In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Thoughts and prayers change us, and then, we change things. But we can’t just skip to that second step.

The Underground

There is nothing unique or novel that I can say about the Las Vegas shootings. I can only be one more voice mourning the loss of so many lives in so senseless of a tragedy.

My beloved home state of Colorado has seen far too many similar events. From Columbine and Arapahoe High Schools to an Aurora theater, our state feels even more deeply the pain inflicted across the nation by mass shootings. This violence has exacted a high toll on many members of the Colorado community, and while buildings can be reopened and memorials built, long-term emotional pain is not always as obvious nor easily confronted.

Yet as is often the case in the wake of great tragedy, there have been numerous examples of great hope and unity in the aftermath. I’ve watched neighbors and friends stand shoulder to shoulder at candlelight vigils, hold each other kneeling on the ground, and refuse to let violence divide or separate them.

I have seen firsthand the power of “thoughts and prayers” to bring a community together. You don’t have to be particularly religious to grasp an idea of how telling someone “I’m thinking of you” and “I’m praying for you” is unbelievably powerful.

Even if we could not be there in a moment of crisis or tragedy with somebody, “thoughts and prayers” fundamentally orient our heart to theirs, our soul to their suffering, our mind to their pain. When we say we’re thinking and praying for someone, even just for a moment, we are saying, “I see you. I know you are hurting. I am there with you.” While I could write much about prayer specifically, I will say that prayer is also a powerful yearning, an aching groan that things are not as they should be.

Yet for some commentators, “thoughts and prayers” are simply empty signals at best, and shrugging off apparent political obligation at worst. Those cynical commentators claim that thoughts and prayers don’t stop the next one. We should be fixing the problem and—for gosh sake—doing something.

In fairness, those impulses aren’t completely without merit. When we genuinely empathize with someone’s pain, there is a natural and understandable impulse to do whatever we can to take their pain away. If we truly commit our heart and mind to feeling for someone, we do take on a responsibility and obligation to help them in real and practical ways. We should not skirt this new work. Thoughts and prayers change us, and then we change things.

But we can’t just jump to that second step. If our first reaction to someone’s loss is to immediately seek action, we haven’t really empathized with them at all. If our first reaction is a “game plan” or “resources,” we’ve looked completely past the humanity of someone who is hurting. If our first response is demanding legislation, then all we’ve done is misplace our faith in a political system that will never answer.

And sometimes, it’s nice to see that some of our politicians take a second not to see American citizens as constituents to be bought and sold or crises as opportunities to be exploited, but take even the briefest of seconds to empathize as a human being and say, “my prayers are with you.”

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a worthwhile debate to be had about gun control or other policy measures regarding American gun violence. But does it really have to happen mere hours after families and friends experience unspeakable tragedy? Do we really have to jump to making quips about silencers and assault rifles and the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association so soon after?

“Thoughts and prayers” allow us to share in another’s pain and compel us to help lift them up. We meet people where they are, in their darkest and despairing moments, and we don’t leave them there alone. It is a fundamentally human response to tragedy that should never be condemned.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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