Dear Prudence: How should an atheist express sympathy without sending prayers?

Help! I’m an Atheist. How Do I Convey Sympathy Without “Sending Prayers”?

Help! I’m an Atheist. How Do I Convey Sympathy Without “Sending Prayers”?

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 19 2016 2:52 PM

Um, Good Luck?

Prudie advises an atheist who struggles to express meaningful sympathy without “sending prayers.”

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Let’s chat.

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Q. Atheist: I frequently see posts on Facebook or have people tell me in person about a health issue they or a loved one are facing, or a death, etc. Most people respond by saying they send prayers, but as an atheist, I am stumped by what to say. “Hope everything turns out OK” is not a very supportive answer! I usually just say they are in my thoughts, or I’m sending positive energy their way, but that just seems inadequate. Suggestions?

A: Any variation on “I’m so sorry to hear about this, and I’m here for you if you need anything” or “Call me if you need to talk” should work. You’re not at all alone in feeling a sense of awkwardness and verbal inadequacy in the face of sickness and death. It’s difficult to effectively communicate empathy and support, especially if you’re not operating with a traditional religious or spiritual script that offers pre-scripted responses. It can sometimes feel a bit weak to offer “Hope everything works out” or “I’ll send good thoughts your way” when you know you have no control over the outcome of their situation, but the basic point you’re trying to communicate is that you’re sorry that they’re experiencing pain, that you wish them the best, and you’re available to help if they need additional support.

Q. Defeeted: I am a mid-30s male, and I have had a “thing” for female feet for as long as I can remember. The vast majority of previous girlfriends (and my current fiancée) have not really enjoyed this. They seem to love the massages, but anything beyond that is unacceptable. My fiancée complains that she is too ticklish to enjoy anything beyond a massage. I am not really sure what my question is here, other than wondering if maybe there is a way I can get past this, since I am committed to this woman, and as much as I want her to enjoy more than just a massage, it doesn’t seem like it is going to happen. Thanks for your time.

A: You can’t make anyone enjoy anything. You may be able to find a compromise that works for the both of you, you may be able to work out an arrangement where you can indulge your foot fetish safely and discreetly outside of the relationship, you may resign yourself to accepting that massages are all you’re going to get from your fiancée when it comes to foot play, but you cannot make her enjoy having her feet treated as sexual organs if she doesn’t like it.

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Q. Cat at the rager: I’m writing about an acquaintance’s cat. She takes her cat out to raves—yes, raves— in a mesh kitty backpack on her back. She puts headphones on its ears to “protect its hearing.” She takes it on a leash to the beach. She takes it on a leash to restaurant patios to eat with her. She takes it driving in her car. She swears up and down that the cat loves going out. I don’t know her very well—she’s only a work acquaintance—but this seems harmful and inappropriate to me. Am I overreacting? Should I talk to her? Report her to animal services?

A: This seems like one of those situations the phrase “life is a rich tapestry” was created for. She’s made an aggressively odd choice, but it seems to bring her great joy. If the cat objected to raves and the beach and restaurant patios, I have no doubt it would make its displeasure known. You are in a fortunate position: You get to feel quietly superior to this odd acquaintance, and you don’t have to do anything about it. (Cat rave headphones! This has given me the greatest mental image I will have all day.)

Q. Deadbeats and deadlines: I have worked hard my whole life and am lucky enough to be able to buy a home and also take care of my mother. I have taken over the mortgage, lights, and water bill for her these past three years since my dad passed away. I saw the bills skyrocket this past fall and found out my drug-addict sister and her kids have moved in and are sponging off my mother. A call to my mother has her calling me cruel and crying about how she can’t be asked to throw out her “grandbabies” (who are 20 and 18)! I live in a different state and took on the financial burden so my mother could stay near her friends, not to take care of my leech of a sister. I can’t kick them out, as the property is not in my name, but my boyfriend tells me to quit paying for everything and let a foreclosure force my mother to either kick out my sister or come live with me. I do not have a clear mind on this. Please advise (and I have given help to my sister—two wrecked cars and I stopped).

A: It’s entirely fair for you to not want to support your sister and her adult children. What you should try to resist is the urge to punish your mother for taking them in. Pushing her into foreclosure is a terrible strategy for getting her to come live with you. If anything, it will make her want to run away from you. If you want to stop paying your mother’s bills, that’s your right, but don’t cut her off without warning. Make a plan together so she can make alternate financial arrangements—perhaps you can continue paying her mortgage for the next six months, while she takes over the utilities and starts preparing to make her own mortgage payments or refinance.

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You can disentangle yourself financially from your mother without punishing her for refusing to cut off your sister as you have. Do not use your financial support as a weapon to try to control your mother’s behavior. Not only will you not get what you want out of it, but you’ll cause additional and unnecessary pain to others.

Q. What’s in a name?: I’ve been seeing this guy I met at school for about a month now. We started casually dating, and then things got pretty heated, and I spend the night at his house almost every night. Things are great, but there is just one problem: I don’t know his last name! I didn’t see it on any school papers, I can’t find a roster, and he doesn’t have a Facebook! We no longer attend the same school, and we are too close now for me to just ask him without sounding ridiculous. Any suggestions?

A: The number of times I have realized I did not know someone’s name when it was clearly far too late in our friendship/relationship to be able to comfortably ask is ... let us say it is greater than zero, so I feel your consternation. If you genuinely don’t think you can play it off as a goofy moment (“This is so embarrassing, but I’ve never actually caught your last name”), try asking him how he spells his last name. If even that feels too revealing (what if his last name is Smith?) then you might have to do some mild snooping. If you’re at his house regularly, look at his mail (outside only! I am not giving you permission to open his mail) or check his driver’s license while he’s in the shower. Weigh the possible embarrassment of getting caught going through his things against the actual embarrassment of not knowing your own boyfriend’s last name, and act accordingly.

Then write it down so you don’t forget it.

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Q. Harmony at home: Prudie, let’s see if you can settle an ongoing debate between my husband and me. Let’s a say someone (“Lisa”) is grumpy/cranky/in a bad mood. Is it up to Lisa to reflect and change her attitude (a hard thing to do when cranky!) or is it up to the nongrumpy person (“Frank”) to give some space and not give Lisa a hard time while grumpy? Let’s also assume Lisa is not instigating or attacking Frank but is just not in the mood for conversation and activities.

A: It would be a hard thing indeed if every time someone experienced a negative emotion it became his or her responsibility to immediately turn it into joy and acceptance. Let’s also assume that Lisa is not coming home every day under a cloud of silent fury, merely that she experiences the occasional frustration that comes with the condition of being alive. She should be allowed to take a little time and space to deal with her bad mood, not forced into instant cheerfulness. If that’s hard for Frank to deal with, let Frank take a walk or read a good book.

Q. How do I tell people my preteen is suicidal?: My daughter has been hospitalized numerous times for self-harm and suicidal behavior and thoughts. Most people presume it’s due to her other serious health conditions, and I don’t challenge that assumption. It would be a relief to tell the truth, but I fear the backlash (for her and us, her parents) because of backward attitudes about mental illness. How can I/should I tell people the truth?

A: I’m so sorry about your daughter, and I’m so glad that you’re getting her the help she needs. I think you’re right to want to protect her from other people’s assumptions about mental illness, especially since she’s so young. When it comes to acquaintances and strangers, I think there’s no reason for you to get specific about her diagnoses or the details of her illness. I hope, though, that you’re able to share some of the relevant details with close friends and family. I don’t know your daughter’s current state, but if it’s at all possible, consider asking her how much or how little she’d like you to share with the people you’re close to. On the one hand, you don’t want to expose her to the misconceptions of other people; on the other hand, you don’t want to contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness or make her feel like the truth is something to hide or be ashamed of.

Q. Marriage: My husband and I are high school sweethearts; we’ve been together for 13 years and were teen parents. We now have two children. The problem is he has not worked in 10 years. I am the sole income provider, do all the cleaning and cooking, and take care of the kids. He plays games all night and sleeps all day. I am often waiting 30-plus minutes to be picked up from anyplace (I don’t drive). Is it wrong to leave someone I love and get along with who won’t give me the help I’ve asked for in years? I feel very depressed and am not sleeping well. My work is suffering. I am lost and alone.

A: You are not wrong to want to leave. You are already a single parent. This man has watched you struggle to keep your family afloat for the last 10 years, and his response has been to roll over and go back to sleep. Leave, and don’t look back.