On “Secular Prayer”: Bargaining Our Way to Better Worldly Agency

On “Secular Prayer”: Bargaining Our Way to Better Worldly Agency October 25, 2020

Three friends sitting together, two seemingly present with one in a hard time. Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with an update. This past Tuesday, I had to leave Colombia, to fly to Panamá for a week and test how long I have to be out of the country before I can return and start anew. It could be that I can take a tourist permit as early as tomorrow, when I fly back; it could be that I’ll have to wait for the next calendar year to re-enter.

Why is this happening? Well, the government’s last denial of a work visa showed lack of confidence in my employer to effectively monitor my obligations, on account of how the latter managed social security these past two years. Unfortunately, that denial came with a six-month sanction before I can apply for another work visa, too — which makes sense, because how is the government to know how complicit I was in my employer’s lousy social-security practices with foreigners? Easier to hedge bets and punish all. And so, this year I’ve lost… all progress towards residency, plus any hope of returning to that residency track in the near future. (Though that didn’t stop my employer from asking me repeatedly to keep teaching for them while bouncing around. They seem mightily baffled as to why I won’t keep teaching for a low-paying outfit that can’t support a visa when my expenses just skyrocketed to pay for my time out-of-country.)

Suffice it to say, then, as with many situations in my life, personal industry wasn’t sufficient for stability. Because I didn’t have strong enough Spanish when I first arrived, because I trusted my employer to know the laws well enough to give me correct counsel with respect to my obligations (and to maintain their own), I am now starting over… older, wiser — and of course a little tired of having to start from scratch again.

Indeed, I’m weary as I revise today’s essay, in the early-morning flush of insect and bird sounds in a mouldering hostel that only recently awoke from the slumber of pandemic — but after my initial shock last Friday I leapt into action, and have already found a solid narrative for what happens next: I’m on Sabbatical, essentially. I don’t know yet if I’ll be spending most of it in Colombia (ideal, but we’ll see tomorrow), or if I’ll need to settle in a quiet border town until January 1. Either way, although I’m currently aching with homesickness, I’m now “living the dream”. After being exploited by my employer, pressured to take extra clients while they were helping me with visa applications during the five months when I was undocumented, I now have nothing but time to write.

And I look forward to it. I do. I will have a novel pitch-ready soon, and four fun SF-mystery novellas to use to explore e-book publishing; and I want to finish a collection of short stories in Spanish for submission; and I hope to have some topical essays and articles sent out to mainstream publications. This first week, in Panamá, has all been for planning my impending writing schedule — even though, in practice, it instead involved meeting quite a few unusual characters. (More on this later.)

Oh, and of course, I still have that wonderful talk coming up with Virginia Tech! I no longer know where I’ll be when I’m giving it, but I can’t wait to discuss humanism in action with the community on Friday, November 13, from 5-6 p.m. EST (RSVP at dos.vt.edu/beyondsilos). Here’s the flyer, if you’re interested:

Moving Beyond Our Information Silos event poster for Virginia Tech. It's essentially an introduction to humanism as that which bridges religious and non-religious divides for better cooperative action.

I’m making a terrific amount of lemonade, in other words, out of some very tart lemons.

But I wasn’t even this resolute a week and a half ago.

A week and a half ago, while I was still waiting, waiting, waiting, I felt helpless. I had no agency, and yet ever fibre of my very-human being was crying out to plan, to act, to change something to fix my situation.

And so that’s what I want to talk about today: the shared urge, among theists and atheists alike, to do something about a situation, even if there’s nothing really to be done.

For spiritual folks, this urge often manifests as prayer.

But for all of us, well… we have secular ways of bargaining and peace-seeking, too.

Spirituality and Prayer

I should clarify, of course, that there are many forms of prayer and reasons for prayer among those who believe that there is a god. (And boy howdy, do I have an experience to share with you folks from the hostel in a later post!) The research around prayer is fascinating, if also a touch dangerous, inasmuch as it can be used to fortify chauvinistic “warring civilizations” discourse. When it comes to real-world functionalism, we know that knowing that someone is engaged in intercessory prayer might actually worsen your health outcomes. And yet, like most forms of meditation, prayer can have positive benefits for stress reduction and improved cardiovascular health, too.

As for everyday prayer’s impact on worldly perception, well… We have some evidence that different faith groups’ prayer practices have different neuronal outcomes: some seem to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes, and others decrease it. We also know that commitment to the practice of prayer changes the practice’s outcomes, because people who pray more consistently are more likely to have neuronal responses to prayer that mimic neuronal responses to fellow human beings. In other words, their god becomes more fully realized as a concrete character than it is in the minds of those who only pray sporadically. (The same is true for any time we dedicate our attention to characters from books, TV, and the like: attention shapes the “realness” of these figures in our minds.)

But there’s a particular kind of praying I’ve been thinking about these past few months: the kind that emerges as an automatic and intense reaction to yearning. Everything from “Please, God, let me pass this course!” and “Please, God, let my car start!” to “Please, God, make this country whole again!”, and “Please, God, don’t let my loved one die!”

Because, the thing is, religious and non-religious people have the same basic hardware. I too feel awe in the sight of nature — I just haven’t been trained to think there’s a deity responsible for it. Likewise, I feel the glow of love and wonder at the magic of human fraternity (when it works); I just don’t see either as forged by an omnipotent being.

And so, I too have intense and automatic reactions to yearning. I ache for things to come to pass in my favour, and while waiting for the result of this yearning, I too perform actions in the world that are 100% useless in bringing those things to pass — but which calm and busy me, all the same, in the interim.

These are secular variations of petitioning prayer.

And since a great many of us have been using them this year, this interminable year of waiting and yearning and wondering and losing… I think it would do us all a bit of good to reflect upon how we can make them serve us better.

On Secular “Prayer” and Social Media

One of the most obvious forms of secular “prayer” is when we tell ourselves to be calm, and that everything is going to be okay, and talk out what is going to (or what we want) to happen next. But we often don’t just tell ourselves that, do we? In an age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth, more of us perform ourselves publicly — theists and atheists alike — and answer each others’ posts in ways that express existentially “useless” (but still culturally valuable) sentiments, too.

In the case of my helpless waiting for a legal verdict, for instance, I routinely made assertions that tried to control how I was feeling about and reacting to my situation. Once, for instance, I declared that I was going to stop counting the number of days I’d been undocumented and just focus on living in the moment as best I could. (Reader, I did not. I kept counting right up until Day 152.) In reply, privately or otherwise, others then extended their own desires for increased agency, with some assuring me that everything would turn out just fine; some hoping everything would turn out just fine; and still others saying that I was in their thoughts.

All of this busy-work shares a great deal, though, with that of religious folks who make a call on their own social media for prayers, and receive scads of prayer-hand emojis in return. It’s the same rhetoric, serving the same function, with simply the vocabulary swapped out. We, as human beings with the ability to anticipate and agonize over our circumstances and their fallout, are simply inclined to keep active, to keep doing something, even in situations where no real agency exists. Likewise, we’re eager to respond to others’ articulation of helplessness by using what meagre agency we have at the moment: by letting said person know, you’re not alone. I’m #herewithyou.

Which… should be fine, right? It’s simply human behaviour. Well, yes and no.

It depends on how much we let this coping mechanism consume our search for agency elsewhere.

The Sneakiness of False Agency, and Its Rhetoric

Humanists across the spectrum often get frustrated at folks who stop at “thoughts and prayers” when more can be done, when more agency does exist — if only we were to choose to use it. But in Western culture, that frustration tends to orient itself around the “prayer” component more than the “thoughts”. And why not? Spiritual prayer is an easy target for such anger. Criticizing “I’ll pray for you” as a viable activist strategy so readily positions atheists as superior to their religious counterparts.

However, as with most facets of our lives, we would do well to pay heed to the hypocrisy that can and does arise around such condemnation, especially when most all of us use systems of “secular prayer” as a matter of course.

Here, then, are some better questions for humanists to ask when everyone seems to be giving into helplessness: How much have we allowed our shared discourse networks to give us a false sense of worldly action and activism? How much does trying to will ourselves into better life outcomes through online encounters actually serve to increase our and others’ share of agency?

My situation changed when the government issued its verdict. Then and only then was I able to take action in relation to my personal circumstances — and none of the private or public bargaining that I’d done this verdict had any impact whatsoever on the outcome, nor on the reality of my next steps. All my nervous energy, all the bugbear arguments I launched into during this restless waiting period, all the declarative statements and shared frustrations online… None of it did more than help me pass the time, invite others to affirm their presence in my life, and otherwise imbue me with a sense of control over something, anything.

What, then, is the takeaway from so much sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Only this: That the performance of so much yearning and frustration is itself an articulation of having lost genuine agency — or at least, of perceiving oneself to have lost genuine agency.

And as humanists, this is a critical insight to foreground at such times: either so that we can help others see the agency that they do in fact have, slim as it might appear; or else so that we can use the fact of such articulated helplessness, writ large, to shape our approach to policy going forward, in search of a world that better maximizes agency for all.

In other words, the frenzy of individuals attempting to bargain their way into better circumstances (or acceptance of their existence circumstances) gives us as humanists lots to work with. Whether this kind of petitioning comes through forms of religious prayer, or secular utterances and activities in the public sphere, it ultimately amounts to a litmus test for levels of worldly agency: how much we have, how much we feel that we have, and how that lack of agency shapes our behaviour and potential outcomes.

And even when our lack of agency over personal outcomes feels very low indeed?

Well, if we pay attention to these performances of helplessness, and honour them for what they are, we can still create real agency through them — by using the fact of our yearning as a springboard to thinking deeper, and more proactively, about how best to shape a world where we won’t ever have to feel the same again.

For me, in my situation, this means that all my experiences in being undocumented and experiencing employer-exploitation of immigrants firsthand this year have deepened my focus on the urgency of our global refugee crisis, and on the plight of displaced persons in general. This is why the UNHCR is my go-to non-profit for donations — and why I’ve worked harder to promote it during my own wave of perceived helplessness, and loss.

The Take-Away

I’m still human, of course. I’m still flawed and struggling and prone to despair. Feeling helpless is agonizing, and it’s absolutely shaped my eating, rest, and interaction habits in some highly destructive ways these past few months.

But by learning to pay attention to what my coping mechanisms and bargaining behaviours are telling me about me, I know I can still improve my practice of humanism, even when nothing else seems within my ability to control.

And so, more than simply “wishing” the same for you (secular prayer is sneaky, no?)… I’m simply going to invite you to reflect in your own time and way on those moments when you have also felt helpless, and grappled with your yearning for greater agency. What do those moments invite you to consider about the state of our collective social contract? What public policy changes do you imagine might reduce that level of helplessness for yourself and others in the future?

And what deeper store of action are you going to reach for, to achieve those better ends, the moment your circumstances again allow you to do more?

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