When I consider the man I want to become someday, I often picture myself as someone who prays. I have no idea why this impulse is so persistent or where I would direct my prayers or why I haven’t yet become this man. But I enjoy imagining myself climbing out of bed and kneeling before a devotional image. Whenever I see someone unrolling a mat and kneeling towards the east, I envy the sense of orientation this must provide as their thoughts turn to otherworldly matters or the workings of the soul.

This morning I started reading Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, and I already know it will be an essential book for me. I’m only on page 40, but this feels like the most prescient American dystopia: a climate crisis that leads to desperate violence and reactionary politics. And Butler writes beautifully about god through the voice of a spiritualized fifteen-year-old:

A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of. Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?

But what is this urge to pray? My first thought speeds past the philosophical, evolutionary, and aesthetic reasons, and unexpectedly lands on a few lines from Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem:

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

It’s a challenging, even troubling thought, but it’s also humbling—which might be the point of prayer.