Religious well-wishers’ healing wishes unwelcome – By Joan Reisman-Brill

By Joan Reisman-Brill


On June 30, at the very end of a lovely vacation in Spain, I was struck by a Barcelona city bus, which came to a stop on my feet (crunch), then backed off (double crunch). I was bleeding from the head, scraped on one side, bruised on the other, and my feet were throbbing.

Although I never completely lost consciousness (and accurately told the emergency medics my name, where I was and that I thought my feet were broken), for a while I literally didn’t know what hit me.

After a round of medical imaging, it was determined that my brains and ribs were intact, but I had fractured multiple bones in both feet and had a very nasty “road burn” on one ankle near the bone. I was told that if it became infected, I could lose that foot. After a week back in the U.S., it did become infected and I was hospitalized for four days of IV antibiotics, followed by skin graft surgery.

Although my husband practices Judaism and we have friends who are devout Christians, I’m an atheist — something I don’t hide, but I also don’t constantly advertise. Despite doing all we could to head it off, we were inundated with religious friends and acquaintances (even people I thought disliked me because of my atheism) avidly praying for me in synagogues and churches and sending cards, flowers, gifts and platitudes.

It’s not that we have that many friends or are particularly beloved, it just seems to be what religious people are conditioned to do. People told me how I should thank God that I wasn’t killed, that I sustained no additional damage, that my injuries would heal “all in good time.”

When I said I wasn’t thankful to any god who would throw me under a bus, but that I was thankful for the excellent care my husband and I had pulled together, the worshippers didn’t seem to hear. 

I abandoned my wheelchair and crutches after 10 weeks and started walking without as much as a cane. I am now going up and down stairs and hills with increasing ease and decreasing discomfort, and I expect to be fully recovered soon, with just a couple of scars as reminders.

Weeks after I was out of the hospital and “out of the woods” in terms of serious health risks, I received an email from the family rabbi, who had just heard what happened. She (yes, she!) apologized for not being aware sooner and asked if there was anything I needed. I said no thanks, we’re doing fine. And that, I thought, was that.

But last weekend my husband was in the synagogue and mentioned my accident to a woman who is aware of my godless views. She asked him if this experience had changed my tune, and he reported, “Not at all.” (I’m told I’m hard-headed, in more ways than one.)

Then we got a call from a synagogue committee lady we’ve never met. She had just been told (by that woman) about my injuries. The committee wanted to send food and social services and visitors — strangers! — to pray over me immediately. I did my best to convince the nice lady that I’m literally back on my feet already.

Minutes later, we got a call from another woman, who basically runs the synagogue. She wanted to double-check with us because the committee lady was arranging to unleash all that stuff upon us, despite the fact that we had firmly declined. 

This time my husband succeeded in calling off the dogs. But he also assured everyone that the rabbi had personally been in touch with me, so no one could accuse her of being remiss in her duties. We’d hate to get anyone in trouble because I didn’t want an avalanche of well-meaning but unwelcome outpourings.

Chicken soup helps whom?

Just as I have a need to do community service as much as the community needs my service, I’m sure these lovely people require unfortunate souls to whom they can bring chicken soup and prayers for their own fulfillment. Imagine how disappointing it would be for a prayer group to rush over and find me up and about. I’d have to drag the wheelchair out of the closet and sit in it with a pained smile to make them feel good about themselves. Then after the prayers, I’d leap up and declare myself miraculously healed. Hallelujah!

Although I hardly think the “caring community” component is sufficient cause to convert anyone, the kind of services typical of religious organizations could be extremely beneficial to nonbelievers in times of adversity (as well as good times, such as weddings and births), if they could simply dispense with all the god talk and focus on what would truly be helpful.

Like doing only things that would lighten the load rather than add to it. My husband and I expended a lot of energy fielding phone calls and politely fending off or entertaining prayerful visitors when what we both really needed was rest and time to take care of ourselves.

It would be great if nonreligious people could, like our religious counterparts, instantly hook up with helping hands — without anyone blathering about God’s mysterious ways and how we should be thankful that things aren’t worse. We would have been glad to accept “productive” support that didn’t come with invisible (but audible) strings attached.

Many people told me my accident is a clear sign that I was saved for a higher purpose. I agree. That purpose is to reaffirm my atheism, to serve as an example that with excellent medical care, wonderful family and friends and taking responsibility for ourselves, we can survive and thrive after traumatic episodes — without resorting to piety in moments of weakness.

I want to spread the good news: People who rally around injured associates can help them get back on their feet faster if they skip the prayers and focus on things that really help. I would also remind people to always be super careful crossing the street, no matter what the light says.

That’s my mission, and I choose to accept it. It’s not impossible.


New York FFRF member Joan Reisman-Brill writes a humanist column titled “The Ethical Dilemma.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation