When I first met my husband, a native North Carolinian, he told me this joke about two little prim and proper Southern old ladies sitting on their front porch.
The first said to the other "My husband got me a Cadillac for my birthday this year!".
The other replied, "That's nice".
The first said, "And last year he bought me diamond earrings!"
"That's nice", replied the second.
"What did your husband get you for your birthday?" asked the first woman.
"Finishing lessons." replied the second.
"Finishing lessons?" asked the first woman, "Whatever for?"
"So I can say 'that's nice'", replied the second, "instead of 'Fuck you!'"
It's a cute joke and very fitting when I'm faced with the phrase "I'll pray for you". This simple phrase uttered daily by millions of people has a very complex meaning, and it all depends on very specific circumstances. Most people would assume, and wrongfully so, that because I am an Atheist, that the phrase, "I'll pray for you" would make me extremely angry and offend me to no end. In fact, this past week while I was in the hospital having emergency back surgery (more on that in a future blog), my Facebook page was flooded with well wishes, thoughts, and yes, even prayers from friends who were thinking of me. What upset me, though, were the posts from people offering prayers who felt they needed to "apologize" for using that terminology, thinking that because I don't pray, I would somehow find their need to do so as a way of wishing me well somewhat offensive. So while lying in the hospital and watching horrible TV shows I would never dream of (admitting to) watching and having really cool painkillers pumped into my IV (seriously, the doctor said that if they gave me any more morphine I was going to stop breathing), I decided I would clarify certain things with my praying friends in hopes that they would understand my mind as an Atheist when it comes to things like that. Notice I didn't say "understand THE mind of an Atheist" as all of us are different and trust me, there are some fuckwad Atheists out there that I'd rather not be associated with. Especially the ones that tell me I can't do Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, but that's a whole other thing all together. Anyhow, I digress. Moving on.
The term "I'll pray for you" has, as I said earlier, different meanings. Specifically, two. The first comes from a place of love, caring, friendship, and the belief that your god (whoever or whatever he/she/it may be) will take time out of their omnipotent schedule (it's a pretty booked one) and nudge a little bit of goodwill by way of you to the person you're praying for. That's awesome. It's a nice sentiment. There's no malice behind it and if anyone thinks there is, they're a dick for thinking it. In most situations where the phrase "I'll pray for you" is being used or "You're in my prayers", someone like me who doesn't pray will say something like, "Thinking of you" or "Positive thoughts coming your way", or the ever intelligent "hugz". There's no need to apologize for saying it. You're wishing someone well. You could be praying to Rangor, god of mute sheep who floods the fields with the blood of newborn lizards, and it still would be coming from a good place. This meaning of "I'll pray for you" is not the one that is offensive. So please, don't ever apologize for saying it.
Now, though, I will deal with the phrase as it is taken as a negative connotation. I'm going to have to use examples since I've never experienced this with an actual friend, so most of my stories will be those of me and random strangers who are dicks. No, I'm not judging. You'll see why.
Example 1 of "I'll pray for you" used as a negative: I am shopping at a grocery store. I am walking to my car with full cart of bags and children singing a random Yo Gabba Gabba song. Woman is near my car. I think she's getting into hers next to me, but in fact she's just staring at my car. I get my keys out to open the trunk. Conversation is as follows:
Her: "Is that your car"
Me: "Yes, I'm sorry did I park too close?"
Her: "You're an Atheist" (My bumper sticker says "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist")
Her: "So you don't believe in Jesus"
Her: "I'll pray for you"
Did you spot the difference? She wasn't sending well wishes. She was using the phrase as a mask instead of saying "Fuck you!" And you can't convince me otherwise because 99% of the time when this happens (and yes, it happens quite often) the person saying "I'll pray for you" isn't merely speaking the words, rather they are spitting them in anger with a face on them that could stop a clock. Seriously, if looks could kill, I'd be dead a hundred times over. I even once had a guy actually spit on my car after saying "I'll pray for you". Are you getting the gist of the different contexts?
Another example of the negativity aspect of "I'll pray for you" can also come in the written form. In this case, when random strangers, leave "love notes" on my car. I call them "love notes" because, as we all know, "god is love" and since these people believe they are speaking for god and followers of god, their notes are in fact, full of "his love". Sorry, I told myself I wasn't going to be snarky, but blame the Percocet because it's kicking in. Anyhow, the most common "love note" I get goes something like "Jesus Christ is Lord. You will burn in hell. I will pray for you". Again, that's not a "get well soon" kind of sentiment. They just don't have the guts to write "Fuck You" and would much rather condescend into some sort of weird passive/aggressive mumbo jumbo that makes them feel better about themselves. "Sure, I left a nasty note on someone's car whose views I disagreed with, but I am praying for them!" Not quite. Sometimes I get some really clever notes, which have the standard text above, but thrown in they will add commentary about my other bumper stickers like "You are a ni**er loving socialist nazi" (must be the Obama sticker), "I feel sorry for your children" (must have seen the car seats in the car), "I hope your children burn for eternity" (see previous), or some that just don't understand the Carl Sagan quote about the Universe and call me a "fucking bitch", "cunt" or tell me to "go kill yourself, then see that you're wrong". But you know what brings all these notes together? They all end with that simple phrase of .....you guessed it...."I'll pray for you".
But it doesn't end there. No no no! It's not "I'll pray for you" that suffers from double meaning, but the phrase like "god bless you", rather anything with "bless" in it falls into the same trap. And again, I have to remind my friends not to apologize if you want to use it in a sentence while talking with me. A while back I went to dinner with a wonderful woman from my book club. She is an Episcopalian Minister, married to her partner for a long long time, and really someone that you come across once in a lifetime. Amazing. While we were eating and talking about our families, life, loves, etc. I noticed that she kept apologizing every time she said "god bless you" or "god bless them" when I was talking about my children or parts of my life. And every time she apologized for saying it, I had to remind her not to because it wasn't offensive to me. I think many religious people think all Atheists are cranky old men like Richard Dawkins who are always looking to pick a fight with theists. You have to understand that we're not. Sure, as I said earlier, there are fuckwads on all sides of the camp, but saying "god bless them" when I tell you a story about my kids isn't going to make me offended or go on a tirade. You're wishing them love as you perceive it. You're sending them positivity from a place that means a great deal to you. Why ever would anyone need to apologize for that?
On the flip side, if you're handing out pamphlets at the park inviting me to your church and I politely say, "No thank you, we are Atheists", and you chuckle, scoff, roll your eyes and say "Well, god bless you then", please don't be surprised if I reply with some snarky comment like, "Well Santa bless you as well".
So you see, there are many ways words and phrases can be used that take on a different meaning when used in different contexts. I wanted to clear this up because I don't ever want anyone to hide or apologize for who they are when they want to wish me or my family well. Goodness knows, I am not one to ever apologize or hide who I am or what I believe and neither should you. No, this is not an open invitation to start throwing bible quotes on my FB timeline or send me "Jesus loves you" pictures or anything of the sort. Just know that if you want to wish me well or luck or whatever and if the way you want to do it is to "pray for me", know that you do not have to apologize for saying it. A perfect example came in an email from another one of my book club members who is a Pastor at a local Presbyterian Church near Dante's school. In his email he wrote " I'll be keeping u in my prayers (u can think of them as nice thoughts if u prefer :))".