Friday, April 20, 2012

The powers of prayer and grandmothers

I've my regular ABC column up today, 'Prayer is delusional but its power can be real'.

I'm looking into the benefit, dangers and delusions of prayer. A sample:
While an Archives of Internal Medicine report revealed that a third of American respondents used prayer for medicinal purposes, research reported in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine found no demonstrable effects from intercessory prayer (IP). The review concluded that: 
 ... given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.

Other studies have demonstrated that prayer, like meditation, can improve psychological health, and hence blood pressure and other physiological signs of well-being. Summarising over 30 studies, the Medical Journal of Australia concluded that: 
... both Judaeo-Christian and Eastern religious practices were associated with reduced blood pressure and improved immune function; moreover, Zen, yoga, and meditation practices correlated with lower levels of stress hormone and cholesterol and better overall health outcomes in clinical patient populations. 
But there is no evidence that prayer succeeds through supernatural intervention. In other words, if kind prayer works, it is because people are listening to others or themselves – not because a god has heard and heeded the words.
I also had a column in the Canberra Times, 'Why grandmothers are key to familial well-being'. I was discussing the benefits of time with grandparents - for parents, children and grandparents themselves.  A sample:
In all families, there is the danger that people become symbols: cooking and cleaning mother, the providing father, the quaint, archaic nanna. ''I loved my grandparents, but they seemed very old - certainly for as long as I remember them, they were stereotypically old,'' Professor Rosenthal told Melbourne University's Voice lift-out. ''Neither they nor their friends drove. The women didn't work outside the home.'' 
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But it can lead to an unnecessary distance between generations. The psyche's subtle inner universe can become a more limited persona or role.  
But as grandmothers spend more hours with their grandchildren, many kids will be given an important opportunity: to see their nannas and grandmas in all their subtlety and vivacity; with their variable moods, ideas, memories. They may not notice this at first, but over the decades, this will provide a valuable corrective to the myth that older generations are just faded sepia versions of real human beings. 
And this is not only valuable for children. Parents get to rediscover their own mothers and fathers as caregivers, and reflect on their impressions of childhood. This enriches memory, and offers clarifying contrasts with familiar habits. And the grandmothers, meanwhile, can redefine themselves as child-rearers: a new, mindful balance of proximity and detachment. Often more educated and professional than their predecessors, the ''new-age nannas'' can combine public achievement with domestic finesse, and hopefully the ripe wisdom of age.
(Images: El Greco's 'St. Dominic Praying' and Paul Hoecker's GroƟmutter und Enkelin am Kamin)

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