In yet another scientific study that tells us something we already knew, research to be published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that prayer calms anger. In the study, participants who received demeaning comments on an essay they wrote displayed less anger and aggression when they were asked to pray for, rather than simply think about, the person who made the insulting comments. This anger management effect held despite religious affiliation or frequency of church attendance. According to study co-author Brad Bushman, “prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally.”
How, I wonder, can this study constitute what the article describing it calls “emerging research”? In Matthew 5:44, we are told Jesus counsels us to “pray for those who persecute you”? I was not aware that Jesus’s injunction to adopt the benevolent perspective of disapproving the action but not the person required scientific validation. Who knew an empirical basis was necessary? I always thought the truth of it was self-evident. And how, I wonder, do the results of this study differ from the advice many of us received when young to count to 10 when angered, precisely to avoid responding in kind? As a newly-fledged teen, I had, as they say, anger issues, which, of course, I blamed on the temperament I had inherited from the Italian side of my family. My mother, much too wise to countenance a my-ethnicity-made-me-do-it excuse for a personal failing, finally took me to task for my volatile and incendiary temper, offering this advice, her version of the count-to-10 rule:
“Jerry, what’s the most pleasant thing you can think of”?
“Well, I guess that Little League game where I struck out the side with nine pitches. Seven fastballs, two curves.”
“OK; the next time you feel yourself getting angry, think of that, think of those nine pitches, and if you’re really angry, like you might lose control, think of the person you’re angry at as one of the three you’ve struck out and sent back to the dugout.”
Fifty years later, I still use that strategy. It works. It works as well as prayer did for the study participants. In fact, I would argue that the technique my mom advised is a form of prayer.
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I’m sure I scandalized a rather religious-minded colleague recently when, during a conversation we were having about prayer, he asked me if I prayed.
“Kind of,” I replied.
“How do you `kind of’ pray? What do you ask God for?”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t really pray to God, and I don’t really ask for things. Emerson says that kind of prayer `is meanness and theft.’”
“Jesus specifically says in John that `You may ask for anything in my name, and I will do it.’”
“Yeah,” I said, unable to resist a bit of Scripture-quote jousting, “but in Mark He says `whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’ See, that ‘believe that you have received it’ is a kind of qualification. It’s more about the psychological stance than a divine gift. If your prayers are answered, it’s more you than God.”
“Well, but how can you pray even ‘kind of’ if you don’t pray to God? Isn’t prayer by definition addressed to God? I mean, if not to God, who do you pray to? And if not for things, what do you pray for?”
“Myself, for myself.”
He made a noise in his throat, as if a particularly spiny piece of mesquite was lodged there, and, despite my not having denied the existence of God or the value of prayer or even the imprecatory nature of it, he walked off, convinced, I fear, that my heretical assertions made me a fit subject for police surveillance.
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The best prayer I know was written by one of the most spiritual persons I am acquainted with: Henry David Thoreau. Here is Thoreau’s prayer:
Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye. And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends,
Howe'er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou'st distinguished me. That my weak hand may equal my firm faith
And my life practice what my tongue saith
That my low conduct may not show
Nor my relenting lines
That I thy purpose did not know
Or overrated thy designs.
Thoreau’s “Prayer” may seem irreverently self-regarding, but it really asks for nothing more than the courage of his “firm faith,”—the courage to avoid hypocrisy, the courage to persist in it despite his friends’ disappointment that he hasn’t adopted a career and made a life for himself, the courage to neither underrate nor exaggerate the end for which he believes the created order was intended. Thoreau’s “Prayer” is really about seeing himself clearly and being himself clearly, not as others “think or hope” him to be. He purposely uses the word “discern,” which, etymologically, means “to sift apart,” and the sifting he has in mind is a rigorous, truth- telling kind of self-analysis that reveals how well his life accords with the gifts by which he has been “distinguished.” In short, I take the prayer’s theme to be contained in the second line: “that I may not disappoint myself.” It was this appeal I had in mind when I told my colleague that I prayed to myself for myself.
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Henry Ward Beecher is surely right when he says “It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.” Herman Melville may be right when he says that prayer “draws us near to our own souls.” It depends, as so much does, on how one defines “soul,” and whether that definition occupies the space of a leaflet or the wide-ranged expanse of a novel. But I particularly admire Frederick Douglass’s resolutely unmetaphysical perspective: he prayed, he tells us, for twenty years for freedom, and his prayer went unanswered “until I prayed with my legs.” Prayer as doing, not seeking to receive; prayer as remastering a higher fidelity version of the scratchy vinyl we tend to become; prayer as mustering the energy to better ourselves, to strain, like a dandelion pushing itself up through the tarred gravel of a macadam road, toward the summer florescence of our full potential.
We are limited beings, physically and cognitively, but that it hardly a flaw. It simply means we can create the best self it is in us to be, and not some other self. Lucifer fell from heaven; our fall was garden-level. We can, as poet Amy Clampett says, “fall upward.” We are not neurochemicaled; we are not DNAified. “Human limits structure human virtue,” Martha Nussbaum points out, “and give excellent action its significance.” I pray that I don’t disappoint myself. I pray to articulate and reflect on what I am, what I can be, and how to bridge the difference.