by Rick Hamlin
It will probably come as no surprise to you that I think of myself all the time. I worry about myself and my family. I wonder when I’m going to die. I wonder why I don’t find much peace of mind when I’m working so hard at being responsible and good. I become anxious about the future. I start obsessing about some physical symptom, the slightest headache perhaps that probably hints at a life-threatening illness. I fight against trusting in hope too much. I try to imagine what it will be like when I accept the National Book Award or the Oscar for Best Screenplay or the Nobel Prize for Peace. I become tiresome even to myself.
If I’m by myself I find the only recipe for this closed circuit of self absorption is to pray for someone else. Lots of someone else’s. “The person wrapped up in himself is a very small package indeed,” goes an old saying. And if I were praying for myself it would be a prayer of becoming someone big and generous and whole-heartedly involved in the world and the concerns of others. I’d like to be a big package.
I have learned to become very deliberate in my prayers for others. There have been times when I’ve simply closed my eyes and waited for a name or need to come to me. I’ve gone through letters of the alphabet, finding someone for each letter. Or I’ve imagined myself going through space at the office and praying as my mind has passed by cubicles and offices and conference rooms. I’ve even looked to pray for others by sending myself on a magic carpet ride across the planet, pausing at cities where I know someone and saying a prayer there.
The only danger with any of these methods is that I will forget someone whose need is particularly pressing. I will sacrifice urgency for the imaginative freedom of traveling where my mind takes me. That’s probably okay. I must stress that I think prayer should be the freest of exercises. To become too critical of your methods of prayer is to become too self-conscious which is to become simply un-prayerful. To try to pray is to pray. Any prayer is good. All honest prayers are acceptable. All prayers are right.
I don’t believe in that hoary let-it-all-hang-out line that “There are no dumb questions.” There are some truly stupid questions. But there are no stupid prayers. Just look at the psalms for models. If the psalmist could pray about smashing his enemies’ babies brains to bits, well, you can say anything in a prayer. Say the worst if you have to. God has probably heard much worse. And he’s already heard you think it.
I have come to write down the names of people I’m praying for just because it helps me keep focused. I don’t look at the list but I think of it. And as I go through those names, I think of those people. Many of them have trials much worse than ones I’ve ever faced. Many of them have needs that far exceed mine.
Of course, I come back to “me” in my prayers. I might even start with me. Sometimes things are so pressing I can’t unload them fast enough. But praying for others is my recipe for sanity. If I am at all generous as a person and am able to think of others and quiet the inner tapes, it is through this wonderful method that we were given when we were given prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is in the first person plural. Plural. Me and you. Us.
Rick Hamlin is the executive editor of Guideposts magazine, where he has worked for more than 25 years. His spiritual memoir, Finding God on the A Train, was a Book of the Month Club alternate selection and a selection of One Spirit Book Club. He lives with his family in New York City.