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September 4, 2019

Thoughts & Prayers in the Internet Age.

“Thoughts and prayers” ring hollow.

That is the word on the street as of late. Understandably so.

When there are mass shootings, wildfires, warfare, and personal tragedies all the time, so often the only response is “Thoughts and prayers.”

Yes, of course, there are those trite, treacly, platitudinous angels, praying hands, and butterflies on social media, wishing us:

Thoughts and prayers at this time. 

Angels are supposed to be a healing balm. Butterflies are so pretty. Now, don’t you feel better?

Is that legitimate? Is it heartfelt? Is it done so vastly en masse that we can no longer see the point? I think in cases like these the phrase may have turned into one gigantic meme.

Some find it completely hypocritical, stemming from a false sense of piety. That rings true, sometimes. Yet, there are times when “thoughts and prayers” is a meaningful statement from an individual, from the heart, quite often in regards to a situation that is on the other side of their computer screen. They are simply trying to convey empathy, sympathy, and a deep-seated, heartfelt response to something awful that has happened.

So, how are we supposed to receive “Thoughts and prayers”?

Early Wednesday morning, I received a text message from an old friend about her fiancé.

“S— passed away.”

She proceeded to tell me that the night before she left him on the couch and went to bed. She got up in the middle of the night and he was on the floor. He was gone.

“Thoughts and prayers”?

My friend, who is not religious, but does have a spiritual side, is duly appreciative of the thoughts and prayers coming from all points on the compass. Is she wrong? I don’t believe so. Not for one minute. If she is consoled by friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers extending these wishes to her, then I’m happy for her that she has some source of comfort. Fair enough.

So, what has prompted the backlash? Mass shootings occur more than we can count at this point. Famous figures die all the time. Climate change is destroying towns, villages, and wildlife. We see a post about bad news on social media and many of us don’t know what else to say. Therefore, we have our go-to: “Thoughts and prayers.”

There are, at times, thousands of those exact responses as we scroll through social media posts. We see them in the collective. It’s easy to forget each one of them is from an individual with a heart.

I have atheist friends who become downright enraged when they see the term. They feel their civil rights are being smothered. They say to me, isn’t it enough that we have to put up with Merry Christmas and Happy Easter? I get it. I truly do. But, we can’t go around stifling each other in the name of making everything neutral all the time. I grew up a religious minority. I understand how it feels to be an outsider. When I was a younger person, I was angry about otherness. Now I realize we’re all others. What we need is acceptance.

Two days ago, an unpopular billionaire died. In the most snarky, snide manner, many people posted the phrase on social media posts about his death. His death was an eye roll and a relief to many. In that case, is it unjust to sling such unsavory sarcasm even to someone who has tried to dismantle so much good with his money and power? When “thoughts and prayers” were posted in this case, all knew it meant one big middle finger. Is that wrong?

When all is said and done, I think compassion should reign. I do get the snark. I also understand these simple words can be comforting for the bereaved. In the end, it’s fun to make fun of monsters who run and ruin the world, but we would be remiss to completely dismiss a simple phrase that’s real purpose is to soothe those who are grieving.

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