Handling Stressful News as an Atheist

praying hands and bible

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When one is religious, as I used to be, the first thing to do when something goes wrong is to pray. It’s almost a reflex. When you see an ambulance drive by, you bow your head. When you get bad news, you fold your hands. When you’re anxious about something, you lay your troubles at the feet of Jesus.

I’ll admit that I haven’t had many difficult situations to deal with since deconverting. Aside from some test anxiety and performance anxiety before giving some solos for my school’s music program, my life had been pretty calm, until a few months ago. I wrote this post long before the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting reawakened our nation’s fears of terrorism, but I think now’s as good a time as any to further add to the discussion about prayer and what it really does for both the person praying, and the person the intentions are for.

My fiance, who is a generally healthy person, caught a bad sinus infection over the summer. He has a pretty strong immune system, so when he gets sick it typically doesn’t last long. I’ve seen him have a fever for a day and wake up the next morning healthy, so I wasn’t too worried. Then a few days later, I woke up to a phone call from his parents. He had been hospitalized during the night, complaining of chest pains. It turns out, the infection he had was viral, not bacterial, and it moved to his heart. His heart had been significantly weakened, but it was still going. He didn’t have a heart attack, thank goodness. I went to visit him the next day, and he just wanted to go home. He was worried about his health, and significantly weakened, but he was still himself, and that put me at ease more than anything.

Medical situations are some of the worst to face. I’m seeking work now, but that’s an issue I can resolve with clear steps. I know I’m contributing to a solution even if it takes a while. That simply is not the case when a loved one is in the hospital. Nothing I could do myself would make the problem go away, and when you’re religious, that’s a time when prayer is a particularly accessible source of comfort.

Even as an atheist, I was tempted to pray, given the situation, but I resisted that urge; I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I worried about him almost constantly until I saw him. I was still worried up until the moment he was finally discharged, but once I’d visited him, I felt significantly better. It’s a bit like the way I would feel better after praying. I felt like I did the right thing, and like it was a helpful thing to do. I used to think I’d never feel that relief again, but I felt it when I visited him, doing something tangible. In fact, I felt it more strongly than I ever felt with prayer. I knew I was getting personally involved, not simply asking for someone else to do something. Besides, being in a hospital waiting for test results or for an illness to go away is a slow process filled with periods of anxiety and boredom. While it may not have affected the final outcome–he would have gotten well regardless of whether or not I’d showed up–I was able to sit with him for a couple of hours and keep him company, helping the time to pass and at least alleviating some boredom.

Some people argue that prayer makes people feel better, and I’ll admit that it does. I’ve experienced it myself. But now I know that finding some small helpful thing to do–like visiting a sick friend, cooking dinner for a struggling family, or helping someone change a tire–is by far more rewarding to both the person helped AND the do-gooder than prayer. I don’t just feel like I’ve fulfilled an obligation as I would in the case of prayer. I feel like I’ve done what I can do to help. I feel helpful. And I know that feeling is justified because it’s accompanied with action. When something bad happens, whether it’s headline news or something more personal, I hope that as a community of human beings we can all come together and find tangible ways to help.

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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2 thoughts on “Handling Stressful News as an Atheist

  1. It’s important to remember the value of prayer to those who engage in it, as you’ve mentioned. However, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that being present and trying to help out in some way – or just bearing witness to someone’s suffering, as you did – can be just as powerful, if not more so.

    Like

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