I knew something was wrong with me long before I got held accountable. It felt a bit like what would happen if you never paid attention to your flight attendants, and the oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Everyone else would know that the plane is crashing and to put the masks on themselves before helping others. But I just felt a severe drop of altitude and wondered why everyone was wearing funny masks.
I went to the doctor. My blood pressure was high. My temper was hair trigger. I simultaneously could not get out of bed, and was filled with so much rage and anxiety that I could not sleep. The doctor said that he didn't know how he could help me, but that he did know that I was probably going to need the Serenity Prayer.
At the time, this was a bit like recommending sunscreen to a fish. Every Sunday I had people over to my house for breakfast during church time for an event lovingly called "Godless Waffles." So the idea that I would go to my doctor with a health problem, and he would tell me some mumbo jumbo about Serenity and God, meant only one thing: I needed a new doctor, because my current one was nuts.
The plane continued its descent; somehow when it crashed, I survived. And I kept flailing. I kept managing to hurt those around me, sometimes by not knowing when to shut my mouth. Other times by just existing. I began to truly believe that I was incapable of really existing without causing other people harm. I'll spare you (and my loving family) the details, but that's when shit got dark.
I hit my knees, put my elbows on my bed, touched my forehead to my hands and said "Please don't let me hurt anybody today."
I should mention at this point that I don't have a great idea of who, or what I was praying to. I still pray regularly, and don't have a strong faith in anything.
The struggle for me was the following: On one hand you have an all knowing God with a plan, me praying for that God to change God's mind and alter God's plan to meet my needs seems either incredibly narcissistic or ridiculously optimistic. On the other hand you have no God. So it's a bit like talking on the phone without dialing a number. What's the point?
I did it anyways. And things started to get better. I made it through the day without hurting someone. I started to add to it.
"Please don't let me hurt anybody today and help me be honest."
That worked, too. Now don't get me wrong: I still hurt people, and I still am dishonest sometimes. But these days it happens a lot less, and when I do, I usually make it right as quickly as I can.
Today, I believe that prayer is not something used to change God's mind, but to change my own perspective. Prayer is something that helps me set priorities. To help me discover how I can better keep my canoe pointed with the current, and away from the edges.
Ultimately, adopting prayer into my life as an atheist was something fairly practical. The tool of prayer -- one that billions of people use to lead good, productive lives -- need not necessarily be coupled with a devout and defined belief in any god. Life could be a meaningless void of chaos, but those prayers are still useful. So if so many people are using prayer as a vital tool for surviving, why not use add it to the toolbox? The only reasons I could come up with are pride and ego.
Science tends to back this up, pretty consistently and perhaps my doctor wasn't as much of a charlatan as I once claimed. Whether or not there's someone on the other end of the phone doesn't seem to matter. My blood pressure is down. I'm not full of rage or anger anymore. I'm a pretty serene guy except in the months of July and August when my kids leave the door open and the air conditioning is on. The South is the South.