We’ve all gotten the message from a well-meaning coworker or friend: they’ve heard of some misfortune or illness you’ve suffered and they tell you that you’re “in their thoughts” or that they are “sending you positive feelings.” You’re left wanting to thank them but wondering just what, exactly, such a sentiment actually means.
The power of positive thinking is undeniable. People who are forever preoccupied with failure are extremely good at avoiding risk, and consequently, success. People who think big and have an indomitable spirit see obstacles as nothing more than rungs on the ladder of achievement and tend to accomplish big things. They may trip along the way, but they make forward progress (even if by falling) and thus realize the fruits of their efforts.
Positive thinking is also helpful for those fighting a grave illness or injury. Stories abound about people fighting for their life against this condition or that, and those with the strongest will to live often cheat the odds and tip the balance toward living in the fight between life and death. A recent study even indicates that a positive attitude and sense of humor may actually extend our longevity. In my mind, there’s very little doubt that mind over matter…matters.
But if thinking positively can have such a profound effect on your own life, what of thinking positively on behalf of others? I’m not talking about offering a person going through a crisis good advice, or rousing your team with an inspired pep-talk; I’m speaking of the mental exercise of sending “good vibes” in the direction of someone experiencing hard times. To me, this sounds a great deal like what many people call prayer. Only not. It’s directed from person-to-person, rather than from person-to-God-to-person. As such, I can’t help but wonder why a person would skip the God step in this equation unless they either:
a.) Don’t believe in Him
b.) Are afraid that others might be offended if they were to admit that they do believe.
Option “b” may not be particularly courageous, but it is, at least, understandable. Option “a,” though? To not believe in God but offer to do something that looks very much like praying just doesn’t make any sense.
If a person has no faith in God and ergo, no confidence in the power of prayer, what possible belief could they have in the efficacy of “good thoughts?” What would their ontological explanation be for the delivery method of said thoughts, vibes, or feelings? How would these be transmitted through the other toward a person in need? And would this ontology admit the possibility of sending bad thoughts, vibes, and feelings to some ill-effect? Is this some sort of magical power, a variation on spell-casting, or a form of extra-sensory perception? Or is it merely a form of rather lazy wishful thinking – the idea that one can affect the condition of another through sheer force of will without actually doing anything?
To an unbelieving world, prayer is controversial, its power is in dispute, and even amongst its most devoted practitioners its results vary widely. All the same, it strikes me as the more intellectually honest option, even for the not-so-faithful. The saying that there are “no atheists in foxholes” seems to apply here. Believing that there is a higher power in the universe that can be called upon to right wrongs, heal the sick, and help those in need may seem like childish mysticism to the skeptic, but it makes far more sense than merely thinking or wishing that something will change and actually expecting to see an observable outcome. If that sort of thing worked, nobody would ever get a speeding ticket or watch their football team lose a game.
And if those sending “good thoughts” in lieu of saying “I’ll pray for you” don’t really believe that platitudes about good thoughts have the power to do anything, it’d be far less insulting for them to say “I hope things get better for you,” or perhaps to simply say nothing at all. Otherwise, all they’re really saying is “I feel sorry for you, so here’s a trite expression of my pity that I know will be ineffectual in any way except by possibly giving you the feeling that I care about you.” Put that in a Facebook status and see how it goes over.
Our society values niceties over virtues. We embrace being crass while doing everything in our power not to offend. We tolerate everything but believe in nothing. And when these paradoxical forces converge, they cancel each other out and create a potent strain of mediocrity that dilutes the meaning of all human interaction.
If you believe in God and the power of prayer, show true compassion, and don’t be afraid to let people know that you’re praying for them. They’ll likely appreciate your sincerity, even if they don’t share your beliefs. And if you don’t believe in anything, it’s probably best not to patronize. Offer comforting words, sound advice, or solidarity. Squinting your eyes and wishing for the best, while well-intentioned, won’t get you very far.