch sense of hopelessness were those of death and self-harm.
I tried counting backward from 500; listening to talk radio; cross-stitching images of taxi cabs by LED candlelight. Still, the self-loathing, the fear, the emptiness could not be muted. I came to feel as if I was living on a respirator — that my life was somehow forced, unnatural.
Then one night, without even thinking, I whispered aloud: “Please, God, help me.”
This was a strange occurrence, because even though what I said felt quite natural at the time, I identify myself as an atheist: I believe it far more likely that mankind would invent a god than that such a deity might actually exist. Yet I found myself not only praying, but also feeling it was the right thing to do. Suddenly, the need for morbidity faded away. I slept, and slept soundly.
The discord of it all hit me hard me in the morning: Why would a person who doesn’t believe in God engage in a behavior that seems so strongly to indicate otherwise? Perhaps, I thought, belief is like shrapnel embedded in one’s skin; if a person grows up believing in God, she can’t ever truly be rid of long lost convictions. Prayer, then, is a habit we return to in times of stress, like smoking or gorging oneself on junk food. I simply needed a fix — something that didn’t leave ashes or crumbs dusted along my sheets.
But that remains, in my mind, a hollow excuse. After speaking with my old rabbi and a favorite philosophy professor, in addition to reading essays by various theologians and psychologists, I came to understand that prayer isn’t just a regularly programmed appeal to God for health, wealth and an end to world hunger. As psychotherapist Michael J. Formica writes, “prayer is the setting of an intention; it is not a plea, but a resolution.”
From a psychological perspective, prayer is understood in two ways: God is either something outside ourselves to whom we turn as our lives are governed by forces over which we have no control, or God is something inside of us that acts as a touchstone and reminder of who we really are and what we really value. In other words, when we need answers, we either look to whatever or whoever is “out there,” or we call to that which is already within — what some refer to as the divine Self.
The latter understanding of prayer is what most resonated with me; I didn’t feel as if I plead for someone else to step in and manage my discouragement, but that I was asking, perhaps even telling myself to learn how to cope and to hope. Something about that act felt holy, as I was addressing something — call it my spirit or my subconscious — that was more aware of my abilities, what I was capable of, than I could ever possibly be when distracted by pain. I was having a kind of conversation with a stronger, more compassionate version of me.
That sense of speaking to someone who’s not technically (or physically) there is also one reason why people such as atheists might be drawn to prayer: There is statistical scientific reason to believe that when people pray, they feel as if they are engaging in social interaction. If this is the case, it makes sense that depressed or vulnerable individuals might find comfort in what the brain recognizes as a valuable personal exchange. After all, even if one doesn’t believe in God, that doesn’t minimize a very deep-seated need to feel connected to others. If one is deprived of that need, she — or, rather, I — might search for a way to feel like I’m not alone, and that whomever I’m speaking to truly cares for and supports me because that entity truly knows me as I am. (It sounds a bit like therapy, doesn’t it?)
In the end, what I find most amazing is that it’s the person who does me most harm — the one who thinks I’m weak and stupid and forever lost — whom I ask for help. And, in turn, it’s that same person who offers peace, understanding … and the blessing of a good night’s sleep.