Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What You Pray For

I’m not the only menace to society I know. The good people of St. Anonymous have done their own share of trouble making, at least as far as my life is concerned.

It started years ago when my son was in his teens. I remember a gloomy week when a friend of my husband’s and mine died abruptly of a ruptured aneurysm in her bowel. While at her funeral, we heard that another mutual friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The next day, I developed a sinus infection, which must be why my son decided not to bother me with the news that he had been given his first traffic ticket, leaving me to find it in his room when I put away laundry. I was surprised because up until then I was sure the only way my old car could have reached that speed is if you had hoisted it up to the top of the State Capitol Building and dropped it.

The day after that I received a letter from the then pastor of St. Anonymous, informing me that during the week he had “lifted up [our] family in prayer.” When I next saw him, I told him what had happened that week and suggested that next time he felt the urge to lift my family up in prayer, he could just put us right back down on whatever dusty little shelf he found us on and pick on someone else instead. “That’s funny,” he said. “Usually when I tell people I’ve been praying for them, they tell me good things have happened to them that week.”

Pastor R left in a swirl of rumors, to be replaced by Pastor Steve and then Pastor Larry. Pastor Larry’s habit was to select a prayer family of the week for the whole church to pray for. Sure enough, the time came when our family was selected. I grumbled to my friends at work about how unlucky I had been the last time anyone at St. Nonny’s decided to pray for me. “It sounds like it’s even unluckier to be one of your friends,” my friend E observed.

So that week, the acid reflux that had been gone for a whole year returned. Our new foreign exchange student, Erick, decided he hated us on sight and wanted to go home. And E’s car air conditioner, which she had just spent $800 fixing, broke the second it was out of warrantee. 

It gets worse. A few weeks later, the church prayed for all the teachers at the start of the school year. Hurricane Katrina hit, schools were closed for two weeks and when they reopened, it was with an influx of students from New Orleans whose records had mostly been lost.

Okay, once again, I understand none of this happened because of the prayers. I am well aware of the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. True, back when Pastor R was praying for us, I didn’t know about it until after all the sad events had occurred, but it’s unlikely I would have remembered most of them by now, let alone that they had occurred the same week, if it hadn’t been for the coincidence of that being the week R was praying for me. But when we were prayer family of the week, I knew about it in advance and was on the lookout for bad stuff.

And as anyone at St. Nonny’s would be happy to point out, we always pray for teachers at the beginning of the school year and rarely get hurricanes as a result.

So yes, what we have here is a chain of coincidence amplified by confirmation bias. I won’t argue about that.

What if things had been different, however? What if the first friend had had a stroke instead and been rushed to the hospital in enough time for treatment to give her a full recovery? What if the second friend had been given news that the biopsy showed that the lump in her breast was not cancer, but a harmless cyst? What if my son had noticed the speedometer and slowed down? (Okay, that one would have required divine intervention.) What if Erick had woke up one morning and said, “I think I was just homesick. I’m happy to be here”? What if  Katrina had taken a turn to the northeast as Camille did in 1969 and left New Orleans alone?

I suspect then no one but cranky Gnu Atheists would blame me for chalking all those events up to the power of prayer. Pastor R would have had another notch in his belt (not of the sort that got him kicked out). We would still have a chain of faulty logic based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning, plus confirmation bias, not to mention a willingness to ignore all the people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who would have been hit even harder by Katrina. Yet it would have been socially acceptable to indulge in all that bad thinking.

That bothers me. I’d like to think that I am clear headed enough not to be tempted into fallacious reasoning by peer pressure, but I’m not that special. I’m well aware of all the times I wake up determined to eat healthy food, only to catch a glimpse of a print or TV ad for junk food that sends me scuttling off for cookies. I’m aware of how often I buy a shirt or skirt or pants I don’t actually need because of how it looked on the tall, skinny twenty-something model when I, although a nice looking old broad with good legs, am none of those things.

I know I can be had.

So if I seem to be on the lookout for bad things to happen anytime the St. Anonymous prayer warriors are looking for ammo, I have a good reason. Reason.

1 comment:

  1. Or, to quote Terry Pratchett from Mort: "Just because it's not nice doesn't mean it's not a miracle."

    Quote is from memory, and may not actually be a quote within the meaning of the act. Void where prohibited.