The Power of Praying for Others

By Malina Saval 03/27/16

It wasn’t that I didn’t want all of these other people I knew to be successful; it was that their success somehow indicated my defeat.

The Power of Praying for Others

As an entertainment journalist working in a leading Hollywood trade, I am surrounded by people who have achieved exemplary levels of success—both professionally and financially. 

I interview movie stars on a weekly basis, attend cocktail hours and lunches at luxury hotels where celebrities are handed awards as if they are going out of style, and cover film premieres where PR reps parade their haute couture-clad clients down the red carpet as if they are royalty en route to meet the queen. I’ve been to parties at the Chateau Marmont with acne-prone teenage starlets who live in multimillion dollar hideaways off Coldwater Canyon, and have drunk coffee with Oscar-winning cinematographers who travel the world making movies. I know screenwriters who have been nominated for Academy Awards and producers who will never have to work a desk job or worry about coming up with the cash to pay for their kid’s palate expander and braces.

In short, I am your classic, deeply-flawed, relentlessly dissatisfied Al-Anon hero.

I also graduated from an Ivy League school—admittedly, it wasn’t my first choice; Yale was, but I was rejected—a place from where my classmates and colleagues launched careers as pioneers in the fields of medicine and law and education. I went to college with people who are now best-selling authors, world-renowned surgeons and filmmakers landing deals to create TV series on venerable cable networks. I have friends who have inked million-dollar book deals and landed Guggenheim fellowships to study art in Italy. I know people who are working on a cure for cancer.

I am enormously proud of all these friends and colleagues and classmates for doing so many incredible things with their lives and contributing to the world in such a positive and necessary way. But I often feel like a complete and total failure in comparison. Look at me—I talk to movie stars for a living. Which I realize, between people dying every day of hunger and getting gang-raped in the streets of Calcutta, is pretty much the universe’s number one quality problem. Trust me, I know what a self-indulgent narcissist I am just for mentioning all this.

But I say all this not to sound spoiled or to fish for emotional reassurance—I am good enough—but to underscore the fact that, for whatever reason and by whatever happenstance, I possess a fairly unrealistic and lopsided understanding of what success is supposed to look like. And sometimes I can’t help feeling resentful and frustrated and fearful about the fact that, for as hard as I work as a writer, I have yet to achieve that level of success that seems to have come sooner and far more easily for others (though I know it only seems this way, that almost nothing comes easily for anyone). To clarify, I have never been the type of person who has wanted what other people have, but I have always been a person who wants what she wants. I am competitive, driven, and am constantly beating myself up over having not yet become the person that I believe I am meant to be.

In short, I am your classic, deeply-flawed, relentlessly dissatisfied Al-Anon hero.

There was a day not too long ago when, in the span of several hours, one filmmaker friend was nominated for a major industry award, another received a boxed shipment of his soon-to-be-published novel—which is already being hailed as the second coming of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead—and I passed a giant billboard on Sunset Boulevard advertising my friend’s Emmy-nominated cable TV series. Meanwhile, I was on my cellphone with Navient, trying to consolidate my student loans and figuring out a payment plan for my kids’ summer camp. I had a half-finished novel at home, a collection of screenplays that have yet to sell, and a long list of article assignments that I simply felt too despondent and too exhausted to complete.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want all of these other people I knew to be successful; it was that their success somehow indicated my defeat.

It was my husband who suggested—aside from the fact that I was being irrational—that I start praying for these people; a tool I’d heard repeatedly about in Al-Anon (but never used) and that he learned in AA (and did implement in his daily life). At first, the idea of praying for these people made zero sense. They didn’t need my prayers—how presumptuous. And how backwards! After all, I was the one plummeting down a shame spiral. I was the one with the problem.

But one day, for whatever reason—boredom, depression—I gave it a try.

I prayed. And it didn’t work. Not at first. If anything, praying for these people—and what exactly was I praying for?—increased my anxiety level tenfold, upped my resentment, and made me jittery and annoyed. I felt forced and trapped. I tried different prayers, different words, different mantras. I prayed in three difference languages—English, French, and Hebrew. 

Please let Kevin’s book sell a million copies. Please let Andy’s TV show win a thousand awards. Please let Cassie’s next script sell for $10 million. Please let everybody be happy and healthy and live in mansions in Beverly Hills.

Please, please, please!

I felt like an idiot. I felt like a loser.

Still, I kept on praying. And then one day, something happened. I felt…better.

Resentments lifted. Anxiety faded away. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. I didn’t feel so competitive. I felt physically lighter, as though I’d dropped a ton-sized brick of nerves. I’m not even sure how it worked exactly—but it worked. Praying for others dissolved the power they held over me. Praying helped me to stop comparing myself to others. Praying for these other people provided the perspective that I so desperately needed. Like another Al-Anon slogan I try to use whenever I am feeling unaccomplished—people, places and things are not my business—the act of prayer made me understand that whatever anybody else is doing (or not doing) really has nothing to do with me. And not in a bitter or sad way—but in a good way, in a healthy way. Once I started praying for other people, I was no longer obsessed with how lives intersected with mine. I could work on my novel without feeling like I was racing against time. I could enjoy the journey of my career and not gauge my progress against that of anybody else's. I could relax. I could breathe. 

For me, prayer has come to equal freedom. It’s also helped me to realize that, yes, I am enough.

We all are.

Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, and a regular contributor to The Fix.

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