Anne Lamott Distills Prayer Into 'Help, Thanks, Wow'

Nov 19, 2012
Originally published on November 20, 2012 8:44 am

As Thanksgiving draws near, many of us are thinking about what we're thankful for — taking time to consider how best to appreciate what we have in our lives. This year, novelist and memoirist Anne Lamott has focused on using prayer to help express our thanks. Many of her books explore how individuals can transform their lives — how one moves from being troubled to feeling whole. In Lamott's case, she suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse; after hitting rock bottom, she found her faith.

Lamott has a new book out called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Lamott speaks with NPR's Renee Montagne about asking for guidance, offering gratitude and expressing wonder.


Interview Highlights

On the first essential prayer, Help, and the common belief that a request for help marks the beginning and end of praying

"Well, I've heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there's a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you've run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else's behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.

"And when you're done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, 'Help.' People say 'help' without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever."

On the idea that many pray only when they need something

"A lot of the time we don't know when we're surrendering that we're actually, at the same time, maybe establishing connection ... to a power greater than ourselves — or something in the next concentric circle out whose name is not me. So, that to me is where help begins. You know, we're often ashamed of asking for so much help because it seems selfish or petty or narcissistic, but I think, if there's a God — and I believe there is — that God is there to help. That's what God's job is."

On the second prayer, Thanks

"Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. ... It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. ... The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.

"It's amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn't have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can't help but say thank you."

On the third prayer, Wow

"Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we're finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. ... When I don't know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, 'Wow.' ... You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, 'Wow. This is great.' Wow is the prayer of wonder."

On the way she thinks about prayer

"Prayer is not about saying, 'Oh, I think I'm going to pray now.' Or, 'Oh, I see I've made a notation here to pray at 2:15.' It's about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. ...

"It's sort of like blinking your eyes open. ... It's sort of like when the Wizard of Oz first — when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it's like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, 'Wow!' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This Thanksgiving week, many of us are thinking about what it means to give thanks. That's also on the mind of our next guest, author Anne Lamott. Many of Lamott's books examine how one moves from being troubled, to being whole. She knows that journey well. She's been an alcoholic, and an addict. It was when she hit bottom that she became a Christian, and discovered the warm embrace of a church. Anne Lamott's newest book is called "Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers." She joined us to talk about it from Sonoma County, California.

Good morning.

ANNE LAMOTT: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the first prayer in this book. And the prayers - in order - are Help, Thanks, Wow. So the first prayer in this book is Help. For many people, that's the beginning and the end of prayers. They pray when they're a little bit desperate, or they need something. Talk to us about that.

LAMOTT: Well, I've heard people say that God is the gift of desperation. And there's a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you've run out of any more good ideas or plans for everybody else's behavior, or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation. And when you're done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, help. People say help without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer. And it is the hardest prayer because you have to admit "defeat," quote-unquote. You have to surrender - which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.

MONTAGNE: What would be a prayer that you would say, in this category?

LAMOTT: I would say help. Help!

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Help!

LAMOTT: Help me!

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well - but as in, what's the range? Because I actually think there are people who don't think of themselves as praying...

LAMOTT: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: ...and the sad part might be, they don't get much out of it because they only think of praying when they need something.

LAMOTT: Well, I wrote a prayer - an original prayer - in the Help section that says, "Hello - sort of bitterly. I feel really doomed. I'm out of good ideas. It's all hopeless, but I was wondering if possibly, you might step into this mess." And - so that a lot of the time, we don't know, when we're surrendering, that we're actually at the same time, maybe establishing connection or - like a telephone call, to a power greater than ourselves; or something in the next concentric circle out, whose name is not "me."

So that, to me, is where help begins. And you know, we're often ashamed of asking for so much help because it seems selfish or petty or narcissistic. But I think if there's a God - and I believe there is - that God is there to help. That's what God's job is.

MONTAGNE: Of the many ways in this book that you describe what prayer is, there's one section - which I'd like you to read - where you speak of prayer as our real selves trying to communicate with the real.

LAMOTT: Yeah, or what the Greeks called the really real. (LAUGHTER) Do you want me to read it?

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

LAMOTT: (Reading) Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big, disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers, we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases, it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond shadow and illusion, to something beyond our modest receptors to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.

MONTAGNE: That is a pretty compelling definition of prayer.

LAMOTT: Well, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to your second essential prayer, which you call Thanks.

LAMOTT: Yes. Thanks is the prayer of relief that there - that help was on the way; that either the cavalry arrived, or that the plates of the earth shifted and that somehow, you got your sense of humor back; or you avoided the car that was right in front of you, that you looked about to hit. And so it could be the pettiest, dumbest thing. But it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. And you say - the full prayer, in its entirety, is thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.

MONTAGNE: Hmm.

LAMOTT: It's amazement and relief that you caught a break, that your family caught a break; that you didn't have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were; and you just can't help but say thank you.

MONTAGNE: I think many of us will recognize the first two prayers, Help and Thanks. But your third essential prayer is quite unexpected. It's Wow.

LAMOTT: Yes. Wow is the praise prayer, the prayer where we're finally speechless - and which, in my case, is saying something. Wow is often - when I don't know what else to do, I go outside. And I see the sky, and I see the trees; and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open - again, with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, wow! You could also say, holy toledo! Or you say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, Or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, wow, this is great! Wow is the prayer of wonder.

MONTAGNE: And I was just thinking, the prayer of wonder - is it a prayer even though one doesn't maybe even know they're praying?

LAMOTT: Oh, yeah. So much prayer is not about saying, oh, well, I think I'm going to pray now; or, oh, I see I've made a notation here to pray at 2:15. It's about getting outside of your own self and being - hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here; the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame - which is usually the most important thing. It's sort of like blinking your eyes open.

MONTAGNE: And sometimes, when it's a really big shift from your - the computer in your head to the great, mysterious glory of the world, it's sort of like when the Wizard of Oz first - when Dorothy lands in Oz, and the movie goes from black-and-white to color. And it's like having a new pair of glasses. And you say, wow!

MONTAGNE: Anne Lamott's new book is "Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers." It's been a pleasure talking with you.

LAMOTT: Oh, thank you, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And you can read an excerpt from "Help, Thanks, Wow" at npr.org/books.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.