‘Thoughts & Prayers’ and Why They Aren’t Enough

Nearly every day we go through another gun tragedy with lives cut short for no reason. We’re left groggily mourning afterwards in all four corners of the country, desiring change, hoping for this national nightmare to end. And in every instance, nothing changes.

This time in Orlando felt different, at first. But then we remembered what we learn after all shootings; nothing will ever change.

America’s response to its unnecessary gun violence has become more of a deranged cycle than genuine evolution. We’re hit with a debilitating incident, from elementary schools to churches. We express a brief moment of anger and shock that trails off into indifference and resignation to the inevitability of incidents like these, despite the fact that they shouldn’t be inevitable.

Some people decide to speak out. They come from all angles of the political spectrum and alleviate the necessity for ‘change’ in the ways that we deal with gun violence. But then the other crowd comes in and says ‘not now, we shouldn’t politicize this’. And then the finger pointing begins, and never ends, because the parties responsible for the proliferation of guns in the streets of America stay silent and hide behind their hollow words.

And in place of meaningful action on gun violence we’re left resorting to a tired phrase that gets muttered from everyone in all corners of the world, from the halls of Congress to lengthy twitter feeds.

I send my thoughts and prayers to (insert incident here)…”

And with these words it’s almost as if we try to dispatch a litany of words that will somehow magically rectify the gun crisis in our country.

But there’s a harsh reality to our thoughts and prayers; they don’t work. They never have, and they never will, at least on their own. Most of us mean well when we offer our thoughts and prayers. I do it repeatedly in the place of nothing else to stay, more often than not taken aback by the magnitude of a tragedy and my voice’s ineptitude for the moment And then I, like many others, fear rushing into the aftermath of an incident with the intent of starting a debate like the ones we need to have. We’re worried about sullying the memory of those slain and injured, instead deciding to save our words for the hours and days afterwards, a time by which the rest of the country has already moved on.

Thoughts and prayers are important in the wake of tragedy, but it’s not enough. More than not it isn’t really a recognition of the need for empathy or emotional strength, but rather our own realization that we feel powerless in the moment, unsure of how our words, or our actions, can fix this serious problem.

This isn’t meant to devalue prayers or thoughts. On the contrary, an informed democratic society can’t function without a thoughtful populace attuned to the attitudes and feelings of those around us. But our usage of this phrase repeatedly, no matter how meaningful we mean it to be, has made it entirely meaningless. ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ has become a formulaic cop-out used by many of America’s highest public officials to shy away from the necessity of acting on this crisis. From the highest seat in Congress to the lowest state offices, leaders use ‘thoughts and prayers’ as a way to deflect focus from how it’s their job to stop gun violence.

And we want to believe, as well-meaning citizens, that we can rise ‘above the fray’ and be better than the pettiness that consumes much of Washington and American politics. We want to think that we can offer words that will truly mend the deepest of wounds and stains of gun violence. Instead, our words dilute the few honest debates and discussions started among the wreckage of these tragic events, stymying any meaningful dialogue before it can begin.

No matter how much we may wish to sympathize with the victims, and no matter the intent of our thoughts or prayers, our condolences become just another beat in a song that’s played over and over again in the American political sphere.

And the saddest thing about the ‘thoughts and prayers’ phenomenon is that is reveals our deepest failings when it comes to solving the issue of gun violence. Instead of fixing the root causes of shootings, we’re left fighting over the very important yet surface-level elements of this debate, whether it be barring gun purchases for people on the terrorist watch list or basic background checks on all gun sales. None of these things are controversial, and the American people agree; increasingly large numbers of Americans, from Democrats to Republicans, support these basic measures.

Yet time and time again these debates are shut down before debate can even begin. They’re shunned to the side mere hours after these mass shootings, shouted down by Gun-Lobby arguments that ‘Now is not the time for politics’.

But, see, it is. By offering only our thoughts and prayers we’re engaging in the most disappointing and destructive version of American politics that can ever be had; caring in thought but not in practice, something that Congress and others have perfected to an art. The least that we can do as a society is mourn, but the best we can do is keep us from having to mourn again and again.

We’re on the precipice of making real action on gun violence. But another mass-shooting will happen in the near future, and we’ll be left struggling once again over the horrors of our inability to solve this crisis.

But what will you do in that moment of horror; will you offer your hollow ‘thoughts and prayers’, relegating the debate on guns to a time that’ll never come? Or will you speak up right then and there and ask ‘When will it end?’ Because the only acceptable answer to that question is ‘now’, and that can’t be done when thoughts and prayers are our only response.