When I was younger I went through a heavy JD Salinger phase. I started, like most, with Catcher in the Rye but became especially fascinated with his stories and novellas about the Glass family. Central to these stories – especially Franny & Zooey – is something called the Jesus Prayer from a book called the Way of the Pilgrim. The Jesus Prayer is a simple mantra – “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” – that the pilgrim learns to teach him to pray without ceasing. The idea behind this prayer is that if one learns it properly prayer becomes unconscious, it becomes as integrated into daily life as breathing and in doing so brings a person closer to God and divine understanding. What I find so fascinating about this concept is that it posits that something very intentional and banal becomes revelatory through practice. What begins as a 7 word phrase evolves into an ecstatic state. This concept isn’t unique to the Jesus Prayer. There’s a tremendous number of spiritual, philosophical, and psychological teachings that cover similar territory some more elegantly or profoundly than others. Ultimately, they all say something similar about faith. God or mercy or meaning itself does not suddenly appear uninvited into the soul but is summoned after a million or a billion recitations.
For most of my adult life, my Jesus Prayer was the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.
Because you are a disgusting fat body, Private Pyle.
Not to spoil a 30+ year old movie, but the drill sergeant’s weight loss motivation techniques didn’t work out well for anyone. Even now with all of my hard work and progress, sometimes my head still feels like a junkyard full of bad ideas overcrowded with paranoid schizophrenic hobos. The hobos sneer at me over their tire fires and bubbling can of beans or whatever and slur at me that they’re all going to laugh at me and dump pigs blood on my head when I go to the prom and I say what are you talking about I’m not going to the prom and they say oh that’s so sad no one wants to take you to the prom and I shake my head and say no, I’m a 38 year old man and they don’t have proms for 38 year old men and they cackle and spit half-chewed baked beans at me and say is that what they told you and I don’t really know how to respond to that but it still makes me feel bad.
A couple weeks ago I had this problem where for several nights in a row I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would suddenly have a song playing in my head and I couldn’t make it stop and I would lie there with an insomniac’s ear worm, miserable until the alarm went off. After a joke from my wife about her intentionally sticking a bad song into my subconscious I tried something. I woke up in the middle of the night with a song- something I had listened to on a run or while working that day, I think- and I started remembering the lyrics to that Big Red chewing gum jingle from the late 80s. Something something make it last a little long with BIG RED. It was ridiculous and I don’t know the words so I made up some extra silly ones and I smiled a minute and then, magically, the music all stopped and I fell back to sleep. For me the moral of that is that story is that if you’re to have a song stuck in your head at 3 in the morning, pick the song.
The most important thing I’ve found to being successful as a runner or a writer or a person living his best life is to believe that I can do it. Fake it until it make, mind over matter- whatever corny aphorism you can think of- there’s truth to them. The Jesus Prayer leads pilgrims closer to God and the Big Red jingle fixed my insomnia. Intention plus practice equals belief and belief-faith in oneself- is the missing ingredient to accomplishment. I think about all the years of my life with that drill instructor screaming in my face, with those weird brain junkyard hobos planting seeds of doubt, and I can’t just shout back at them. That won’t fix the problem any more than Private Pyle’s big crack up in Full Metal Jacket. I need to pick a different song.
So my new Jesus Prayer is “Eye of the Tiger.” My new Jesus Prayer is a hundred self-affirmation anthems and embroidered doily aphorisms. I don’t believe that I’m a champion (or even not a disgusting fat body) just because I listen to painfully sincere sports movie one hit wonders but belief is a practice. Prayers are just something you say over and over often enough that they transform you. I choose to pick better prayers.
This is what I want motherfucker, make it happen for me.