JULY 14, 2011 9:01AM

Prayer

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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.

 

    *     *     *     *     *     *     *

 

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.

 

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *

 

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:

 

 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. 

 

    *     *     *     *     *     *     * 

 

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.              

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Common sense that people have known forever. Stop, breathe, get away from the problem. If prayer is your method, so be it. Me, I listen to music, and ask not to be bothered. Music soothes the savage scanner. (I came into a baseball game in relief one time and saved a game with 3 strike-outs. All fast balls. I got mobbed. What a great memory)
Wait, do I understand that research has now shown that taking a moment to think of something positive before doing something negative may lessen the negativity. Astounding. (I have no confidence in "Prayer" as a conduit to higher beings. I do, however, have confidence that correct thinking is a conduit to correct action.
"I pray to articulate and reflect on what I am, what I can be, and how to bridge the difference. " I'm printing this and putting it so I can read it every day. Always a great pleasure to read you.
Ever since I learned what the Arabic prayers I was taught in my childhood meant, I don't pray in the traditional sense. Yet I do pray for guidance and for seeing and following the light and doing justice to myself and those around me. I like Martha Nussbaum's words. Your prayer reminds me of the "serenity prayer" which I try to live. Thank you for sharing this, Jerry. ♥R
A superb post. Prayer is for the self, empirically. Well-designed studies in the last few decades have debunked that we have anything like "spooky action at a distance" powers, much less that there's anyone out there to read petitions and act on them. And the moral failure of the prayer concept -- the only truly moral prayer is " save the children of (Congo, Darfur, Rio, e al)" -- is manifest to critical thinkers; all other prayers would be a tragic waste of this theoretical power. Akin to praying that the weather clears or that our rations hold or that the rescue ship has strawberry ice cream while children keep falling off the life raft.

But you surprise and reward the reader here (and with a fine blend of the personal, in this essay) by focusing on how pertinent is the calming sensation of prayer. How prayer helps us to forbear, and wait a bit, and diffuses our temptation to be rabid. You make me think. As a non-believer I refuse to give up any aspect of belief that benefits us -- belief that is, after all, just a subset of the whole of human experience and ability.
Yes. Pray to the `What's unmentionable. Pray to a cosmic buttered muffin.

Pray with local cut peaches up Mennonite Women. I met some Monks/Nuns.
No evoke pride.
I like this post.
Read literature.
Psalter were into observation of Nature in all Nature's diverse unfolding, and `
`
Diversification.
Phenomenal.
Magnificence.
I was given a tape. If I get a Woody Guthrie tape - I wear it out with repeat use. Lyrics. `
`
I listened to this:
`
Faire is the heaven where happy People have Place. In full enjoyment of felicity.

Where they behold a glorious face of the Divine. Eternal. Majestic.

Yet faire more be those bright Cherub face which with golden wings.

And the most eternal burning Seraphins dart out Fiery Light. Yet`
`
Yet fairer than they both and much more bright Be th`Angels and`
`
Archangels, which attend and preserve/protect with care and rest.

These are the faire each other farrier excelling, as to that Highest`
`
They approach more nearer. Yes it is sometimes far beyond awe`
`
telling.
Farrier than all the rest which previously appeared. Though Beauty`
`
Beauties joy together are there together

How ca one mortal tongue hope to express.
The image of such endless perfectness `ness.
`
(I listened to that repeatedly in my P.U. truck.)
The Wager - Blaise Pascal writes like prof you.
Professor. Yea. If none hear a prayer? O well.
It may edify the inner `Spirit. It's in poems,
ad vast other secular/humanistic literature.
We part human. We are part god/human
If we don't believe in God. Believe in dogs.
Everybody believes in cat, dogs, and bees
OK, then, Mr. DeNuccio. Fair enough. **speaks into wireless device to Holy Surveillance Central: "Disconnect DeNuccio. He's clean."**

Amen.
I had never read Thoreau's prayer and I am an admirer. Thank you for bringing it to my attention and I will be referring to it from here on out.
Log onto OS and get a new perspective on something I have been struggling with for years. Thank you for this - R
I am not religious, I do not pray. I think a great deal about the terrible things that happen in this world, terrible things that are done for terrible reasons and are absolutely unnecessary and it generates a good deal of anger. That anger can be self destructive or it can generate strong energies that can perhaps accomplish good things. There are some things it is very important to get very angry about.
I am not religious, I do not pray. I think a great deal about the terrible things that happen in this world, terrible things that are done for terrible reasons and are absolutely unnecessary and it generates a good deal of anger. That anger can be self destructive or it can generate strong energies that can perhaps accomplish good things. There are some things it is very important to get very angry about.
Sorry about the double post. For that I beg forgiveness.
In my "prayers," to my "Higher Power," which I feel exists in the deepest part of the self that is connected with the spirit underlying the entire cosmos," I ask for help with my spiritual/creative self, relationships, work, health, and practical matters loike finances. My concept of Higher Power is broad because i am simply not sure of the "shape' of spiritual reality...I appreciate this post...
I must copy and paste this post and then frame it and hang it where I can read it every day.
Jerry, enjoyed your personal prayer using your past baseball success. I would have added beaning someone myself but it was still good. The problem with the study claiming prayer calms anger is that they never define what prayer is. To many, the word prayer has a theist connotation but the same results-calming- as you point out so well, could be had by praying to Hailey's Comet, Zeus, or George Carlin. Anyone who quotes Thoreau is a friend of mine!

I have one complaint, however. We you write things like this: "like a dandelion pushing itself up through the tarred gravel of a macadam road, toward the summer florescence of our full potential," it provokes the feeling that you are using some elegant, ivory calligraphy pen to create phrases and images and I am using a jumbo crayola. Your writing is remarkable and I get to read it for free which is one hell of a deal. Let us all pray for our fellow humans who use reason and evidence to dominate those who worship the supernatural.
Jerry, enjoyed your personal prayer using your past baseball success. I would have added beaning someone myself, but it was still good. The problem with the study claiming prayer calms anger is that they never define what prayer is. To many, the word prayer has a theist connotation but the same results-calming- as you point out so well, could be had by praying to Haley’s Comet, Zeus, or George Carlin. Anyone who quotes Thoreau is a friend of mine!

I have one complaint, however. When you write things like this: "like a dandelion pushing itself up through the tarred gravel of a macadam road, toward the summer florescence of our full potential," it provokes the feeling that you are using some elegant, ivory calligraphy pen to create phrases and images and I am using a jumbo crayola. Your writing is remarkable and I get to read it for free which is one hell of a deal. Let us all pray for our fellow humans who use reason and evidence to dominate those who worship the supernatural. Fantastic post~
I guess I have developed the talent to write in stereo. This site could piss off the Pope.
Interesting, Jerry. My late husband, Chaim Stern, was the liturgist for the reform movement of Judaism, and wrote hundreds, maybe thousands of prayers. To many, prayer offers a healing process and a positive effect. But at a minimum it is truly something to discuss and discuss, as he did for many years. No easy answers. Something which offers solace and peace for many, and not so much for others.
This post makes a lot of sense to me. I understand praying for yourself to help yourself commit the action, it's like a goal sheet for the soul. My prayers are the intentions of my self and I need to take those actions. I also pray as asking, in gratitude, and when I have remorse as it helps me not do something I shouldn't again. I like to read about it because there are things I haven't thought of that may make my life better, and me a better person.

I've had a lot of anger the past two years and it's new to me to feel so much rage. I didn't know what to do with it so I've been praying a lot so I don't blow up. I see a lot of people who go to church that do a lot of things they shouldn't be doing. Maybe they're not praying for those that piss them off. They're probably not praying to feel and behave better either either. Great post, a lot of things for me to think about. Thank you.
Good thoughts. I'm noticing that in the study, which you refer to in the start, the angry person prays for the other. This to me is key in that in doing so, the person shifts from a stance of ego -- and ego is where anger and resentment live.
Thank you for answering your colleague so effectively. I do not pray, but were I to do so, I would not ask for anything but guidance (and a clear signal what it meant). Well, I should be honest: I've pleaded to I don't know what for work. Sometimes the Universe sent it.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to work on some grant proposals for studies we need to have . . .
As I do all of your explorations, I loved this one. The word "pray" is such an inadequate vessel to contain the vast concept of possibility to which you direct our attention.

Also, as usual, your metaphors knock me out. My particular favorite in this post is that of the "scratchy vinyl we tend to become." We can all use some remastering.
Excellent. Literate. In spite of my atheism, Jerry, I pray frequently. I have been doing it for so long that I no longer even consider any inconsistency there might be in that.

The only prayer technique that I know of that you have not covered is this, and I am sorry to say that I cannot attribute this to the author because I have forgotten where I read it. It is a little variation on the "believe that you have received it" angle. I thank God in advance for what I will receive in the future--whatever the hell that may be--and things have always turned out well eventually.

Any time Thoreau is in a blog entry, I will get there eventually.
Thanks for sharing this...you had/have a very wise mom. I pray all the time for myself, others, the world...I know there is no proof that intercessory prayer works, but, still, I can't help myself, can't help believing in it (for the most part, sometimes I do have lots of doubts). Not being a baseball player, it does calm me down, too.

I know many people who do not pray or believe in God, and who are much more upright, kind, productive, morally consistent people than I am...maybe they don't need to pray, they are guided in other ways...logic, insight, good habits, innate social sensitivity?

I like the story you share about Frederick Douglass...ultimately maybe we do need to "pray with our legs" in order for the change we are seeking to manifest itself.

Wonderful post. (And who knew "pelf" was a word...?) :)
Every morning that I wake to see a new day.
Every night with gratitude to have lived another day.
There are not enough prayers to say thanks for the blessings that have come my way.
It's in all of their eyes.
To see what comes next.
Disappointing oneself can lead to more harm than prayer, which is externally aimed--a text message to the universe. Really expect an answer?

But to disappoint oneself is to nurture perfectionism. Which is unattainable. Harping on one's failure to measure up can easily bring on self-hatred and depression.

I'd modify the biblical injunction: As you forgive others (where possible; some acts are so base and permanently hurtful to others, they put the actor beyond forgiveness), forgive yourself.
Ah Jerry, you've written yet another lovely, moving post; your towering intellect, gentle disposition, and honest expression all come together nicely here.

Prayer may work well but I'm going with Scanner on this one. It may not be so much HOW you soothe your inner beast--prayer, music, yoga, alone time-- but THAT you soothe it; that you're attentive to its irrationality and that you refuse to let it run you around.

Focused anger, especially as it relates to true injustice,can lead to action and so has great merit, but fury as a default response is a dead end, not to mention a life shortener.

"What I am, what I can be, and how to bridge the difference"--that's a noble quest right there.