A prayer for healing and soft landings


GIVE ME A BREAK:HEALING SOMETIMES comes in unexpected ways. Everybody has a few black holes of hurt in the soul. These dark stars ache in those moments when you’re not too busy to feel. I imagine them as ragged-edged dark question marks that snag the solar plexus and beg for an answer.

Then something happens: a stranger is kind to you, a friend helps you out when you ask, a child gives you a hug, an aircraft plops into the Hudson River with the grace of an albatross and 155 people walk away alive.

Suddenly, that small black hole inside you marked “9/11” fills with light and you realise that, yes, miracles happen. The black mark becomes a different sort of question: do you believe in angels? I don’t know about you, but I don’t read that card on aircraft that tells you where your lifejacket is, the location of the nearest exit and how to use the slides that will inflate should you land in water.

I’m fatalistic. If I’m going down, it’s going to be in a ball of flames and my only prayer is that it will be quick. My other little quirk is that I always check the other passengers’ auras. A psychic friend of mine from California (of course) told me that doing this saved her life. She was boarding a flight, saw that no one had an aura, and turned back. The aircraft crashed. So maybe you can understand my little foible.

A straw poll of my colleagues and friends on the subject of fear while flying produced the totally unscientific result that four out of five people think about death when they board a flight. A lot of couples with families won’t take flights together if they’re going somewhere together without the children. They fly separately, just in case.

It’s irrational, since the chance of being killed in a car crash is far greater than dying via air. There are even couples who have figured this out and drive separately if they’re going on a long and dangerous drive without the kids. Paranoid or pragmatic? You tell me.

The most dangerous journey of all, of course, is being born, and after that the road to death is fraught with fear. I read a study once that said men think about sex every three minutes and women think about death every three minutes.

On this journey, you can travel with depressive companions or jolly ones and, well, lately pretty much everyone travelling with me through this life has been depressed. Then along came this aircraft scudding out of the sky to land in healing water. The image was so riveting and so right – the exact opposite of the fire and brimstone of 9/11.

The pilot has been hailed as a hero, but he too must have had a few dark spots inside. He was a fighter pilot, one of the best, so he must have killed people. And now he has saved them. Angels come in strange forms, don’t they? I think next time I fly, I’ll pray for life instead of a speedy death. Prayer seems to work sometimes.

Today, for example, the man who some argue was partly responsible for 9/11 is leaving the White House and a new sort of hero is entering it. In cynical Europe, we poke fun at the strong religious feeling of the US, where many people have what they call a personal God, even though they sometimes gather in football stadium-sized churches.

Nevertheless, I think that today when I’m watching the inauguration on TV, the main thought in my mind will be: their prayers worked – even the Republican’s prayers, since, if they were truly Christian, they got a result that the angels have smiled upon. This afternoon and evening, over many hours of unmissable news coverage, we will see that the slaves and the immigrants and the lost souls who prayed hard for goodness and healing will finally have their day.

What a soppy sentiment, you might say. How dare we believe that a moment of healing has come to the US, and thus to the world? Let’s keep it in perspective. The new president – an intellectual, writing president who has something of the idealistic preacher about him – has his work cut out.

I, for one, am glad that the US Supreme Court refused to take the line out of the inauguration ceremony where the new president vows to serve God. Because just as hell is other people, so is God. We’re the angels in each others’ lives when we get the chance to be. You don’t have to believe in angels to be touched by them.

I was once accused by a fellow journalist, many years ago, of coming across like a proselytising Billy Graham when I said on TV that getting through cancer with my husband had been a mission of hope, and I certainly don’t want to sound like a prissy preacher’s daughter now. I think my idealism has been well and truly beaten out of me by this stage. All I know is that wasn’t the last time for me that praying worked, even if prayer is no more than good intentions.

And with the election of Barack Obama, the US’s prayers have worked. So maybe, just for today, we can give ourselves permission to hope, to fly together on a historic journey that deserves our goodwill, even though we are all going to die eventually one way or another.

Or, to put it another way, in the words of a previous president, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.