After my dad recovered, I talked to an old friend about my parents' confidence in prayer and their belief that God had intervened. Rather than praise the inexplicable glory of God, my friend thought we should exalt the devotion and ingenuity of man. Or, as she put it: "It just bugs me how people want to give all the credit away, as if we were all just useless sinners who didn't know how to take care of ourselves or each other." In other words, maybe it wasn't prayer that made my dad better—maybe it was all that chemo. Or the scope with tiny scissors that removed nine moldy tumors from his bladder without his even having to check in to the OR. Or the meticulous doctor who managed his case with such vigilance.
I liked my friend's take on things: Up with people and their hard work and cool inventions. But I kept thinking back to my father's initial prognosis. The urologist to whom I attributed my dad's stunning recovery had told us to brace for the worst. Ten months later, when he declared my father a healthy man, that same doctor said he couldn't explain "how on earth" my dad was disease-free. Could I really give all the credit to a doctor who shrugged his shoulders and said it was anybody's guess how George Corrigan survived?
The art of growing up is coming to terms with the disturbing fact that even the very smartest people don't always have the answers. Let us remember that it was only a generation or so ago when new mothers smoked cigarettes on the maternity ward while nurses fed the infants nice big bottles of formula. Only two years ago, children were still being taught to believe that poor Pluto was a planet. If history teaches us anything, it's that the truth is subject to change. This means that what is standard practice now may someday be eschewed, in the same way that no health-conscious person puts plastic in the microwave anymore. It also means that notions we now consider dubious may, somewhere down the road, become widely accepted. So might we eventually say, "Can you believe that people used to doubt the power of prayer?"
In fact, the federal government has underwritten elaborate studies asking this very question. Online, I've found a pile of research suggesting a measurable, therapeutic benefit to prayer and prayerful meditation. Sure, the link can be explained away; like any type of quiet meditation, prayer is relaxing, and relaxation has proven physiological benefits. But a click away from the reports was a survey of physicians—a clear majority of whom pray for their patients. So prayer isn't just for my gullible parents. And if doctors can get to belief, might I?
If there is a God, he knows how much I want there to be more to human existence than a series of discrete physical experiences that start with birth and end with death. I want all of us—and all our lives—to be meaningful. But small. I'd be elated to learn that this go-round is only part one of something that has a thousand parts. I'd love to laugh at this life from a distance. As it is, I relish the fact that I am one of six billion people the way my mother revels in Pavarotti's recording of the Ave Maria. Being one in six billion means my life can't possibly matter to anyone but me and my little flock—which means that all my mistakes and failures and anxieties are utterly inconsequential. When I forget this, when things begin to matter too much and I find it hard to get a good, deep breath, I close my eyes and imagine flying over houses, lifting off the roofs and seeing all the people whose existence is concurrent with mine. I imagine them arguing, cooking, hugging, suffering and laughing, living and dying. Each of us a little bitty fish in an inconceivably large pond, swimming in circles, nothing to do but enjoy the water.