breaking the chains of chain letters

this is another post about chain letters (you may remember one a few weeks ago about a petition type chain letter). i’d like to explain what i find disturbing about another type – the prayer chain letter.

chain letters are a form of emotional extortion, mixing very positive sentiments with threats or at least manipulation.

let me use this one as an example. it was sent by a very dear friend.

i feel uncomfortable and sad that i am taking such a well-meaning missive and criticizing it. however, i think this is precisely one of the reasons why such chain letters are perpetuated: we appreciate the good thoughts of our friends and want to show our gratitude by doing what we are asked to do in the letter.

the letter starts like this:

“Hi – I am picking 12 people (who have touched my life) and whom I think would want to participate. I hope I chose the right twelve.”

right away i feel special – but not 100%. maybe i am not the right one? maybe i will disappoint him?

“Please send this back to me (You’ll see why).”

okay, i’m hooked again. i’ll see why … how curious! i wonder what he means!

“In case anyone is not aware, Saint Theresa is known as the Saint of the Little Ways. Meaning she believed in doing the little things in life well and with great love. She is also the patron Saint of flower growers and florists. She is represented by roses. May everyone who receives this message be blessed. Theresa’s Prayer cannot be deleted.”

how lovely! a saint with love and thought for little things. a saint who loves flowers. and as a recipient of this message i am blessed!

the prayer cannot be deleted. that sounds ominous. what happens if i do delete it? what happens if i don’t like the prayer, or find it boring, what if i’m muslim or atheist or pagan and delete the prayer because it does not fit my religious beliefs? what happens if i delete it accidentally? will i still be among the special circle of people that my friend has chosen? what does “cannot” mean? is it physically impossible to delete the message, or, more likely, will something dreadful happen if i do?

“REMEMBER to make a wish before you read the prayer. That’s all you have to do. There is nothing attached. Just send this to eleven people and let me know what happens on the fourth day.”

i must make a wish before i read the prayer. which apparently i have little choice but to read because the prayer “cannot” be deleted.

there is nothing attached. except a) i cannot delete the message, b) i must make a wish, c) send it to eleven people and d) let the sender know what happens on the fourth day.

“Sorry you have to forward the message, but try not to break this, please. Prayer is one of the best free gifts we receive.”

so i have to forward the message, try not to break it, otherwise i’ll be refusing a precious free gift. and you know what, even though i always break these chains, every time i do it there is a part of me that feels bad about it. i believe in blessings, i believe in prayers. every time i break one of these chains, there is this little obedient girl in me who feels bad for breaking a beautiful thing like a prayer.

“Did you make a wish yet? If you don’t make a wish, it won’t come true. This is your last chance to make a wish.”

this is my last chance. again, a hidden thread, a warning, a raised finger.

then follows st. theresa’s prayer:

“St. Theresa’s Prayer:

May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.. May you be content knowing you are a child of God…. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”

positive sentiments. i am a child of god … but am i still a child of god if i don’t follow all the directions, like the one that follows?

“Now, send this to 11 people within the next 5 minutes. And remember to send this back. I count as 1. You’ll see why.”

in summary what happened here was that i get to feel special, will be blessed (by a saint?), i will have someone wish peace, trust and contentment on me – as long as i don’t delete the message, as long as i make a wish, read the (uninvited) message, send the message to eleven people, report to the sender and believe that there are no strings attached to this procedure.

that’s crazymaking.

that’s why i cannot help but break this chain letter. break the chain. these are chains that bind to blind, superstitious obedience, and if i pass this letter on, i am yet another link in binding others to it.

if i want to wish good luck on someone, i can just do it, without any strings attached. if i want to increase the power of the good-luck-wishing by having others participate, i can invite them – again, without any strings attached. steve pavlina does a nice job of that.

my job is to help people become free of their chains. so i can’t send on any chain letters.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

23 thoughts on “breaking the chains of chain letters

  1. Isabel

    wow, I really appreciate how you’ve unravelled this chain-letter thing. In the future, I feel like I’ll have more permission to also say no.

  2. Ron Aubin

    …and yet, there are cases when… (I recieved this today).

    Dear Mr. Aubin,

    You don’t know me and I don’t know you, however, while in Thailand I recently found an email which you sent to my brother – Bruce Capstick, back on April 28th which contained St. Theresa’s Prayer. I don’t know if Bruce ever did “make a wish” and/or sent the Prayer on to 11 people. You may or may not have been aware at the time that Bruce had just been diagnosed with Brain Cancer and Prayers were something he really needed, but your email certainly was timely.

    I’ve just returned from 2 weeks in Thailand where I flew because doctors told me that Bruce would likely live just days more. That was 3 weeks ago and I’m happy to report that Bruce is still with us, although his long term prognosis is grave and he will never leave the hospital in which he has been since June 14th.

    I guess why I’m writing you is simply to say Thank You for the prayer you sent to Bruce. While I was there, I was attempting to find some documents of his when I came across a copy of your email. It obviously touched Bruce deeply or he wouldn’t have printed it out, so I took the liberty of saying that prayer at his bedside and posting a copy of it over his bed. He is unable to speak but I’m sure it touched him to hear those words again. And yes, I did make a wish.

    Again, “Thank You” and I wish you and yours all good blessings.


    [signed with name and telephone number – i took these out for privacy protection purposes – isabella]

  3. isabella mori

    thank you, ron, for this comment. i don’t doubt at all that prayer is helpful. it’s wonderful that your prayers were a blessing to this person.

    what i object to is not the idea of prayer, or the idea of sending emails to encourage people to pray. what i object to is the subtle or not-so-subtle scare tactics that are used in almost all chain letters i’ve ever received. there’s a huge difference, in my mind, between saying, “why don’t you pray” or “please pray” on the one hand and on the other hand saying, “if you don’t pray something bad will happen”

    again, thank you for your comment, and i wish the very best for bruce.

  4. Nancy

    wow – I’ve always been mildly amused or annoyed by these letters, but you did a wonderful job of deconstructing the manipulative factors. I’m going to send this link to future senders-of-chain-letters! It’s quite disturbing, actually, and I imagine St. Theresa would want it firmly on record that she is not a willing participant in this particular one!

  5. jael

    my own method of dealing with chainletters is not to respond. this stems from a long time ago when my computer was slow, and it took a long time to compose and send an email. i chose not to believe the threat inherent in the chain letter, because nobody could impose that on a computer network that might fail to deliver a message at any time, and I was not going to have anything to do with anyone who would make those assumptions.

  6. Theresa

    I found your blog after googling the subject of this letter I received from a dear friend. Thank you for posting and breaking down into pieces to explain some of the psychological aspects. I hope I’m still one of the nn people who has touched her life :-}

  7. Chris

    This chain letter is (extra?) insidious as it is cleverly worded in a way that when sent from someone you know via cut/paste the first few lines read like a quote directly from your friend (i.e. as if your friend knows the originator personally). Thanks for the post. I received this one today.

  8. Andrew

    I sincerely hope that Ron’s brother Bruce had a peaceful death, if indeed that was the eventual outcome.

    Ron’s story illustrates how god does choose to work through prayer sometimes, and how prayers for others can be powerful.

    In relation to chain letter type prayers, if the issue genuinely warrants my attention, I will stop and pray about it. However, I rarely forward such letters.



    Andrew’s last blog post..Corporate Social Responsibility part 5: The case for community business partnerships

  9. Adriana

    Thank you Isabella Mori for your clear analysis of this particular chain letter. It really broke down the insidious mechanisms of manipulation that are used in this genre of communication. It has helped me to understand why I find them so uncomfortable in spite of my rational response to dismiss them. I feel really free of these chains now and hope to share your analysis with others by referring them to this link. It is now getting towards the end of 2008 and this chain email is still out there doing the rounds. Prayer is wonderful, but this chain email is a poor advocate.

  10. Sarah

    Thank you for this. I always delete these things unless I personally like the message, but was definitely concerned if there really was a virus, or at least something along those lines, attatched. I am glad to see that it was entirely a bluff, however sad it is to use something like a historical prayer (this is the correct one, I presume :/) for a chainletter. (it is however, wonderful for those who found real prayers answered through the [real?] prayer itself)

  11. elizabeth

    I notice that the incoming email messages to you regarding the ‘Mother Theresa’ prayer chain letter date back to 2006. I received mine yesterday.. 3/17/2009!! WOW!

    I received mine from a dear person,.. a ‘professional’ in health care services. It did catch me a bit off-guard,.. particularily because she forwarded the email address history of everyone that received this letter before it reached her. I am not comfortable with receiving email names and addresses of strangers,.. and equally unenthused that mine goes to many others from her address book when she hits’ Send’.

    I will probably just ignore this, rather than risk hurting her feelings. She really is sincere and means well. I do like the prayer,.. but like you,.. I don’t like the veiled psychological threats that are implied.
    Thank you for speaking out on this.

  12. Amy

    I’ve gotten this email chain from 3 people already, and am so sick of seeing it. I totally agree with the thoughtful reflection/dissection on this site. I, too, googled this to see how others were responding to it and am relieved to see I am not the only one who finds prayer-by-threat not only uninspiring, but genuinely painful. The real question here is, how does one kindly inform one’s friends about this? I’m kind of tempted to send the URL of this page as a response, but I don’t want the friend to feel bad. I know they come from a kind place with this, but it just makes me feel terrible to get these things. I’d much rather have a few sentences on how they are doing, what’s new in their lives, etc. I wish there could be some kind of world-wide ban on messages like this. I think in the long run, we’d all be happier people. I know I would. 🙂

  13. Donna

    The St. Therese chain stops here at least the thread I received. I’m a bad person, I feel no guilt or anxiety for the person who sent me the prayer, just irritation and as I said to her, I pray I don’t get another one.

  14. Capri

    I also break chain letters, without feeling bad about doing so. I find the very idea of chain letters exploiting religious people via prayer-disguise very deceitful, manipulative, blasphemous and offensive. It’s good to see other people breaking this stuff. I wish more Christians would wake up and realize what’s actually going on here. And there is an excellent discussion on the cathlic forum about this particular chain letter, many don’t even believe it was penned by ST. Theresa herself, because the “prayer” sounds very newage-ish. Personally, I think it’s just something some anonymous hoaxters wrote, that is floating around in bits and pieces put together in various “prayer” chain letters. I know I have seen the “May today there be piece within” in viarious religious virals, and this one you posted above looks like a mishmash of a couple I was unfortunate enough to tget from friends who had their emotions completely taken over by these forwards. God doesn’t work through extortionist spamming and neither do any of the saints.
    .-= Capri´s last blog ..Capri added a discussion =-.

  15. Capri

    I think it’s because they either don’t care or don’t recognize chain letters for what they are, and they’ve been hogtied by the emotions into doing exactly what they are told. From that phony ST. Teresa prayer to the bra color status chain that went around on Facebook in about the first 1 to 3 months of 2010, to those that tell you a funny and then say something like “That made you laugh, now spread the laughter! Pass this to all your friends and brighten their day!” It doesn’t even have to be a threat to be a chain letter. It just has to be passed around a bunch, with any kind of angle to get people to spread it.

  16. sue

    I received an email chain letter, I was off guard and I sent it on out of fear of years of bad luck. Now I’m depressed, I feel bad for what I did to others and myself. Does anyone know of an antidote? Thank you for any help, I feel I need a special antidote prayer to work for me.

  17. Jael

    For me, the antidote whenever I do something I regret, is to acknowledge that I got hooked by some fear. That’s human. People can hurt each other and themselves when they act out of fear. My special antidote prayer for myself is to pray for the courage to be kind. Here is an example which comes to me: Dear God/Spirit of All/ Goddess of One, please grant me the courage to forgive myself for hurting others and myself by acting in fear. Please help me stop when I feel scared and notice my choices. Also please help me be gentle with myself, including gentleness with the parts of me which feel harsh sometimes.

  18. sue

    Thank You Jael, That was a kind prayer, and I’ll keep it ady in case I need something like that. Sue

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