Language and the associated ability to communicate has long distinguished the modern human species from our animal cousins. Cultures develop their own versions of languages and within those cultural dialects, idioms, maxims, catch phrases and cliches inevitably form. In other words, sometimes there are just things we say in certain scenarios. Depending on which part of the United States one was raised, these things we tend to say will vary, but a particularly common expression is pervasive across the US, and I imagine in the European cultures from which many of our habits originate. Some variation of being held in someone’s thoughts and prayers as an expression of sympathy, condolence or attempted solidarity is in use seemingly every day, certainly verbally and in sympathy cards, but also across every online platform humans use to communicate.
What’s troubling about this expression is that in essence, it allows the person using it to actually do nothing, but feel as if they’ve done something meaningful. For example, if one’s elderly parent is ill and perhaps reaching the inevitable end of life we all must face, and someone happens to mention it because they want to share, what could responding with “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers” possibly do? It certainly won’t prevent the death of anyone, or grow a person a new heart or liver for example. So we know the expression actually accomplishes nothing substantive, so let’s look at it from the perspective of consoling another person or expressing sympathy.
Thinking about something requires almost no effort, as our brains spool out thoughts in a continuous stream, with our without our conscious input or control. So if one were to hear about something tragic, the brain of anyone who isn’t a sociopath will instantly feel sorrow and regret. No effort required. So telling a person who just shared a personal tragedy or sadness with you that you’re thinking of them is expressing the obvious. The intent of the expression though is that you will continue to think about them and their sorrowful circumstance and that somehow, that should make them feel better. Well, we all still think about all kinds of things, often for years after the event, even commemorating awful events like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK. Again, no effort is required to have a thought, and it accomplishes exactly nothing. No one feels better about the aforementioned tragedies because lots of people are thinking about them.
Praying is a slightly different beast though. Prayer doesn’t just occur randomly in our minds; rather it’s a specific type of thinking exercise one must engage in. If a person is to pray for any reason other than their own personal solace; in other words if a person is praying because they believe it will do something, they are praying for intervention from someone. They are formulating specific ideas in their brains, reciting them in some type of conversational style, either aloud or silently, and expecting something in return for their efforts. To be blunt, they’re talking to an invisible being who apparently can hear thoughts or read minds. The evidence would suggest these efforts are entirely wasted, if the effort is in fact happening at all. This last point is what I find abhorrent about the practice.
In the daily struggle for life around the globe, awful, tragic, horrific things happen continually to every lifeform. Millions of children under the age of 5 die every year, often from illness no tiny human should have to face. In war torn regions of the world, innocent people are maimed and killed for the unfortunate circumstance of being there. Car accidents, accidental shootings, natural disasters…. it’s a perpetual shitstorm of awful every day. Apparently all this thinking and praying isn’t helping.
I often wonder what the person using this trite cliche would say if I asked them what exactly they will be doing with their thinking and their praying? What precisely does it look like? WIll they close their eyes, or get on their knees or go to a church? Is it something they’ll do later when they get home and can concentrate on what they want to ask their deity for? The reality is, they’re likely doing nothing of the kind. When a tragedy occurs like the seemingly ubiquitous mass shooting in the US, the thoughts and prayers come streaming out of every possible communication orifice. If we were to take politicians at their word for example, they are thinking and praying stuff every day. It’s an empty platitude which is more of an insult to the grieving than it is helpful.
Do yourselves a favor and lose the expression. If you aren’t actually going to do anything, don’t say that you are.
PS If you’re one who actually does close your eyes and petition an invisible cloud person for intervention; the reason it doesn’t work is because there is no invisible cloud person reading your thoughts. You’re welcome.
“My thoughts and prayers are with you” translate into, “That really sucks, I’m glad it’s not me and mine”.
Yes, precisely. It seems these days the US Presidential candidates race to their smartphones to tweet their thinking and praying before their rivals can tweet theirs. Pathetic.