Friday, July 1, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times (Sunday, June 12, 2011) Bruce Feiler, author of  Abraham and Walking the Bible, gave advice about what to say and want not to say to someone diagnosed with cancer or other serious illness or loss. Feiler was diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago and has survived. I agree with most of what he said, including an admonition to refrain from recommending various "miracle tonics" or questioning your treatment decisions, and I also agree that a sincere "I love you," and "I'm sorry you have to go through this" is always appreciated. However, I take issue with one "never" he included on his list: "My thoughts and prayers are with you." Here's what Feiler said: In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they're sending "thoughts and prayers" are just falling back on a mindless cliche'. It's time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside "I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family," or "It's not you, it's me."

Am I defensive because I've made that statement many times? Perhaps, but here's what I think. When I say or write "my thoughts and prayers are with you," I am thinking about that person, praying for that person right then in that present moment. Saying it, writing it, is praying. That counts. That matters. I think it is a bit presumptuous of Feiler to assume that the majority of people don't do what they say they will do. True, many people may never give you another thought and may not have an intentional prayer practice where they lift your name to the Divine, but I believe when someone thinks of me anytime in a loving, empathic, caring way, they are praying on my behalf. When someone I know is in the midst of a crisis, thoughts of them drift across my heart while I'm making the bed, folding laundry or driving to the grocery store, as well as times when I'm writing them a note or preparing a meal to deliver. Those are all moments of prayer, even though I may not stop and fold my hands and say, "Dear God, please..."

Could it be that being the recipient of thoughts and prayers makes us uncomfortable? Do we perhaps not want the attention or do we get a bit itchy when presented with someone's testimony of faith, especially when their belief system does not match our own? It may feel easier to dismiss the statement as a meaningless platitude.

As I write this, I think about a dear friend with cancer, of a new friend with her third cancer, of many others who have been in remission for years and of others I knew only fleetingly when I led cancer support groups. I pray as I think of them. Do they know that? Maybe they will feel a little nudge of sweet energy--I hope so. Whether they recognize it or not, I have sent forth love and hope and an acknowledgement of connection and a belief that what we think and feel matters.

Here's the deal, however. When you make that statement, you are signing a contract and entering into a covenant with the person in need of prayers and thoughts and also with the Divine; however, you envision the Divine. You've said it--now do it. Follow through. Be intentional. Set aside time. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe. See your loved one's face. Say her name. Open your heart and be with her. Also, I invite you to pay attention to the times you say "My thoughts and prayers are with you." What are you actually feeling and do you truly mean what you say? Is there something you can do, along with whispering prayers? Perhaps your prayers are the entry way to a deeper connection with the person in need and with the Divine.

 Oh, and by the way, when someone says "My thoughts and prayers are with you," why not say a heartfelt "Thank you," followed by "I hope you will. Knowing I am in your heart matters to me."

Being in my 60's seems to mean I am sending many more sympathy cards and writing more notes of encouragement and reflection.  The opportunities to respond to people facing serious challenges are increasing as I get older. Feiler's article reminds me to be conscious of what I say and what I do. He reminds me to bring my best self to all who are in need of Divine attention, and so I say, "Bruce Feiler, my thoughts and prayers are with you, too." 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Nancy,
    This is why I love you and why you have been and continue to be so important to me even at a distance. I remember everyone who said that same thing to me when I was in treatment from the waitress at Bob Evans to the little kids in a PSR class to the prayer circle of a church I had never been to. It always made me feel protected and cared for in that moment and even now when I think of it eight years later. You modeled this behavior for me and I thank you for that as well as your many thoughts and prayers for all of us over the years.
    God bless and take care.
    Love and blessings,