Once when I was a teenager I was reprimanded for not praying out loud during a funeral. Everyone except me was audibly praying together and I heard about it afterwards. At the time I felt this rebuke was unfair because I had been fervently praying silently, but that didn’t matter.
Back then I had the idea that prayer was a personal communication between you and your God. If that was true then it wouldn’t matter if you prayed audibly or silently – the message would presumably get through. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in the context of a funeral. The audible prayers at a funeral was directed at the other mourners, not the deceased or God. It was a social interaction, a communal activity displaying solidarity in grief and faith. A silent and personal prayer would not do; it must be an open demonstration to your social circle.
Today our social circles have changed yet the same social habits remain. After the terrorist attacks in Paris the popular act on social media was to change your profile picture with an overlay of the French flag. This showed your solidarity and support to the French people as well as our collective grief. In this way it was very similar to an audible group prayer at a funeral.
I understand the attractiveness of the French flag overlay, but it was too easy for me. It would have cost me neither time nor effort and this made it less meaningful. In fact, in regards to actually solving the problem of terrorism all of us are making the least effort possible. We bomb ISIS from afar. We change our profile pictures. Poland and various US states refuse refugees. An American presidential candidate wants to identify and track Muslims by putting them in a national database. Maybe he will order them to wear a yellow crescent as well.
There is no effort here. This is water taking the path of least resistance. To deal with this phenomenon, to understand it, is going to take some work.
For almost two years I have been thinking and writing about this. My next novel will seem disturbingly familiar to people who have been following the news in Europe. Mass migration, terrorism, religious extremism, the rise of nationalist parties: it’s all there. My editor has been wishing that it was ready for publication now because it is eerily prescient.
But why should I put so much time and effort into writing about this when I could change my profile picture in three seconds? The end result is the same: a demonstration of my empathy. Well, to be blunt I find writing of value and changing profile pictures to be of no value to me. In fact, if I had changed my profile picture it would have demeaned all the work I have done in writing.
Writing is like prayer to me. It is an act of creation with a higher power, while your editor and readers are like priests who see if your theology is up to snuff. So while so many of my friends were changing their profile pictures to show their solidarity with Paris I was writing about it. Much like I said when I was a teenager, just because you didn’t hear me praying out loud didn’t mean I wasn’t.