Help, Thanks, Wow

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books) $17.95

Photo by Gary Leonard, courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles

Anne Lamott in conversation with Father Greg Boyle.
(Photo by Gary Leonard, courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

“I do not know much about God and prayer but I have come to believe, over the last twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.” Those are the opening words of Anne Lamott’s new book, Help, Thanks, Wow.

Lamott is best known for her memoir, Traveling Mercies, and her incredibly popular book about writing, Bird by Bird. In this short but enticing book about prayer she argues for honesty with God. “My belief,” she writes, “is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God…. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if you exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real—really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table” (6-7). But more than mere argument, she models the raw honesty that she believes brings us into proximity to God. In this book, as in her earlier ones, she is transparent about her own weaknesses. She speaks often of alcoholism, drug addiction and the deliberate attention to her sobriety, the alienation of her childhood, the pain of loss, migrane headaches and other challenges of every day life.

In perhaps the most profound line in the book, Lamott writes:

If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.

These three truths roughly correlate to the three prayers. In finally recognizing our ruined condition and how little control we have over virtually everything, we cry, “Help!” In response to the deepening sense of being loved we respond, “Thanks!” and then “Wow!”

Anne Lamott is nothing if not relatable. I laughed and nodded along with the rest of the audience as we listened to her easygoing conversation with Father Greg Boyle at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles event this past Monday evening. She makes you feel smarter and more spiritual by her self-deprecating humor. If only we could all wear our woundedness with such honesty we, too, could be best selling authors, I found myself thinking.

The “Help” chapter is the longest by several pages and Wow is the shortest. I pointed this out to her and asked whether it might be a function of her experience, figuring most human beings have more experience with Help than Thanks. Even less with Wow. She offered a different explanation. “‘Help’ is the hardest prayer,” she said, “and the most profound. It the stuff of great literature and movies; when a character is driven to their knees by the futility of their own ideas. If you can pray, ‘Help,’ you’re half way home.”

I was once again feeling better about my chances—chances of surviving the challenges life throws my way or of finding a deeper connection with God—even if I’m never a best selling author.

RB

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