Prayer, Magic and Sprained Ankles

I would very much like to pray that as I spun around last night and attempted to volley the football on the goal, I did not severely sprain my ankle.  I’d like to pray I won’t be out two to six weeks while my team, Chivos Viejos, fights on in the summer season.  But I know that praying for such things will not make them so.

Ankle sprains and injuries are not new to me but, I do have to say that I feel listless on my days of recovery. I have visited my doctor, who I hope will not suggest a podiatrists surgery for me. I just hate being cooped up at home during these days!

Resigned to a lethargic Saturday, I crutched into my den, elevated my leg, and started to finish a book I had heretofore greatly enjoyed:  The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann.

The book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 1999 and again in 2004.  It is broken down into three parts.  Part one focuses on a broad survey of the current state of our ecology.  It paints a depressing picture of where we, as a species, find ourselves in relation to our biosphere.  The book’s ability to clearly paint a picture often overlooked by humans locked into their cultural and commercial viewpoints reminded me of a non-fiction version of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  It is perspective shifting and powerful.  Scary.

Part two continues along the lines of Quinn’s fictional work, as it lays out the anthropological and cultural history.  It traces our 200,000 year journey of evolution on the African savanna, through the development of a malignant agricultural society, leading to a technological world run on coal and oil and growth leading to overpopulation.  The culture that is killing us and thousands of other species, as if we were an out of control bacterial colony in a petri.

It is in part three of the book, as Hartmann attempts to address how humankind might address these crises, where I have become disenchanted with his work.

Modern works of physics are given surface analysis and shot through with whisps of spirituality.  Consciousness, he seemed to be saying, can shift and we can save ourselves.

I was unsettled.  After reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion last year, I have been embracing my inner atheist.  In fact, I would have to say I am becoming an extroverted atheist.  And upon seeing magical thinking, even from left-leaning environmentalists, my skepticism started to rear up.

I read on.

Until coming to this passage:

No matter how overwhelming the problems of the world may seem, you do have an effect, even if nobody ever knows what you’ve done.  For example, prayer has been demonstrated in double-blind, scientifically controlled experiments run at Harvard University to speed healing, even when the people praying and the people healing don’t know each other, have never met, and are located in different parts of the world.

The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Hartmann, 2004 ed., page 244.

This struck me as factually inconsistent with my previous learning.  I had been giving Hartmann the benefit of the doubt until page 244.  I did not bother to even look for footnotes or attribution.  But this statement, conflicting with my own education on the issue, jumped out.  I looked for a source and found that there was no note or reference to the studies Hartmann cites, beyond his own prose, which appeals to the impressive sounding “scientifically controlled experiments run a Harvard University.”  I mean, who could question that.

Old injured football players on a boring Saturday, I suppose.

I don’t know what study Hartmann was referring to.  And to be sure there have been a number of attempts to show some positive power of prayer.  But without showing his underlying work, Harmann has earned my scrutiny.  What study?  And how is it flawed?

In my own search for studies about the efficacy of prayer, I came across this study by Dr.  Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School graduate.  When the patients do not know if they are being prayed for or not, there is no effect.  Oddly however, those who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse, by a statistically significant margin.  Tough god they had, poor souls.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest human caring in whatever form might not boost the spirits of a knowing recipient, and in some way affect the psychology of a patient for the better or worse.  But praying to the imaginary and magical sky god will not heal us.  Not our heart disease.  Or our environment.  Or our sprained ankles.

I think it is especially meaningful that no one would think to pray that an amputees’s leg will grow back.  Even magical thinking has its limits.  Limits designed to protect the illusion.

And this is not to crush human hope.  We might wish madly for scientific advances that allow our good doctors to regrow or re-attach limbs.  We might hope our good minds may advance technology to defeat the problems that very technology has advanced upon us.  

But it will happen with great human effort and ingenuity, not simply magical thinking.

And so it is with heavy heart that I will stay off my ankle, keep it iced down and wrapped, and elevate it over my heart.  I will be positive and hope to return to action by mid-June and not mid-July.  And I will miss the Old Goats until the old ligaments realign my old joint.


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  1. For the record, I got an assist on the play, but we lost the spring championship game anyway.

  2. This Wiki seems like a reasonable place to start if one is pursuing the scientific angle on the efficacy of prayer.

    But as an aging footballer myself, and one whose defensive style seems to lead to injuries (of me, not the f*cking strikers), if my ankle were hurt today (amazingly it isn’t nor is anything else) I’d ice it and wrap it and elevate it.  And I’d also say propitiatory prayers for healing in 5 traditions:  Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Indigenous.  If I knew more, I’d invoke them also.  I might even ask friends to send me healing thoughts. After all, all of this definitely doesn’t hurt your ankle, you want to get back in the game as soon as possible, and, well, you  know, right?

    Heal well.

  3. and in stressful, upsetting situations parents have asked me to pray with them. Since I am not a Christian, I don’t believe but generally feel obliged to “go along for the ride”. My opinion: the prayer is a psychological tool that helps people cope in trying times and it is better than acting out and it gives the parent a sense they are “doing something” when they feel helpless and powerless.

    I work with a couple of strong Christians who are aware of my stance and I always tell them when things get rough “hey talk to Jesus ask him if he’s got a minute to help out.”

    I don’t know if they say this around Ria’s neck of the woods but when you need to have a heart to heart conversation with somebody we always say “I gotta sit down and make this girl come to Jesus.” Yeah. I live in the south.

    Oh.PS. You are missing out on soccer games right? Actually I like the idea of naming a team the “Old Goats”.

    Do you live in Boston? Visited recently while at a conference. Did not get to see as much as I hoped but I want to go back again just to play tourist.

    • kj on June 7, 2008 at 22:29

    😉   tried and failed twice to finish “Ancient Hours.”  gave Ishmael away without giving it more than a cursory glance and chance to grab me before page ten, which is didn’t do.

    the attention i will spend on reading, my first and longest love, becomes pickier and pickier as i age.  whatever i read must either tell me something i don’t already know, or tell me what i already know in away that causes my heart and mind to jump in joy.  lucky, there are books, stories and poems that will do that for me no matter how many times i read them.

    i love to pray. i love the idea of prayer. i love the image of thousands and thousands of prayer strands floating in the air around me and buried in the ground beneath my feet.

    but magical thinking is just that, magical thinking. i am an “out” among family and friends as an atheist, even the most devoted-to-their-brand-of-religion members. no Great Grandpa Santa in the Sky is going to swoop in and bless my life, cure my stiff neck or pay off my debt.

    some old friends of mine used to joke about “The God of Green Lights.”  you know, the god that keeps the light green just long enough to zoom through when they were late for a meeting.  i was fond of the God of Parking Places, personally.

    just random musings.  thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay, Joe.  thanks.

    • kj on June 7, 2008 at 22:37

    i remember when the book came out about the power of prayer and healing and then a few years ago (? i think?) the study that refuted the, by then, popular notion that prayer heals.  a family member insists that prayer healed her several times and claims to know someone whose cancer was healed by the prayers of their church.

    i don’t argue with her.

    i just remind her, whenever it comes up, that there are more religions in the world than hers that also have good messages.   in fact, we just arrived home from a short visit with her.  

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