An atheist wrote to an advice columnist for feedback on how to convince his grieving family that prayer is “mumbo jumbo” after the man’s brother was diagnosed with cancer a week earlier. The atheist never expected the response he received.
The non-believer, who goes by the pen name “Not gonna pray,” asked Andrew W.K of the Village Voice for some advice.
“My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news,” the individual wrote Andrew W.K. “Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just ‘pray for my brother,’ like prayer would actually save his life.”
W.K. responded, saying he was “deeply sorry” about the brother’s diagnosis but explained that the “idea of ‘praying’ is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize.”
The columnist continued with the most inspirational advice and explanation even a believer may have never considered — until now:
Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.
Being humble is very hard for many people because it makes them feel unimportant and helpless. To embrace our own smallness is not to say we’re dumb or that we don’t matter, but to realize how amazing it is that we exist at all in the midst of so much more. To be fully alive, we must realize how much else there is besides ourselves. We must accept how much we don’t know — and how much we still have to learn — about ourselves and the whole world. Kneeling down and fully comprehending the incomprehensible is the physical act of displaying our respect for everything that isn’t “us.”
W.K. is not a pastor or a religious leader. In fact, he refers to himself as the “king of partying,” which makes his dissertation on the basic element of faith all the more powerful. W.K. concluded with four insightful paragraphs that will bring you to your knees:
Many of us worked for years to build up our idea of the world and who we are in it. We’ve clung ever more tightly to the idea of what is true and what is false. We’ve toiled and schemed to get what we need to “be happy,” and to gain the sense of security that comes with “figuring things out” and “making it.” We do that by building a better and stronger protective shell to shield us from the painful horrors of the unknown.It can be too painful to even imagine, after all those years of effort, simply abandoning our carefully crafted structures, and stepping into the immense chasm of the uncharted and unknowable. And now, it’s time to take it.
I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn’t exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.
I want you to think of your love for him. Your fear of him dying. Your feeling of powerlessness. Your feelings of anger and frustration. Your feelings of confusion. You don’t need to ask to get anything. You don’t need to try and fix anything. You don’t need to get any answers. Just focus on every moment you’ve ever had with your brother. Reflect on every memory, from years ago, and even from just earlier today. Let the feelings wash over you. Let the feelings take you away from yourself. Let them bring you closer to him. Let yourself be overwhelmed by the unyielding and uncompromising emotion of him until you lose yourself in it.
Think about him more than you’ve ever thought about anyone before. Think about him more deeply and with more detail than you’ve ever thought about anything. Think about how incredible it is that you have a brother — that he exists at all. Focus on him until you feel like your soul is going to burst. Tell him in your heart and soul that you love him. Feel that love pouring out of you from all sides. Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.
Sometimes the best advice comes from the most unlikely sources, not a pew bench, or delivered from a pulpit. W.K’s words here are powerful and hopefully bring about change and understanding in this advice-seeker’s life.