Tragedy strikes in some part of the world. You scroll down a timeline littered with Tweets and posts on the incident, strewn across cyberspace like the bodies that pile up at the scene of the attacks. The news overwhelms you and for most of us, the first instinct is to offer up a prayer;
For the souls of the departed, unjustly gone too soon.
For their families that grieve, that they will find strength to bear this loss.
Once you’ve finished praying and opened your eyes, as right as rain in our digital era, the prayers have moved beyond silent whispers to hashtags, spawning posts and lamenting articles and impassioned pleas to humanity.
I cringe at the sight of these.
Not because I’m averse to this sudden outpouring of faith – on the contrary, it gives me a sense of peace that I can’t explain. Cries rise to respective deities, because the world has spiralled beyond man’s control. We can do nothing now but pray that we and those affected get through this as humankind.
I cringe because I can almost see, word-perfect, the retort to all these hashtagged prayers.
‘Do you really think prayer is going to help?’
‘Yeah sure, because your imaginary friend is going to fix everything!’
‘Where is your god now?’
Add to this the moral judgments being slung around, branding some as insensitive and unfair for praying for some countries and not others who have seen worse terror. Followed by the standard dismissal of faith at a time like this, a dismissal of faith outright, in all situations.
I have my opinions on these conversations – in the case of the former, I believe all lives are precious and one deserves as much sympathy as the other. I don’t think it’s up to people, much less the media who have such a sway over the masses, to weigh one life as being of more worth than the other through skewed selective coverage. I also don’t think that claiming to pray for everyone just to spite the country with immediate suffering is doing any good. Lift them all up, the last thing they need in death is your judgment.
My problem here is with the people who mock these prayers and those calling out to their god as they suffer through a loss that most of us will only ever read about. Claiming it to be worthless, calling them blind and misguided; by doing this, you’re effectively destroying the only small plank of wood they could find to keep themselves afloat in this shipwreck.
To you, prayer might not seem to hold its own against guns and bombs and the debris of a city that once was. Maybe so, that their fervent recitation won’t bring immediate relief to homes and lives lost.
Still, who are you to tell them not to pray?
I write this not to argue the effectiveness of prayer and the gods that people call on – that is a debate for another day.
I write this because I don’t believe that anyone has the right to degrade how someone else copes with tragedy.
I dare anyone parading their rationality this way to speak to the old aunty in her tiny hut in Northern Sri Lanka, whose husband and children perished during the conflict that ravaged the land, that her pooja are worthless. To try and tear down the shrine she worships every morning, offering coconuts, limes and flowers in the hopes that their souls will rest in peace and that she may depart from her earthly suffering to join them soon.
The couple whose son was taken from them so suddenly, gone but not dead; try and snatch the prayer beads from the old man’s hands. Hear his wife say in her shaking voice, as she uses the saree draped over her head to wipe her tears;
“What has the government done? Only Allah has been there for us through the difficult years.”
Try and silence the low chant rising from bent heads on a sandy ground, as the green bo leaves mingle with the streams of flags fluttering in the wind – embroidered with names and prayers, for the healing of a near-incurable illness, for a grieving family that has just lost their loved ones. Makeshift shrines, cobbled together with the strands of a life already disintegrating, in the refugee camps and resettlement zones once marked by conflict.
I can cite for you psychological studies that identify dependence on faith as one of the most widely-used coping mechanisms in affected communities post-war. Across the globe, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian in Asia and the Middle East. That prayer heals where politics cannot, that a quiet rosary recited over a dead body will do more for the next of kin than some powerful figure’s statement consoling and condemning the massacre. That it is religion that brings the fallen at least to their knees, even if they’re still too weak to stand on their feet. It is not that which brings them the suffering that they pray for redemption from.
A year ago, I spoke to five people who have been affected in some way by the war in Sri Lanka.
Three of the five people, outright and with no probing necessary, stated that something that helped them in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed the trauma was their faith. The religions they’d grown up with, the prayers they were used to saying. For strength, for guidance, for their futures.
‘It was God’s strength that got me through my husband’s death.’
‘We’d chant gaatha as he fought battles far from us in the north.’
‘I said my five prayers and more, hoping he’d return.’
Yes, most of them are still praying. We will never know if most are answered, or whether death will come for the one praying before any sort of justice is served. I do know that when everything else has failed them, I wouldn’t question the one thing giving them hope.
Some will tell you that it’s all they have and that is true.
Aid has failed more than it has helped, disaster relief has left countless in the lurch and medicine cannot heal everyone.
Whether prayer and faith can quantifiably fill in the void is unclear, but if it’s giving someone a semblance of hope and some sort of comfort when their world is falling apart, so be it.