I received a call from a woman I’ve worked for and with over many years. I’d consider her a very good friend, but not a close friend. She’s married to a holistic chiropractor and they have a strong belief in the supernatural. She’s the sort of person I’d usually stay clear of, but our relationship developed through our crafts. I do architectural ironwork and she does high end interior design. She’s brought me the most interesting and lucrative work I’ve had, been fun and easy to work with, and she’s backed me up when a project has run into serious trouble, largely due to my flakiness. While I rarely see her outside of a working context, I respect her and care about her. We’ve never discussed our belief systems.
She told me last night that she has been undergoing radiation for uterine cancer. It’s hard to assess, but it sounds like her situation is very bad, but not hopeless, and she is struggling with severe side effects from the therapy.
She asked me to pray for her. Gulp…...
What is the moral, ethical, and humane response? The choices I’ve identified so far are:
1. Mutter something reassuring and vague about keeping her in my thoughts and “sending energy her way”
This has been my response so far and I’m pretty uncomfortable with it. Somehow it seems cowardly, insincere, and disrespectful.
2. Express my concern but attempt to explain my Skeptical/Humanist philosophy and that I don’t think prayer would have any effect on her condition.
This may be a more honest approach, but she’s lying in bed, bleeding steadily, with a feeding tube down her nose, radiation sores on her back, facing the fact that she may very likely die miserably and soon. She clearly is comforted by her faith. For me to respond in this manner seems like it would be superior and cruel. An extreme result might be to instigate some kind of crisis of faith. It would be hard to imagine that being a good thing in the circumstances. Maybe she’d feel I was an arrogant, unfeeling, jerk unwilling to support her. I really don’t want her to think that of me. As I’ve said, she’s treated me better than I’ve deserved.
3. Go along with her request and tell her I’ll pray for her.
This seems dishonest. I suppose as a skeptic I can justify praying by telling myself that there is some infinitesimal chance that her supernatural world is valid, it can’t do any harm and, if she’s aware I’m doing it, may provide her emotional support. It also raises the question of whether I actually go through some kind of prayer ritual, (an idea that is pretty repellent to me), or basically just “shine her on”.
For me, this quandary really raises questions about the idea of “Supportive Humanism”. I’m not aware that the accepted philosophical structure of Humanism really deals much with illness and death. I’m comfortable with that. Death, in my opinion, isn’t some graduation ceremony where if you’ve followed all the rules you get the big reward. Living, here and now, is my focus, death just means I have to stop. But do we have a language of comfort? How do we express our concern and the awareness and regret we feel for another person’s pain and fear? Can we translate our ideas benevolently into a language suitable for such a situation as I find myself in?
I’m sure I haven’t thought of all the possible responses. I respect, and, (maybe more accurately), admire the quality of thought in this forum. If any of you who read this have thoughts or suggestions I’d very much appreciate your responses.