A Feature Review of
Help. Thanks. Wow.: The Three Essential Prayers
Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar.
Anne Lamott opens her newest book, Help. Thanks. Wow.: The Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead 2012) with these words: “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.” Reading that, I silently uttered one of the three prayers that Lamott presents as essential: “Thanks.” The notion that life-changing prayer can be simple was a message I needed to hear.
I have struggled with prayer for years. The conversational style of prayer preferred by my evangelical college fellowship often struck me as too outward, too talky. While I am philosophically intrigued by prayer techniques that are more about presence than language, such as centering prayer, I inevitably fall asleep (all that deep breathing). In my middle age, I have embraced two primary forms of prayer: Reciting prayers written by other people (most especially from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer), which allows the Spirit to pray in me using words I can’t come up with on my own; and brief, spontaneous prayers uttered in response to whatever events, images, and feelings are part of my day. In Help. Thanks. Wow., Lamott offers the latter sort of prayer as essential for renewal and hope, even (or particularly) in life’s most difficult moments.
In the first and strongest section, on the call for help, Lamott argues that admitting our need for something beyond ourselves is the first step to healing and wholeness. We experience God’s presence when we admit the “three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” She reassures us that we can pray for our sick cat as well as for a dying friend. God will not mind. She recommends the practice of a God box in which you write down and then deposit whatever it is with which you are so “toxically, crazily obsessed,” which allows you to let go of your obsession long enough to breathe. “In many cases,” Lamott insists, “breath is all you need. Breath is holy spirit. Breath is Life. It is oxygen. Breath might get you a little rest. You must be so exhausted.”
*** Other Books by Anne Lamott
This is classic Anne Lamott, calling readers to recognize and begin to let go of our many neuroses, quirks, and petty angers, and to name our deep grief, in part by revealing her own. Throughout the section on asking for help, as well as the next two, on gratitude (“thanks”) and awe (“wow”), she tells a few brief autobiographical stories. A morning spent with two friends, one of them debilitated by ALS, started out in disappointment as the weather did not cooperate, but ended in “radical gratitude for whatever life throws at you.” Her son Sam, when he was young, described the experience of awe by explaining that we call God “God” because “when you see something so great, you just go, ‘God!’”
Help. Thanks. Wow., however, lacks the narrative structure of my favorite Lamott books, including Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies. In these books, Lamott drops delectable tidbits about Jesus and God and human nature into relatable stories about a sleepless baby or childhood hurts or caring for a friend who has cancer. Help. Thanks. Wow. is a collection of such delectable tidbits gathered together into one rich treat. If her more narrative-driven books are like a loaf of fruit-studded bread, lots of narrative substance enhanced by intense, surprising theological insights, Help. Thanks. Wow. is like a particularly delicious dessert—highly satisfying in the moment, but lacking the staying power of Lamott’s other spiritual writings. When I am struggling, I’m more likely to recall a story from one of her other works than one of the witty and wise spiritual truths that fill Help. Thanks. Wow.
Lamott’s tendency to write about Jesus in an authentic but non-exclusive way, as well as her public identity as an outspoken California lefty who voted for Obama and doesn’t think Jesus is particularly concerned about gay people being gay, make her suspect in the eyes of some Christians. Help. Thanks. Wow. will likely make such readers uncomfortable, because Lamott makes clear that this is a book about prayer, not Christian prayer explicitly. To her, prayer is quite simply about honesty, a desire to connect with something outside of ourselves, and a willingness to invite light and air into our dark, stagnant places.
Lamott asks, “Can you imagine that you have a true self, way down deep inside, a self that will still be there even if your mind goes? If you can imagine that, it’s not such a huge step to imagine yourself believing in any sort of higher power, to whom you could say, “Hey.’” She is not hung up on what you name your higher power or how you picture it. If you like, she will lend you hers, “a sweet brown-eyed Jew who will want you to get glasses of water for everyone, and then come to the beach for some nice fish.”
I am no fan of wishy-washy spirituality, but nevertheless think that Lamott is on to something here. Sometimes, the mere act of reaching out to something other than our pitiful selves, something greater, leads to healing and grace and perhaps even faith. I think of the memoirist Mary Karr, who grew into a vibrant Roman Catholic faith after her fellow AA members convinced her to pray to a higher power that she didn’t yet believe in.
It is hubris to believe that God, a presence “way bigger than we could ever imagine in our wildest dreams,” would be stymied by a desperate person’s attempt to connect with a force other and greater, simply because that person calls out to “the light” or “the truth” or “some something” rather than “God.” Rejecting Lamott’s wisdom because she uses language welcoming to those who aren’t Christian, or even religious, misses her point.
Her point is simple: To thrive in whatever life circumstances are ours, to love others well, to work for peace and justice, we must become disentangled from our selfish, controlling, damaged selves. We do that by praying—calling for help when we realize we and the world are broken beyond our ability to repair, giving thanks for blessings big and small, and expressing awe at those things that so extremely dwarf our human interests and capabilities, from the falling of the Twin Towers to the “tang of apples, death, and woodsmoke” that mark the coming of autumn.
The recognition of our human frailty and failings, the notion that rising above those failings requires help far beyond human capability, the cry of despair or gratitude or awe as the best way we know to access that help—that all sounds pretty Christian to me.
Anne Lamott’s Help. Thanks. Wow. is a bracing little refresher course for those convinced of prayer’s necessity but sometimes flummoxed by its purpose and execution. For those who have never or rarely prayed, who are grappling in the dark for something to grab onto outside of their broken selves, it might just be a lifeline.
Ellen Painter Dollar is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012).