In Defense of ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ After a Tragedy

The world was horrified earlier this week by the nation’s deadliest mass shooting ever, in which 59 people were killed and over 500 wounded by a shooter who rained thousands of rounds down from his Las Vegas hotel room onto the defenseless audience of an open-air country music festival.

As with all such acts of mass murder or terrorism, social media teemed afterward with politicians, celebrities, and “ordinary” folk worldwide sending out the all-too-familiar chorus of “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. Many others dismissed such condolences as an empty gesture, declaring angrily that “thoughts and prayers are not enough,” that the government needs to take concrete actions to prevent further such atrocities. Political commentator Kirsten Powers even wrote in the Washington Post that “Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.”

So, has this “once benign” offer of thoughts and prayers become overdone? Are we burnt out on this predictable, knee-jerk response after every tragedy? Has sending thoughts and prayers become just a way for people, especially public figures, to signal their momentary concern and move on without having to actually do something?

To begin with, it’s obviously true that taking action—or taking the right action, anyway—is better than doing nothing. Knowing what constitutes the wisest course of action may be easier said than done, but that’s a separate issue. The point is that simply offering thoughts and prayers won’t prevent the next calamity any more than sharing hashtags will. So when people complain that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, that they don’t address some change that needs to be made, that is true—but it misses the point.

Thoughts and prayers aren’t about preventing the next atrocity. That’s what taking action is for. They are about helping victims get through this atrocity. They are about the need we feel to reach out and connect with each other—even with strangers—after some disaster and offer comfort. They are about the human community coming together across boundaries of every kind—national, racial, political—to overcome adversity.

Of course, there is no reason one can’t both pray and take action, such as donating blood for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. But sending thoughts and prayers is a means for those who either are too distant or do not have the resources to help in any other way to at least express their heartfelt condolences. That’s not concrete action but it’s meaningful nonetheless, both for the frustrated sender who genuinely feels compelled to do something, and for the victims who welcome the show of love and support and goodwill. Thoughts and prayers after the fact won’t erase the tragedy, but nothing can. Instead, thoughts and prayers are, or aim to be, a measure of solace and encouragement, however slight.

The key word, though, is “genuinely.” Those thoughts and prayers must at a minimum be sincere or they are worse than useless—they are offensive. Simply tweeting “Sending thoughts and prayers #LasVegas” to display how sensitive and caring you are, then clicking on a cat video without giving Las Vegas another thought is hackneyed dishonesty.

For those who believe in the power of prayer to effect earthly change, it is no small comfort to believe that thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands, are keeping you in their prayers to help you get through this. Even for those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” and don’t believe in prayer, yet still believe in the vague mysticism of “good vibes,” that kind of loving consideration is uplifting.

Obviously, if one does not believe in the efficacy of prayer, then it’s easy to reject “thoughts and prayers” as pointless superstition—although even if I weren’t a believer, I wouldn’t be offended by a believer praying for me. What can it hurt? At least it indicates that the person cares. What good is cynicism or unbelief, ever? As a victim of some terrible misfortune, I would rather know that friends and strangers were honestly offering up my need in prayer than doing nothing. “I am wishing you the best” or “I am praying for you” engenders more healing hope and optimism than “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

When the next tragedy strikes and the thoughts and prayers start flowing, don’t dismiss them. Yes, some of it may be empty virtue-signaling, but more likely most are signaling that we’re all in this together, and they are doing what they can to help.

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