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Press: Choice gives Wordle the edge over Ukraine

25 March 2022


I AM writing this in that curious limbo before an operation. There is a television for every bed in the hospital, and it switches on automatically every morning to show someone talking silently, but with subtitles, about the war; but everyone in the ward has more pressing concerns. Their worlds have shrunk to the little that they can themselves do or suffer. There is no escape from their own lives, except the one that they don’t want.

But this is only an extreme form of our normal condition. Almost everything in the news refers to things that people cannot change, and so they must have their interest in it artificially stimulated if they are to care at all. This can seem a paradox when even the most vivid footage and reporting is inadequate to convey the horror of the war, but the figures make it clear: earlier this year, The New York Times paid more than $1 million for the rights to the online puzzle Wordle (News, 28 January). I doubt that it will spend that much on its coverage of the Ukraine war, even though that will change all our lives, and Wordle changes nothing. When we play Wordle, we get to change a tiny bit of the world ourselves, and that is more interesting than almost anything impersonally important.

One way of making the news seem important is to present it as a puzzle to be solved. Conspiracy theorists do this in an obvious way: “Do your own research” is such a powerful engine of disinformation because it gives us the pleasure of changing what we see — and so what it is that we can act on.

But it is also one of the ways in which belief in a personal God strengthens people. The New York Times carried a long essay by Dr Ilana Horwitz, a sociologist of religion, on the effects of religious belief on academic success. The takeaway was that Christianity, at least, gives a tremendous boost to to the life chances of working-class American young men.

Dr Horwitz writes: “Teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.”

She continues: “The workplace used to be a central social institution for working-class families, but in the gig economy it is nearly impossible to feel a sense of stability, acquire health insurance or develop relationships with colleagues. . .

“Since the early 2000s, just as the kids in my study were entering adolescence, there has been a drastic rise in the number of working-class men dying ‘deaths of despair’ from opioids, alcohol poisoning and suicide.

“But despair doesn’t die: It gets transmitted to children. Most of the working-class kids in my study — especially boys — seemed to look out in the world and feel despair physically, cognitively and emotionally. I found that most of the working-class boys in the study had dropped out of the educational system by their mid-20s and seemed on track to repeat the cycle of despair.”

Religious belief and involvement, she argues, “can buffer working-class Americans — males in particular — from despair”.

There is a lesson here that was well understood by the slum priests of the 19th century: what is really transformative is not belief on its own, but belief held within a community. It would be nice to say that the cultured despisers of religion can ill afford to ignore the lesson, but in fact they can well afford to do so, and they will.

THIS enables a natural leap to the letters page of The Guardian, which has been discussing prayer. It started with a letter from the Revd Richard Bradshaw: “An elderly Christian lady I met recently said with some bitterness that she would not be responding to the various calls for prayers for Ukraine. Why? Despite years of conflict and thousands of deaths in her country, she has never heard British church leaders pray for peace there. She is a Nigerian refugee.”

So back comes Ken Gambles, another Yorkshireman: “Rev Richard Bradshaw’s Nigerian parishioner might be right about church leaders not praying for peace in Nigeria, but I can assure both of them that at Holy Trinity Knaresborough, at various times in the past 20 years, we have prayed for peace in Nigeria, Angola, Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, Iraq and Sri Lanka.”

And so, the next day, Jenny Haynes, from Lincolnshire wrote in: “Regarding praying for peace, did it work?”

That magnificent squelch might have been the end of it, but there followed a letter from the Revd Kenneth Cross: “Prayer, for many of us, is not magic, not seeking the intervention of a lofty god whose reluctant arms need to be twisted. It is, rather, a participation in and a growing in compassion. It is we who are changed, through contemplation and stillness, centred on divine love.

“Painfully slowly (in my case at least), we then become better able to act compassionately and justly. We become the answer to our own prayer. That, truly, has the potential to change everything.”

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