A Good Thought
April 25, 2013
At various times throughout the past year, people have told me that they’re praying for me. Depending on who it is, I might say thank you and not think much about it, or I might seethe about the way it’s said as if it is a big honor for me and sure to reap great benefits. People mean well, or most of them do, but I have wildly fluctuating levels of tolerance for the smug certainty that prayer in general and their prayers in particular are superior to a plate of brownies or a phone call or a hug or a ride to Crossfit.
I used to pray. To be honest, if I were born five hundred years ago I probably would have joined a contemplative order. I might have striven to be like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila: I could have communed with God and then written about it. I’m not sure I ever really believed that my prayers were answered, though, or even heard. I always tried make them as unspecific as possible, so as not to put God on the spot: thy will be done kinds of prayers.
Now, whatever vestigial belief I once harbored in the efficacy of prayer has left me. There are too many unanswered calls, too many people who have fallen to their knees to no avail. One mom at Newtown “got a miracle.” Another, just as desperate, just as worthy, got her child in a casket. God can’t perform a miracle without deliberately withholding one from someone else. Fuck that.
I can’t say “I’m praying for you” and mean it anymore, so I have to say something else. During the liminal period, when I had one foot in and one foot out of the church, I worried that to say “I’m thinking about you” was pallid and inadequate, and I felt guilty when I used the phrase. Wouldn’t it be better, more powerful, if I could pray for someone? My feelings about “I’m thinking about you” remain mixed. I like that it’s human. It doesn’t pass the heavy lifting off to a deity I no longer believe in.
On the other hand, is there a more passive verb than “to think?” Thoughts are like clouds, as they say in yoga; they have no weight, they appear and then pass. Do these thoughts, by themselves, do anything?
Yogis say they are sending you love and light. When a childhood friend’s mother died in December, I thought about using the love and light locution in the note I wrote to him, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to sound pretentious. I’m not feeling like much of a yogi these days, and I was never what you’d call all in. I guess you could say that I stand in a lot of doorways. Instead I said, “sending love to your family.” But what does that mean? What did I actually do, besides write the email and press send?
People who are serious about these kinds of rituals might argue that, properly performed, they do constitute an action. To pray you may bow your head or close your eyes to focus your attention. It requires discipline and you have to practice to be any good at it. In yoga you actually have to go to the mat and send the love and the light.
On December 16 I set an intention at my yoga class and I sent all of my energy to Newtown, CT. I felt small and pathetic when I did it. But what more was there for me to do? They had enough stuffed animals and balloons.
I may still have a contemplative nature, but in the last year I’ve become a lot more appreciative of the doers in this world. When Balthazar died, not one of the unchurched parents of Glencoe Elementary told me they were praying for me. Yet the food and the cards and the flowers kept coming.
I have a friend who grew up in a tradition in which they said, “I’m holding a good thought for you.” This is my new favorite expression, one I think I can authentically use. It’s active: something must be held. Something very simple and completely straightforward: a good thought. The thought is nestled in the palm like a beautiful pebble, with all of the warmth and protection that the verb “to hold” conveys. It is carried and maintained with intent, and for as long as the person needs.
I had to call my mother again this week for another address to write another condolence note: a childhood friend of mine died suddenly on April 19.
My first memory of Thad was the day he ate the bug so we could get out of swim practice. I’m pretty sure it was his idea, though in retrospect it was a pretty stupid thing for our coach, who was probably all of twenty, to allow. He probably didn’t believe that Thad would really do it. He did. Our chagrined coach was forced to release us.
We were maybe nine years old.
We were Lakeside teammates for ten years. I took the intensity of what we were doing for granted; it was all I had ever known. I didn’t realize until much later how indelible an experience it was. How I’ll feel a lifelong bond with those people no matter how much time passes, no matter how far our lives diverge.
He wasn’t a close friend. But for those ten years I saw him more than I saw my own family. Every day, often twice a day. Weekend trips with long bus rides and endless meets followed by dinners at family-style restaurants, cheap motels policed by parent chaperones. He was cooler than me, but he was never a bully. He was a good guy. He was my teammate.
Thad was the friend whose mother died in December. I’m very glad that I sent him that message, though I dithered about sending it, though I worried about the words I chose. Now I have to choose other words, to send to his father.
So today I’m holding a good thought for Thad’s family. I have it here, and I’ll keep it as long as it’s needed.