Monday, June 16, 2008

Oh, thank ... somebody.

After six weeks of intermittent research, occasional stewing, encouragement from optimistic friends, and trying not to think about it, I went to my appointment with the neurologist last week. He informed me that while I do indeed have spots in my brain, they are very typical of people who suffer frequent migraines (which I do), and that they are not an indicator of a more serious condition. He saw no hint of degenerative disease in my brain, not from the CT scan, the MRI, or the questions he asked during my appointment.

This is, unquestionably, good news.

My Christian friends would say it was an answer to prayer.

My non-believing friends would say nothing of the sort.

Who's right?

This is, in a neatly wrapped package, one of my biggest frustrations with what Christianity has become. Believers say that good things are an answer to prayer, and they gleefully point to the study or two which indicates that patients who were prayed for (even in scientifically managed double-blind experiments) got well at a higher rate than patients who were not. But so many who believe do not get well, and so many who believe in nothing at all come through their trials with flying colors. It seems so random, and there is so much about our existence that is random that it's hard for me to keep trying to find patterns in that which is attributed to prayer.

We are a pattern-seeking species. If you don't believe me, lie on your back on a summer day and watch the clouds -- give it half an hour, and I bet you a dollar you'll see a squirrel, a ship, or maybe a guy with a funny-shaped head. You remember your best friend's phone number by the patterns in it, whether they are really there or not -- the little design it makes on the keypad, or maybe her prefix is the same as your house number when you were a kid. Stare at the "snow" on a television set and think "circle", and you'll see a circle. Did you know that? It's true. You can do it with a square or a triangle too, and it gets harder with more complex shapes, but if you think about it long enough, your eye will produce it.

So if we want something badly enough, our mind will give us hope. We hope for such absurd things, our frail human minds ... we hope for healing where there is death, reason where there is chaos, love where there is apathy. I'm not complaining about it, don't get me wrong. Hope accomplishes amazing things, and as a beneficiary of electricity, penicillin, and the United States of America, I am all for hope. Edison, Sir Alexander Fleming, and the Pilgrims hoped, and hope bore fruit. But their hope had actions attached -- ten thousand attempts at the light bulb, endless hours in the laboratory, and a mindbogglingly optimistic launching of an entire miniature society across the Atlantic Ocean.

What is it, this notion of prayer? Where do we get it? The Scriptures used to support it are nebulous at times and sometimes patently ridiculous. Is it because it works? Or do we just want it to work so badly that we decide that it does, regardless of its track record? My sister-in-law's body is decaying in the damp ground four miles away from my comfortable office, the passage of time reducing her to bone and dust and unanswered prayer. My sister, on the other hand, lives a content and productive life in Los Angeles, bearing the scars of multiple surgeries but still alive and vibrant and full of faith in the power of prayer. Their mothers both believe that God is in control. I am not sure I want to agree.

All I know is that six weeks ago, I got bad news. I did my research, and then I put it aside. I worried about it from time to time, my friends encouraged me, and I put it aside again. I got very stressed out the day before my appointment, and then I went and had my fears officially put to rest. I did not spend the intervening six weeks in an agony of prayer, hoping against hope that I was holy enough for the right answer. (I know, I know, it's not about how holy you are, but tell that to yourself when you've been praying for a month for something that's totally out of your control.) I did not lie awake begging God for health and wholeness. I did not plead for healing.

And my brain is fine. Should I have prayed, do you think?