The article was published in Anthropology News on June 12, 2020.
I typed out the phrase and then paused, my finger hovering over the delete key. “I’ll be praying for you and your family.” This was not something I said aloud, much less wrote. It was certainly not something I wrote to a student. Too personal, I thought. Too much like what folks back home might say. In the United States, ”praying for” signals Christian identity and devotion. Typing it out felt like donning some ill-fitting garment. Besides, I had often heard the phrase as an “out” for those who wished to take distance from tragedy. (It’s no wonder that offerings of “thoughts and prayers” have become a moral shield in the struggle for gun control.) I didn’t want to be a poser.
This was the fifth student in two weeks who had a relative who was seriously ill. The accounts I was receiving, through email and Zoom calls, were distinct from many I might have gotten before the COVID-19 pandemic when tires went flat before a midterm or roommates were hospitalized. Not all of those stories were spurious, but most arrived in the brief, vaguely litigious language of corporatized student life. Perhaps they were anticipating some degree of professorial skepticism: emergent situation beyond my control (Act of God), cannot be physically present (see: Act of God), thanks in advance for understanding (extra credit for politeness).
The stories I have heard more recently have arrived without ceremony and in unburdening detail. A cousin died of insulin shock while EMTs prioritized coronavirus response. (His body lay home for three days before coroners could remove it.) A grandfather suffered a fatal stroke, and no one has been able to gather to mourn him. A junior high principal, a father, and a grandmother, all gone. I’m now writing to a student whose uncle had been hospitalized earlier in the week. We’d met virtually to discuss their academic progress, and they’d fidgeted through my “How are you?” and “Where should we begin?” to blurt out, “Professor, I don’t know if you pray, but if you do, could you keep my family in your prayers?”
Startled, I hedged, “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this,” but a request, by law of conversation, demands a response. Language, as I tell my students, does things in the world. It does not merely describe. It conjures relationships, identities, political realities, expertise, entire belief systems, and traditions of knowledge. Humans are adaptive geniuses, I say. We make our realities, and language makes—and makes sense of—our world-building.
J.L. Austin’s speech act theory inspires what I hope is a motivating riff at the beginning of the semester. The right words, uttered by the right person in the right context, can marry two people or make another head of state. The power of words is symbolic, yes, but also consequential. The Austinian approach highlights the power speakers hold in fulfilling or challenging the social order. Addressees exist in evaluative tension with them, appraising their performances—separate from one another. Typically, this would describe my experience of student-faculty interaction. Cycles of request and obligation get distilled into transactional exchanges.
My student’s request called up a different sort of relation. It activated a logic of open intercession rather than role-bound identities. It eschewed dyadic exchange in favor of broad synthesis, human and divine. It signaled, as Lévi-Strauss put it, the a priori “relational aspect” of social, economic, and symbolic life. As fault lines break across pandemic-accelerated inequities, questions like my student’s register the urgency and impotence of loss. They also invite responses calibrated to the needs of the person asking more than the person being asked.
Once in my own life, amidst a personal crisis, I asked someone to pray for me, a person whose struggles were like mine but whose faith meant she knew her way around prayer. I qualified in none of these ways for my student. His request required not specialized linguistic performance, but care.
Communicating care has been swiftly ritualized in the pandemic, from rainbow paintings to birthday horn-honking caravans to nightly cheering of workers through city streets. These actions show dearness accruing at points of need and suggest that the language of care provides one kind of sustenance across a straining society—comforts to those creating, as well as taking in, the messages. Such expressions offer up selves alongside words, Maussian fashion, to bind us in the shared but uneven burdens of this time.
A few days after we spoke, I wrote to wish my student well. I offered prayers and hit send.
Maisa Taha teaches linguistic and cultural anthropology at Montclair State University. Her research explores the moral and discursive politics of first-generation immigrant experiences in Spain and the United States focusing especially on educational and creative contexts of interaction.