A while ago I wrote a blog post called A Sense of Future and the Act of Killing, where I discussed how morality is tied up in our projections of the future. I want to play on this ‘sense of future’ idea, because I think it is integral to how we function as human beings. We spend a great deal of our time thinking about the future, and we don’t even realize it, especially when we’re thinking in terms of hours, days, or weeks. If we start thinking about months, years, or decades, thought becomes difficult and requires more time, energy and the supplementation of a hot or alcoholic beverage. And there’s a very obvious reason for this – the further into the future we want to project, the more we rely on our imagination.
In the short term, we know there’s a very good chance we will be finishing work at a certain hour, eating and drinking at some point, coming into contact with certain people, driving our cars, taking a certain route to work, etc. We also know there’s a slim chance some of these things might not happen (as has been our experience), but as we expect to do the same or similar things as the days before, there’s a good chance our immediate futures will reflect our immediate pasts.
So, as we use our imaginations to predict our future, we use our pasts as a kind of truth or likelihood gauge. Even when we expect something different to happen, we factor in our past experiences in order to prepare ourselves. For example, if you’re expecting a family member to visit tomorrow, there might be a few things you feel the need to prepare – stock up on food and beverages, be ready to discuss an important issue, and get rid of allergy inducing pet hair/feathers. From past experience we remember that the family member likes these foods and drinks, the important issue might require you to remember and think about past events, and from experience we know that a vacuum cleaner can get rid of pet debris.
One way that humans try to minimize apprehension of future events, especially when they believe there is nothing in their past experience that is any comfort, is to try and control the future. However, most of us realize that this is impossible, and so in the face of this problem we really try to ‘control’ ourselves, and we do this in at least three ways. Firstly, we deny the future event – we convince ourselves it is not going to happen, or not happen in the way that causes us apprehension. Secondly, we prepare as best we can by forecasting what we might need to know at the arrival of said event. Thirdly, we acknowledge that the future event could be a mixed bag of both good and bad things, thus minimizing our sense of doom. The strategy we choose will of course be influenced by our past experiences.
Prayer, in part, is an attempt to control the future. It is the expression of a desired outcome, usually one that the ‘prayer-ist’ has decided is the best (based on past experience). For example, praying for a sick relative. Sickness results in pain and grievance, experience with the relative while they were not sick was pleasurable, and we have forecast (based on past experience) that their death will cause many problems, both emotional and logistical. While expressing the desire for this outcome, we are imagining a future and planting these desirable ideas in our minds. When we do this, we have created a positive memory, which when recalled, allows for the re-experience of positive emotion. This lays the groundwork for hope. The rest of the prayer could involve a meditative element, or validation of the procedure – thanking the deity or genie in advance, and placating them in the time-honored traditions.
The efficacy of prayer is of course measured by the number of desires coming to pass AND accepting that if they don’t come to pass that the prayer was simply not in the best interest of the deity or genie. Where prayer is taught, one is also told that whatever the outcome, it is for the best. However, those whose prayers never seem to come to pass, will be faced with doubt and dissonance (their experience with prayer is not good). There is any easy way to improve your ratio of prayers that come to pass to those that do not, and it comes from the application of your imagination. Pray for things that you have a lot of experience with and for events that are in your immediate future. For example, pray that the Sun will rise and fall tomorrow, that you will eat and drink at some point, talk to your friends again, you’ll see cars and buses, you’ll receive a paycheck, or watch a movie soon – past experience dictates the extreme likelihood of all of these things, and will ease the burden of the abject failure of the big prayers – the ones that require a departure from past experience and are expected in the ‘unforeseeable’ future.