In light of her new book, Help Thanks Wow, cherished rock-bottom mystic Anne Lamott wrote in Salon last week about the nature of prayer. Coming from someone with an unconventional family and a checkered past, she delves simply and no-less-powerfully into ways we pray to God. Playfully, she is really talking plain-and-simple about prayer book orthodoxy: supplication, adoration, and, well, thanksgiving. Lamott, who also wrote Traveling Mercies and Grace (Eventually), touches here predominantly on “Help,” the prayer that comes by being “sick to death of death,” while God tends to operate mainly by it and through it:
It is all hopeless. Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children. The planet does not seem long for this world. Repent! Oh, wait, never mind. I meant: Help.
What I wanted my whole life was relief—from pressure, isolation, people’s suffering (including my own, which was mainly mental), and entire political administrations. That is really all I want now. Besides dealing with standard-issue family crisis, heartbreak, and mishegas, I feel that I can’t stand one single more death in my life. That’s too bad, because as we speak, I have a cherished thirteen-year-old cat who is near death from lymphoma. I know I won’t be able to live without her.
This must sound relatively petty to those of you facing the impending loss of people, careers, or retirement savings. But if you are madly in love with your pets, as any rational person is, you know what a loss it will be for both me and my three-year-old grandson, Jax. My cat Jeanie has helped raise him, and it will be his first death. I told him that she was sick, and that the angels were going to take her from us. I tried to make it sound like rather happy news—after all, vultures aren’t coming for her, or snakes—but he wasn’t having any of it.
“Angels are taking Jeanie away?”
Yes, because she is old and needs to go live in heaven now.
He said, “I’m mad at the angels.” He’s mad at death. I’m mad at death, too. I’ve had it. I am existentially sick to death of death, and I absolutely cannot stand that a couple of friends may lose their children. I cannot stand that my son’s and grandson’s lives will hold so much isolation, strife, death, and common yet humiliating skin conditions. But as Kurt Vonnegut put it, Welcome to the monkey house. This is a hard planet, and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray: Help.
When I pray, which I do many times a day, I pray for a lot of things. I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children. This is okay to do, to ask God to help them have a sense of peace, and for them to feel the love of God. I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better. I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes, natural and man-made. It is also okay to ask that my cat have an easy death. Some of my friends’ kids are broken and their parents are living in that, and other friends’ marriages are broken, and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we pray about the cat and Jax’s tender heart.
Is God going to say, “Sorry, we don’t have enough for the cat”? I don’t think so.
I ask for help for this planet, and for her poor and for the suffering people in my little galaxy. I know even as I pray for help that there will be tremendous compassion, mercy, generosity, companionship, and laughter from other people in the world, and from friends, doctors, nurses, hospice people. I also know that life can be devastating, and it’s still okay to be pissed off at God: Mercy, schmercy. I always want the kid to live.
I can picture God saying: “Okay, hon. I’ll be here when you’re done with your list.” Then He goes back to knitting new forests or helping less pissy people until I hit rock bottom. And when I finally do, there may be hope.
There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making.
Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through.
It is the first great prayer.