Lost Connections by Johann Hari is a very good book. You can tell it’s a good book because it has endorsements from Hilary Clinton and Dr Max Pemberton and Elton John. You can tell it’s well researched because it has almost 60 pages of footnotes. You can tell it connects with a current topic because the author’s 2019 TED talk on the subject has been viewed 5 million times. It’s about depression: “why you’re depressed and how to find hope”.
Hari tells the story of his own depression and medication. He engages in detailed dialogue with a wide range of scientists and psychiatrists and their work. He movingly shares stories of hope. He points us towards ways of reconnecting with ourselves, our world, our work and our fellow human beings which address the root causes rather than the chemical effects of our depression.
Hari leaves no stone unturned in his quest to explore the causes of depression and find solutions…. Well, almost no stone. Apparently ‘there is evidence that people who pray become less depressed’…. But Hari is ‘an atheist so that’s not on the table’ for him. Clearly I don’t think Atheists should be forced to pray against their will, but the admission seems particularly odd to me as a praying reader in the middle of such a thorough and well written piece of work.
I’ve seen a few bits of research into the efficacy of prayer over the years. I really don’t believe that it’s possible to quantify it well. This is partly because people do other things when they pray – they try to stop their mind racing around, they might be still or quiet or alone – all of which have effects in their own right regardless of any prayer taking place. It’s also partly because if, like me, you believe that prayer is a two way thing then to whom or what you pray to matters. A conversation with an abusive partner will not have the same effect on someone’s mood as a conversation with a kind friend or with a chat with a proverbial brick wall.
Jesus described God as a kind Father who know our needs and loves us. To pray is to reconnect with him. Jesus advises us to pray with reverence and awareness of our own frailty, but with boldness, clarity, integrity and hope. The prayers of the bible range from quiet submission to raging confrontation – from the heart and in the language of the time. Answers to prayer in the bible and today come in many forms – a feeling, a change of circumstances, a picture in the imagination, a verse of scripture on the page or from the memory bank or a new boldness to face the day. This is impossible to quantify – like any relationship. It’s also worth saying that prayer may initially be bad for us, where our lives are invested in habits and economies which oppose God’s good plans for the world. But where prayer is directed to the true God, the relationship established is ultimately good for us. Because God is good.
Which is why I think Johan Hari would do well to get over his prejudice and pray. Read the book – it’s full of hope.. But don’t dismiss prayer at this time of disconnection.