Why Do We Still Pray?



On October 19, 1991, a massive firestorm swept through the Oakland hills where we lived. Twenty-five people were killed and 2843 homes were destroyed.  Due in part to a good Samaritan, the fire stopped just before our home.


When I learned the next day that our house had not burned, I remember standing on the sidewalk, going nowhere in particular and repeating over and over: Thank You! Thank you! Then I stopped and asked myself: Whom are you thanking, you numbskull? You don’t believe in God!


When waiting for the result of a test, something in me prays: please let it not be cancer. When the plane I am in shudders and shakes I pray: please don’t crash!


Is the need to pray an inherent part of us? Is it built into our genes? Is it an atavistic vestige of the past no longer needed like an appendix but still working? We have made great scientific advances. We know the answers to many previously obscure questions and we are answering important new questions more and more quickly. We are no longer groping in the dark. We know that there is no God who cares about us individually and can alter things for us and yet we still pray for this favor.


The ultimate curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce wrote, “To pray is to ask the laws of the Universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner.”

When I lived in Beirut   the word “Inchallah” often cropped up in conversations: The doctor would say:

“Tomorrow, Inchallah, you will feel much better.”  I translated it as “hopefully”, but it literally means “God willing”

When the late Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer he asked: “Don’t trouble a Deaf Heaven with prayers for me.” And on September 3, when the President declared

a National Day of Prayer for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, Richard Dawkins tweeted” Yes, God will now feel free to come to the rescue. Er…why did he send the hurricane in the first place?”

Is it possible that we cannot live by reason alone?


How Things Get Their Names


Buenos Aires

Long before it was discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant waters, people believed that the disease was caused by bad air, hence it was named mal aria (bad air.)

A myth about good air is at the origin of the name of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. It was said that the origin of its name was the good air it enjoyed atop a hill.

Another legend has it that the city was named after a Sicilian saint: Nuestra Senora la Virgen Maria de los Buenos Aires who is credited with having helped conquer the place.

Amerigo Vespucci


And that is how names stick long after their origin has been forgotten. Venezuela’s name also boasts of a legend. The area around Lake Maracaibo supposedly reminded the navigator Amerigo Vespucci of the City of Venice, so he named it Piccola Venezia (Little Venice) or Venezuela.


Amerigo Vespucci was also the man who, in 1501 proclaimed that Columbus had not found Asia’s eastern side but a totally different continent, in fact two continents. He had deduced this from noticing the different constellations and observing indigenous customs and habits. In 1507 it was suggested that the continents be named North and South America in his honor. We are lucky that his first name was used in this naming or we would be known today as the United States of Vespucci.


Familiar Scenes From Detective Shows

A woman is walking slowly, carrying a loaded tray. Maybe she is humming a tune or starts to say something to someone. Next scene: The tray has crashed to the ground scattering broken china and food all around. The woman is screaming: “Help! (or Au secours or Aiuto”) depending on which language the drama is in and yes, you knew it: there is a ghastly dead body on the ground (or in the bed, or in an armchair.)

In a male version, a man is walking his dog through a wooded area.  The dog runs off and refuses commands to return.  We know he has found a body.

Here is another familiar scenario: An obviously vulnerable young person gets a phone call: “Sandy (or Amy or Candy,) this is Dana, help me please. I am scared; I am at the deserted X Warehouse. Without a word to anyone the distraught Sandy (or Amy or Candy) jumps in her car, tires screeching, rushing headlong into what we all know is a trap. And yes, we next see her at the warehouse walking hesitantly and calling “Dana where are you?”  Suddenly someone comes from behind and silently encircles her throat. In one variant, a friend has overheard the telephone call and appears just in time to rescue  our heroine. If not, she becomes the second victim. In crime dramas nowadays, multiple victims are in.

Are you ready for this one? A person opens the front door in response to a knock, thinking it is her neighbor or the mail carrier and is confronted by an apparition from the past: He or she is staring fixedly or glaring or grinning widely (you pick) and saying: “So here you are. Long time no see!” We all know an aggrieved person from long ago has arrived to torment and seek revenge.

And now for a Hitchcockian twist.

A young maiden is fleeing a pursuer, running blindly with someone at her heels.  She runs, stumbles, recovers her balance, reaches her front door, gropes for her key, finally inserts it in the lock with great relief, and enters the house only to find her pursuer waiting for her inside.  In some scenarios she then wakes up from a dream.  Other times she is not so lucky.

In a lighter vein, this one is probably from a comedy or a more lighthearted mystery drama.  We have two attractive young people, studiously avoiding each other, or constantly bickering, and making a great show of going out with other people. That is a sure sign that sooner or later they will fall into each others’ arms.

A regular watcher of such shows will often get this sense of deja-vu.  Still, it in no way detracts from the pleasure of watching. On the contrary, you get to enjoy recognizing these situations and detecting these ploys.  You watch to see what variations on familiar themes the author will bring to you.





The Destruction of Statues and History

Saddam Hussein Statue

History is written by the victors. We need to learn what the vanquished might have done, had they prevailed.

We still remember the statue of Saddam Hussein as it teetered, tipped and crashed to the ground amidst great jubilation. This was in 2003 and was supposed to celebrate Iraq’s liberation by American forces. It did not quite turn out that way…but the statue is gone.

In Ukraine, after President Yanukovich was defeated in 2015 and fled to Russia, the Ukrainians got busy removing 1,329 statues of Lenin, arm extended toward a glorious proletarian future. They wanted to be rid of all Soviet symbols. Even so, many such statues are still alive and well in Eastern Ukraine.

Lenin Statue


Another controversy erupted over the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lubyanka Square in Moscow. Dzherzhinsky was the founder of the KGB.  The monument was removed and restored several times, and a replica of the statue now resides in the city of Minsk in Belarus.


Dzherzhinsky Deconstructed

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a big housecleaning of communist life and art occurred. Fortunately for historians, the Moscow Metro underground system escaped this purge and remains intact. The stations are lavishly decorated with murals of historical events statues, bas reliefs and Communist-era paintings. It is a huge underground museum.

There was no such housecleaning in China. There the ubiquitous statues of Mao are still standing in their original places.

In Budapest, Hungary the government built a shrine called Memento Park in which reside 40 statues from the time when the country was a Soviet satellite. Similarly, when Lithuania was liberated from the Soviet Bloc and regained its independence in 1991, it opened Gruntas Park to house hundreds of sculptures of Soviet leaders. The Park was made to resemble a Russian Prison with guard towers to represent oppression.

In France, Marechal Petain was the great hero of Verdun during World War I. And then in a stunning about face he became the leader of the Vichy-Occupied French Government after the fall of France during World War II. The hero turned into a traitor. After liberation of France from the Nazis, all the streets named for him acquired new names. Petain was lucky to avoid being shot like his prime minister, Pierre Laval.

And so to the United States, where we now have our own controversy over Confederate leaders’ statues.In Charlottesville, Virginia, violence erupted over plans to topple monuments to Confederate generals. In Austin, Texas, Robert E Lee’s statue was taken down. Similar battles are occurring in Gainesville, Florida and in Birmingham, Alabama where the mayor hid a confederate monument. And Tennessee is preparing to topple a monument to Nathan Bedford, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.


Hidden In Alabama

Should we remove statues of hateful leaders and those that remind us of offensive events? Perhaps we should, but following the example of other countries, we could create spaces, museums, gardens where these pieces of our history could be gathered, housed and displayed along with information about their times and activities so they could be seen in their proper context. School children could visit to expand their understanding of our common history.


From the Editor: My esteemed author will appreciate and be inspired by any comments you would like to make. Please see the space for this below.


How Easily the Oppressed Become Oppressors

Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on June 16 2012. Aung San Suu Kyi herself spoke at the event and 12 000 people came to celebrate her in the City Hall Square in Oslo.


How easily the oppressed become oppressors. Their suffering has not helped them to feel empathy and compassion for others people’s suffering.
In Myanmar Aug San Sui Kyi spent many years under home arrest because of her activities as an advocate for democracy. For this she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her National League for Democracy party was freely elected in 2015, defeating the entrenched military junta and she then became State Counselor. The country’s constitution did not allow her to become President because she was married to a British citizen. Still this was hailed as a victory for democracy. Much was expected of her.

As it happens the real power remains in the hands of the military and no substantial changes have occurred. Was she their puppet? Did she knowingly make a deal for the sake of gaining the semblance of power?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority of about one million who have lived in the country since the 12th century. In spite of that they are not considered one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship since 1982. They live in one of the poorest states in the country and are subjected to constant persecution and violence. Under British Rule they were considered Indians and now they are basically stateless. This means that their rights to vote, marry and  practice their religion, and their access to basic services are severely restricted. Their homes are being
burned and they are being massacred en masse even as they are fleeing the country. Hundreds of thousands of them are trying to reach Bangladesh and other neighboring countries. En route they are subjected to rape and torture by the Myanmar security forces.

Why is Aug San Sui Kyi not denouncing these atrocities? Why is she talking of Muslim jihadism and calling these people terrorists? In a stance resembling that of our current president’s she is claiming that there is violence on both sides.

Critics have called for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama and Malala Yousefazai have judged her severely and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has accused her of legitimizing genocide.

Were we too hasty in embracing her ? too eager for good news? ….but how could we have known?