Let me be clear. I don’t think any American was kneeling in prayer asking for a monster tragedy to strike the Texas coast.
But my experience with prayer is that answers rarely come wrapped in the package you expect. Most answers show up as opportunities to make a new choice or to change an attitude or pattern that better align you with the outcome you want. To get the outcome you desire, you generally need to take action in order to realize the “answer” to prayer in the opportunity presented to you.
These opportunities also always require risk. Often it is an emotional risk, and sometimes a risk of time, money, trust, or an attitude or pattern you need to change within you in order to create a new condition that answers your prayer.
When I was a hypnotherapist, I swear that the prayer that all my clients had in common was, “Please make my life great but don’t make me change.”
Prayer is actually a request for change. If you really want to the answer to a prayer, the one thing you need to be ready to change is yourself.
Prayer works. But like a good hair remover, it often takes you to the root cause of an issue rather than alleviating the surface problem.
Why Harvey is an Answer to Prayer…
The growing lament — whether it shows up as formal prayer, intention, wish or desperate plea — is that America find a way to come together unity and work together to solve our many challenges.
The often unspoken, and perhaps unacknowledged, wish within that prayer is that everyone become as enlightened as you, because when everyone tapped into the genius of your thought waves, everything would hum right along.
Even a glance at the splintering of denominations and churches over the “correct” expression of common beliefs demonstrates the futility of groupthink as a uniting principle.
The same is true for ethnicity. The Neo-Nazis claim that they only way to a calm and stable world is to separate the races. But if you take a look at the video from Charlottesville, there was a lot of white skin protesting against their call for white domination. Unified skin color clearly isn’t the path to unity ether.
Divide the pie in any other way, and my guess is that you will get a similar result.
What reliably unites Americans is tragedy.
Whether 9/11, Katrina, Sandy or now Harvey, American hands reach out to help one another regardless of rage, religion, political affiliation, gender preference or immigration status. When tragedy strikes, Americans act like what most of us want America to be — a place where we come together with a common sense of belonging, care for one another and have the social security of knowing that when we are in need, that same generous spirit will be extended to us.
Then the urgency fades, people get compassion fatigue, and pundits and blame-gamers re-dominate the news with stories about how this group or that group was the cause of the tragedy or should be excluded from compassion or assistance because of some moral equivocation. We all realize anew that our national unity is held together by the same fraying string it had been. Unity dissolves and the caring, compassionate majority opt-out of interaction because the noise of the division gets so loud.
People have a deep innate need for connection, but also belonging. Coming together in the wake of tragedy is one of the few deeply-felt bonding experiences we have as Americans. Tragedy spurs the sense of community and belonging we crave in a nation where we celebrate our uniqueness and independence. Bonding in tragedy is such a strong part of our national identity that it has become by default, our unifying story.
We Find Our Connection as Individuals Through Our Stories…
America isn’t a dominant DNA strain or a common ethnicity or even, in a nation of immigrants, a common family or cultural history. It isn’t even our founding document — the constitution — because we’ve been fighting about what that means since the day it was penned. America is an idea, and a collection of unique experiences. We find our common humanity through our stories.
I got my first sense of this when I was an exchange student in high school. I was 17 years old and living in a small city near the southwest tip of Australia. I was the only American most people in my new town knew first hand.
“Why do Americans wear cowboy hats to work?” was one question I’d get asked — it was the days of worldwide Dallas syndication. I’d explain that it a Texas thing, whether you rode a horse to work or not. But then I’d have to explain that in California or Minnesota or Florida, people didn’t wear cowboy hats to work — unless they worked with horses.
I also got asked about Mickey Mouse, nuclear weapons policy, movie stars and a ton of other things. The questions made me think more deeply about the American experience — and how my growing up in suburban LA differed from those in Texas cowboy country, the rural Midwest, New York City. And also how my experience as a white, middle class, “traditional American” differed from people who were recent immigrants, like my next door neighbors from Nicaragua, or who had a different racial or ethnic background like the Hispanic, Asian and African-American kids I went to school with.
What I realized in my pondering was that while stories connected us with one another, they didn’t unite us as Americans. The melting pot story fed us in school — that most of us came to America as immigrants and dove joyfully into a unifying pot of opportunity — is a divisive issue, and it always had been. Whether it was the Irish, Italians, Chinese or Mexicans, the fight over who belongs here and who doesn’t is part of our perennial national identity conflict.
Belonging is What We Really Crave
Our individual stories help us see beyond our differences, break down stereotype barriers, find admiration and even love for one another as we hear echoes of our own stories in another person’s unique triumphs and struggles.
But feeling a connection with individual people isn’t the same as belonging to the whole. A sense of belonging, of being valued and accepted as an unquestioned part of our crazy, dysfunctional but loveable American family is what Americans really crave. Belonging is having each other’s back in good times and in bad, when we unite in tragedy, and when we squabble like siblings. Without belonging, connection is like an itch that you scratch yourself raw trying to relieve.
Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this, but I doubt it. My family story is probably as stereotypically “traditional” American as they come. Parts of my family came over in the pilgrim era, most family well before the American Revolution. They fought on both sides of the Civil War. They started as farmers and shifted to a mix of blue- and white-collar workers.
And yet I didn’t have a sense of belonging to America. I had no subset I belonged to, either. The memories of the “old country” were long gone. I didn’t have the belonging to religious traditions that my Catholic and Jewish friends had. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Even America. Because I’d had no experiences to understand what being an American was supposed to feel like.
Until the Challenger blew up.
Then Ronald Reagan explained in his grandfatherly way that when tragedy strikes all our differences fade and we are allowed, encouraged and even required to unite as one. For the first time, I felt like I belonged to America. I felt like an American. Then the country moved and I felt disconnected again, but not with quite the same intensity I had before. Over the years, tragedy taught me what it felt like to belong.
With the politics of division enshrined into the science of winning elections, a sense of belonging to all of America is the first casualty as we subdivide into our ideological and cultural camps. The truth is that fostering a sense of belonging is not the job of politicians — though it would be nice if they boosted it to the top of their list of priorities.
It’s our individual responsibility to create the sense of belonging that we want. Paradoxically, or maybe not so paradoxically when you look at the way prayer works, you create a greater sense of belonging for yourself when you extend belonging and unity to others — especially those whom you don’t know. When you risk opening your heart, more love can flow outward, but there is also more space for love — and belonging — to flow in.
Hurricane Harvey gives us a perfect opportunity create the answer to prayer for more unity — without the need for tragedy after tragedy to extend the vibe.
The way I do this is to lean in and get raw. You can do it to, by getting quiet and leaning into the feelings of compassion, connection and unity you have for the people in Texas. Then you get raw with yourself and imagine extending this feeling to the people you feel are “other” — the guy with an accent that bags your groceries, to the woman you see on the news in hijab, to the stranger on the street, to the whole of America, especially the corners that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Do this with a wide-open heart and suspend the reactive judgment of who “deserves” your compassion with the same clarity you would if you had a boat and they were being swept away by floodwater. Do it as if your life and the unity of your country depended on it.
It hurts so good to do this, to break open the familiar patterns of the heart and breathe more life into it. The more you lean in and get raw from the heart, the more you may find that you feel like you belong not just to the parts of America that are easy, but to the whole crazy, loveable family. The more you’ll also create the experience that always, in good times and bad, we all have each other’s back.
That really would be an answer to prayer.