Thursday, September 11, 2008

God, Peace, and the Placebo Effect

I read a highly entertaining online discussion recently in which a large group of intelligent, rational adults were asked, "Is there anything you know is complete bunk, but you still do it/use it/buy it and love it anyway?" The answers were varied, and equal parts thought-provoking and hilarious. Professional wrestling. Cold-Eze. Chiropractic. Aliens, telekinesis, and Bigfoot (sometimes all at once). American politics. Multivitamins. God. Recycling. Ghosts, UFOs, and Zen. The lottery. Expensive moisturizer. The Los Angeles traffic gods. Acupuncture. Fortune cookies. Feng shui, lucky dice, and free will.

One of the consistent themes in the discussion was the efficacy (or lack thereof) of various pseudo-medical treatments. Large quantities of vitamin C may or may not shorten the life of your cold, but a lot of people think it does. Same with Cold-Eze, Airborne, multivitamins, and all manner of natural remedies and homeopathic approaches to illness. For those who believe, the placebo effect can work wonders.

Since the discussion ranged from the absurd to the divine and hit most points in between, it was impossible not to start thinking about the similarities between this group's admitted beliefs in all sorts of silly things. Professional wrestling isn't real, but if you can tease your brain into the required suspension of disbelief, it is apparently very entertaining. If you think the orange juice is helping your cold go away, maybe it does. If you think God is giving you peace ... I think you can see why this line of thought started to bother me.

When I started questioning the value of prayer years ago, it immediately became harder to pray. I had spent my life praying for anything and everything, and one of my most common prayers as I grew older was for peace. Peace about decisions, peace in times of stress, peace about the questions and doubts that increasingly plagued me. Often, I would pray and feel a sweet wave of peace wash over me, and I would be so thankful. But just as often, I did not. I prayed, nothing happened, and I hitched up my boots and kept walking.

In retrospect, I wonder how much of the "peace" was simply a largely unconscious self-calming method, learned early and practiced often. I think back to those moments of peace, and realize that they happened more often when I was in full sunlight -- I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it makes sense that this soul-warming sensation might be found more often on sunny days. The act of stilling one's body, breathing deeply, closing one's eyes, and focusing the mind on a peaceful sensation is a time-tested relaxation technique even if you leave God out of it entirely. The times when "the peace that passes understanding" didn't come, it is likely that I was simply too busy and preoccupied, or maybe just that it was cloudy and dark, or perhaps I had some valid reasons to be upset that day.

The problem now is the increasingly elusive nature of the inner calm I sought so desperately. A participant in a research study who discovers that they were part of the placebo group cannot be expected to continue taking their sugar pills and hoping for improvement, and I find myself in much the same place. If I recognize my former answers to prayer as subconscious biofeedback and clear skies, it is difficult to send those same requests winging up into the sky. So much is so wrong, and deep breathing seems a poor substitute for real peace.

One of my dear friends is dead and buried, and two more are losing the long and painful fight as I write. Children suffer unspeakable things every hour of every day. Friendships are broken, love is lost, words are shouted in anger that leave permanent scars. Some days, a little sun doesn't make much of a dent.

I still want to find peace. "Pax", the Latin word for peace, is tattooed in a sunny shade of sky blue on my wrist, and it is only my lingering concerns about public opinion that keeps me from adding a few more tattoos of the same idea in other languages. It is something I take deeply seriously, and something I want for myself and for the world at large. It seems, though, that the more I know, the farther it slips away.

I took my sugar pills for thirty years, but somewhere in there it seems that I took Neo's red pill isntead, and found myself dumped unceremoniously out of the comforting matrix of my Christian beliefs. If there is peace here, outside the grid, I have not yet found it.

3 comments:

Kay said...

Great blog entry.... you hit the nail on the head.

DrASK said...

Keep up the good work. I'm still reading. -Aaron

DrASK said...

BTW, You may want to check this out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/books/review/Oppenheimer-t.html

I've met William, he's a great guy.