Thursday, May 24, 2012

Prayer and Profanity

I usually think of George Albert Smith as an older man, whose physical frailty and vulnerability accentuated his deep generosity and spiritual strength. But last week in elders' quorum, we read a story of when Pres. Smith was a young man who liked to swim out past the breakers on the California coast and then lie on his back and let the swells carry him up and down. I can only imagine how he would have savored the feeling: first getting to use his strength and energy swimming out against the force of the waves, then getting to let go of everything, held up by the steadiness of an ocean that pulses across a third of the earth. I imagine him taking deep breaths of salt-scented air, staring out at an endless blue sky, and feeling utterly at peace as the swells carry him gently up and down.

Except for on the day when he almost died. That day he's swimming out like any other day, diving through the waves as they crest and break over him. Each wave tries to drag him with it, but he's too strong. He always pushes through (no matter how the waves want to toss him side to side), then muscles himself back into position for the next dive. Only this day, a little before he's out safe in the swells, the next wave comes before he's reoriented himself from the last one. And because he's not ready, it grabs him, hard, and slams him all the way down against the ocean floor. And then the undercurrent yanks his weight out from under him, pulls his body farther out to sea, and then up into another wave that pitches him forward and then slams him down, thwack, against the ocean floor again.

He keeps trying to right himself, tries to get back into a familiar rhythm, but the waves keep coming faster than he's used to and they keep pulling him under and then tossing him up. When he's trying to right himself he's at the top of a wave; when he's ready to dive through he's already been pulled under the surface. And he struggles, sure, but it's like a little kid against a grown up's firm grip and pretty soon he realizes he's going to tire out and breathe in water and salt and sand until he dies.

But then he sees, at a disconcerting distance, the pilings under a pier. So he prays. Out of instinct, probably, more than decision. He prays that he can have the strength to make it far enough sideways to reach them and as he prays he keeps struggling and pushing and can finally get his hand up against the rough, barnacled pole.

When the tide pulls out, he wraps his arms and legs around the pole to keep from getting dragged out again. The barnacles cut his chest and thighs and the water runs salt through all the wounds, but he prays for the strength and presence of mind to let go at just the right time for the next wave to carry him to the next pole, where he clings again and gets cut again and stings again and prays again and so on and so on until the water is shallow enough that he can walk and he stumbles up onto the beach and collapses in a heap, exhaling his thanks to God.

That's more or less the story we read. A story about how making prayer a reflex can save your life.

But after I read it, for some reason, all I could think is that I'd be as likely, in a situation like that, to swear as to pray. When honest-to-goodness trouble comes, I'm as likely to curse it as to cry out for help.

Which made me realize: in some ways, prayer and profanity have a lot in common. Fervent prayer works, in part, as a magnifying glass for the power in our spirit--focusing what we have left and merging it with the extra we've given.  

And profanity? I use it to focus all my anger or frustration. And I often find that it multiplies as well as magnifies those negative feelings. Just as prayer can open and channel our capacity for hope, profanity can tighten our sense of defeat, resentment, and despair.

Sunday I prayed in the morning and swore when something went wrong just before I left for church.

So which is becoming my reflex: profanity or prayer?


  1. I just want to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog. I appreciate your perspective on things and I love reading articles from Mormons who are not quite "main-stream Mormons". :) (I am an American Mormon who has lived in Asia for the past 2 years and come from a very liberal background.) Many of your articles have articulated things I feel that I was not able to put into coherent thoughts. Thank you for your blog!

  2. You make such a good point here. It's a question I need to ask myself too! Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. I had an experience kind of like this (though much less dramatic) at BYU-H. I swam too far out and was being pulled out past the point and when I turned back to the shore, I sang "A Child's Prayer" over and over in my head as I gasped and frantically swam back. I probably sang it 15 times before I got back into safe waters. It was a profound experience.

    Also, my husband Adam Stradling served in Berlin with you.

  4. I know for a fact which is almost always my impulse, and it makes me ashamed of what I've become.

    It's nice to know, though, that just because it's what I've become, it doesn't mean it's all I can become (unless a truck hits me today and takes me before I solve it).

    Insightful as always, and whether we're drowning literally, figuratively, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually, we really need to take the time to go to the right Source to receive our help.

  5. I had a conversation with my 9 year old daughter this morning while doing her hair for church (our most interesting conversations happen over her hair). She told me that when something bad happens to her (stubs her toe, gets a splinter) she almost immediately wants to lash out and blame someone around her. She's a very astute girl and recognizes that this is irrational and not right, but like many adults, her negative emotions take over before she has a chance to respond in a more measured way. I said, "Let me tell you a story I just heard about George Albert Smith. . ." and we had a great discussion about becoming the type of person who is more prone to pray than to curse.

    Thank you for your blog. It's worked its way into our family discussions more than once!

    1. I keep thinking about this comment because it's about the highest praise I could ever hope for. It means a lot to me to think that things I've been writing can work their way into the conversations between parents and their children. Thank you for sharing.



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