When we are grieving, it is good to know that someone is thinking of you and even praying for you. But sadly, these good sentiments are often conveyed in an idiom that has become somewhat hackneyed. I’m referring to the oft used expression, “Thoughts and Prayers.”
This phrase has been popularized recently by politicians and public officials offering condolences after any publicly notable event such as a deadly natural disaster or after the mass shootings and acts of terror that have plagued our world in the last couple of decades.
Thoughts and prayers are good. But if they are not accompanied by actions, the words seem meaningless and hollow. When tragedies like shootings, bombings or any horrific acts of terror occur, people demand to know what can be done to prevent such things from happening. Things could change if those in government had the will, but often influential political lobbies make inaction the norm. But hey, we have to “do something”, so we are sending our “thoughts and prayers.”
The term “semantic saturation” is used describe the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning. It becomes something ridiculous, a jumble of letters that feels like a foreign language on the tongue and reads like gibberish on paper.
“Thoughts and prayers” has reached that full semantic saturation.
The catchphrase has gone from being a sincere expression of condolence to being almost laughable. Comedians, cartoonists, media companies and everyday social media users have turned the phrase on its head. Political satire obviously isn’t new, but sarcasm is the trend that has become the first response to expressions of “thoughts and prayers”.
After 14 people were killed in a shooting in San Bernardino, California the New York Daily News, known for its bold, attention-grabbing headlines, ditched the wordplay. In response to tweets by four prominent Republican leaders offering “thoughts and prayers”, the headline screamed:
“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS!”
In one highly-shared image that circulated after another shooting, “Thoughts and Prayers” is imprinted on the side of a garbage truck, seen discharging its load of trash at the dump. Another picture shows the inside of an empty van. “Excellent news,” the caption reads, “The first truckload of your thoughts and prayers has just arrived.”
The expressions of “thoughts and prayers” from political leaders seem cruelly hollow if they are paired with legislative indifference. It is a joke when our collective reaction to mass murder, terror or tragedy is merely to repeat the same platitude over and over again. People are not making jokes about prayer, they are making a joke of the phrase, because all too soon it begins to feel so empty, and even dismissive.
But while pointing out the meaninglessness of this worn out, trite cliché, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Religious thinkers and spiritual leaders have sought to reclaim the phrase, seeing how rapidly its meaning has diminished and subsequently been ridiculed every time it is trotted out after tragedies and gun violence.
After one high profile shooting, the Dalai Lama tweeted, “Although I am a Buddhist monk, I am skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.”
And Pope Francis has regularly called on followers to intertwine their prayer and their works. “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer. Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”
A dear friend wrote to me after my son’s death earlier this year, in which he said that I was “in his prayers.” But he didn’t stop there. I was in his prayers, he said, “… that I would find strength for the days ahead, and comfort in this sad situation.” That meant a lot to me because he was not just expressing some ethereal generality. It was specific, and I appreciated knowing what he was thinking and praying.
Grieving people very quickly get sick of words that are not accompanied by actions. The “Thoughts and Prayers Strategy” isn’t working on a national or international level, nor is it effective in the lives of individuals touched by tragedy and grief. Because it is based on a delusion!
But let’s be clear. The delusion is not that prayers are ineffective or that kind thoughts are unnecessary. Rather the misconception is that by offering these sentiments alone, that we are “doing enough”.
I think I can safely say that grieving people want and need more than words. We need to do something that will somehow help alleviate the situation, whether that is by political action on a national level, or by ongoing acts of kindness and support on an individual level.
Think about it. Pray about it. But don’t stop there. Ask what you can do to make a difference.