Jonathan Foiles LCSW

The Thing With Feathers

Thoughts and Prayers

Taking a deeper look at a popular yet polarizing phrase.

Posted May 13, 2019

Petkation/Pixabay
Source: Petkation/Pixabay

Last week saw yet another tragic addition to the already-long list of school shootings in the United States. One student died and another eight were injured in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in Colorado. One of the state's senators, Cory Gardner, soon tweeted "I am closely monitoring the situation at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch. My prayers are with the students, parents and faculty members and I’m grateful to the first responders working to keep everyone safe." This statement soon suffered the dreaded Twitter ratio with the comments vastly outnumbering the likes. David Hogg, a survivor of a different school shooting (Parkland), represented the prevailing attitude of the comments with his response: "I have a feeling you’re more closely monitoring the $3,829,264 you took from the NRA."

Gardner's statement represents a common refrain following such tragedies which is often known as "thoughts and prayers" for the two things usually offered to victims. Although this banal statement has been deployed by politicians of all stripes, in recent years it has been associated with those who resist any legislative efforts at gun control. The responses to Garner's tweet help illustrate just how furious it makes some people, but why?

The phrase "thoughts and prayers" is grating in part because it has become a victim of semantic satiation, a phenomenon that occurs when a word or words is repeated so often that it loses its meaning. Thoughts and prayers has become a little bit like saying "bless you" after someone sneezes: it's something that a lot of people do without reflection, and the content of the phrase itself is often lost. Something more than that is at play here, though. A frequent complaint about those who offer "thoughts and prayers" after a tragedy is the fact that it doesn't require any action on the part of the person offering them. We all agree, of course, that it is right and proper to remember those who have died. For those of us who pray, prayer is often seen as a way to request the intervention of God, so in some small way, it could be seen as an attempt at action, albeit asking for someone else to act rather than taking up the mantle oneself. Few of us expect that prayer alone is sufficient: we may offer up a prayer that a family member undergoes surgery successfully, but we would still encourage them to show up to the hospital, take all of their prescribed medications, and attend the necessary follow-up appointments. Prayer is not a replacement for action but the hope that our actions will be fruitful, and in surgery as in gun control, we humans are the means by which change occurs.

What intrigues me most is the psychological impact of "thoughts and prayers." I have a toddler at home, so development is often on my mind. When she was an infant we knew that when she cried she was probably either tired, needed a new diaper, or hungry. Over time we grew to distinguish her hungry cries from others so we were able to address her needs more quickly. Now that she can speak some words, we encourage her to use them when she wants something: she doesn't need to yell when she's hungry (although she still does sometimes) but can tell us "orange" which helps us know what she wants and how to make it right. As she continues to develop she will be able to grab them from the counter herself, but for now, we grab and peel mandarins for her and let her stuff the segments into her mouth as she pleases.

I offer this excursus on my daughter's development because I think that "thoughts and prayers" fall more in line with her infantile yells than her growing ability to express herself. Babies are able to do little on their own, and we know this, but we would expect more from a 2-year-old, not to mention a twelve or a 33-year-old. "Thoughts and prayers" is the linguistic equivalent of yelling for something to be different when you have the ability to effect that change yourself, refusing to grab the orange while ordering someone else to do it for you.

"Thoughts and prayers" assumes that we lack moral agency, that we do not have the ability to change our surroundings for the better. What seems hopeful on the surface has darkly pessimistic undertones. We have a pretty good idea of what we can do to stop mass shootings, and plentiful data from other countries to suggest that such an approach works. By trotting out phrases like this during times of crisis, we fail to account for ourselves as moral agents who shape our world and instead voluntarily reduce ourselves to ethical babies borne about on the prevailing tides. Although most follow Sen. Gardner's lead in avoiding the phrase itself, the sentiment remains. "Thoughts and prayers" is a start but never a solution. If the murder of helpless children does not inspire us to action, it's hard to fathom what will.