I recently received a message from the husband of an acquaintance. It seems that she has cancer. He wanted my email address to put me on a prayer group list. This is the original message to me: “Its A___________, B__________’s husband. I’m trying to build a prayer group list for her to help her during her treatment for Stage 1 Breast Cancer. Can you please send me your email address. Thanks.”
This was my reply:
“A_________, instead of prayer, I’d rather help. I’m only a few blocks away from you and you can call me on my phone at 123-456-7890.”
Fast forward two weeks and this is what I’m receiving in my email inbox with replies from many mutual friends and acquaintances:
Dear Friends of B_____________,
I am reaching out for your prayers and good wishes for our friend, B__________. This summer, B____________ was diagnosed with breast cancer and started chemotherapy this past week….Thankfully it’s stage one, but it is the fast growing type so a great reminder to us all to self-exam and get yearly mammograms….Her first treatment sent her to the ER in the middle of the night….
Please pray for the following:
1) side effects to be minimal
2) the treatment to completely eradicate this disease from her body,
3) B____________ and her family find peace in knowing this will be behind her in 2017.
B____________ is so blessed to have you to reach out to and appreciates your well wishes and prayers.
With love and gratitude from B__________ ——-
Let me first make something very, very clear to everyone who reads my blog. I do not wish cancer on anyone, no matter who they are, what they do or do not worship, what they think is important in politics, whether cisgendered, LGBTQ, or any form of fluidity on the sexual compendium, where they live, where they are from or where their ancestors are from–we are all members of humanity on this planet.
Yet in many areas of the United States and many other countries, it is considered poor form and rude to question someone concerning their religious beliefs. it is also considered rude and crude to discount or reject the religion, whether in discussion or as a request.
It is not rude, however, to ignore the wishes of someone who has asked–in so many words–to not participate in a religiously-motivated event. In truth, the person who has penned this email and, apparently, taken on the leadership and distribution of said email, is one of my favorite people. My guess is she did not want to leave me out of the mix. I understand this sentiment. I’m even trying to justify my addition to the list, despite my wishes.
But this is what atheists (secret or publicly self-described) face on a regular basis: we are confronted with life events which are often presented to us in terms of religion. Such events are routinely experienced in countries with theocratic governments. It is my understanding that the United States is a republic-form of a democracy. We are not a theocracy. Well, technically, we are not suppose to be a theocracy. The First Amendment states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first few words of this amendment are known as the separation of church and state. Not only does it guarantee freedom of religion, it guarantees freedom from religion. That freedom from religion does not translate well in our country and especially in specific, southernly directional states, such as TEXAS.
I know this sounds like it’s all about me and not about my friend who is battling the pain, fear and uncertainty of cancer. Her fight is something that I cannot battle for her. But I have sent a message, letting her family know that I am here to help, and, actually very close. But my request to not be put on a prayer list fell on deaf keyboards.
Now, will it hurt that I was placed on a prayer list? No. It is my bet that several of my friends will also not forward the email, because they know, as do I, that prayer will not hurt, either, but will not help. What we know is that competent doctors and a relevant protocol of chemotherapy and, perhaps, radiation, will change the course of her cancer. Prayer has not, nor will it ever, change the course of a medical condition.
I know. Someone as close to me as possible almost died from a rare condition. This person did not die because we lived in a city with major medical facilities and surgeons, doctors and nurses who had been trained in up-to-the-minute procedures. This person was diagnosed fairly quickly, yet went into septic shock before exploratory surgery to determine the problem. Recovery has been long, emotional, and devastating, moving one step forward and five steps back. We have since discovered that when this condition occurs, the mortality rate is 95%. That’s right–the vast majority of people do not live through the condition. This person lived, not because of prayer groups formed throughout Texas on the behalf of this person, and instigated by many of my relatives throughout the state. This person lived because of competent medical treatment, based on the evidence of histories of drug trials, peer-reviewed studies and medical procedures which included weeks in a drug-induced coma, multiple surgeries and big-gun antibiotics. My loved one experienced this event as a scared, small child. In recent years, more people are living through this condition; not because prayer has gotten better or more potent: no, evidence-based science, in the form of medical advancements are keeping people alive. When this condition happened to my loved one, I did not pray. I read all that I could about the situation and tried to prepare myself for the probable prognosis of losing this person. Instead, we advocated for my loved one to the top administrators of the hospital. Proactive strategies, not prayer, will help those suffering from conditions and diseases. My loved one is a member of the 5% who lived.
This also begs another issue: when people live after undergoing life-altering circumstances, the standard religious answer in this part o’ the country is that Jesus and/or God cured them. I have actually heard this from members of my family. Then, if the afflicted person does not live, it’s because God moves in mysterious ways, or Jesus needed that person in heaven more than we needed that person on earth. If the known atheist, or liberal New Yorker or Californian dies, it’s because God/Jesus/Allah/Pat Robertson is punishing them for their wicked ways.
B__________ will not be cured by this prayer chain. Her recovery will be as a result of the best practices prescribed by some of the most competent oncologists in the Southwest. We live in a city with the number-one rated cancer research hospital in the world. Her medical cohort will cure her, not Jesus, God, Allah, Yahweh, an angel, a bodhisattva, or an intermediary.
I know my friends think they are helping her by praying for her recovery. It’s the least they can do.
Actually, it truly is the least anyone can do.
I will continue to delete the prayer chain emails as they come into my inbox and contact the family to find out what I can do when B__________ is sick in the middle of the night.
Getting around in the fourth largest city in the United States can be a “challenge.” Oil reigns supreme, so true mass transit really does not exist. Sometimes, you have to make due with what you’ve got. Apparently, this person, who does not appear ambulatory, and may not have had immediate access to a vehicle, did the only thing she could do at the time: get out on San Felipe Street–a major thoroughfare–and drive her motorized wheelchair to–well, wherever. In truth, drivers were conciliatory to her plight as traffic slowed to a crawl while she puttered down the street. The driver of this Suburban even put on his hazard lights and drove extremely slowly, appearing to protect her. As I pulled up, the local River Oaks patrol pulled up behind her to offer additional protection. The destination was unknown, but the Target was less than a quarter of a mile away.
In the middle part of the 20th century, the people of Berlin made their own collage on a government-erected canvas. The work was usually paint on cement, but occasionally, paper–posters, bills and handmade signs. A few times, but a few times too many, blood would add a spatter-marks on the cement.
“We have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.”
Written on part of the remaining Berlin Wall, found at the Maurerpark, or the Berlin Wall Park, Berlin Germany.
In working through the split-up of my marriage, I found that the best way to remove the pain was to simply stop feeling. Feelings: none. Play a stupid video game. Read endless posts on FaceBook. Tweet about the state of American politics or lament about the hypocrisy of the love for mankind in evangelical Christianity. The world can keep our minds busy and reeling from the everyday overload of too much information, too much, anger, too much pain. Be brave, chin up, barrel through it all, stop sniveling.
Then the wisdom of those who study, those who think big, comes through. Dr. Brené Brown teaches us that those who live lives of completeness and love have one thing in common: they are vulnerable. Brown writes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We live, Love, Parent and Lead that “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives us purpose and meaning in life.”
Brown’s words are so often packed with emotional punches that I can only read a sentence as day. Often, one sentence has more meaning for me than years and years of religious dogma.
But at the end of the day, none does not cut it. None is the box that we check when we check out. It’s time to move to vulnerability, the pathway from none to full.