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Thoughts and prayers


Thoughts and prayers. Is it now a tired, worn-out cliché, its usefulness questionable? Is it now used so many times to render its meaning, its core message void.

It’s easy to say yes, and lamentably, quite understandable. For after the saying, what is left? The universe moves on. And having moved on, leaves a wake of fading echoes. Until next time, and the next time after that, and the next time after that.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Of course, the phrase is the sole domain of the survivor/s and those affected by whichever catastrophe, disaster or crime has befallen someone or some group of people. 

Its use in recent years has come under increasing criticism. And there’s an argument for that criticism, especially in the hands of politicians who fall back on it as a convenient example, some would say truth, of their sincerity. But there is also the other side of the coin, and that side of the coin goes to the currency of what it means to be human. It is called empathy.

John Howard showed it in 2001. He was in America when the Twin Towers fell. He wrote to President George Bush jnr, ‘My personal thoughts and prayers are very much with those left bereaved by these despicable attacks upon the American people and the American nation.’

That he allowed Australia to follow Bush into the folly of the Middle East invasions is another story.

Where the phrase and its lasting effect comes up against reality is in the rolling clash of murderous rampage, both state-based, ideological and personal. It is believed that the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’, entered the public dialogue following the Columbine High school massacre in America in 1999 when 15 people died, including the shooters, and about two dozen were injured. There have been many more massacres since, made all the more contentious because of the ascendancy of guns in American society. How else to look at a nation where there are more guns than people and where some jurisdictions allow open carry of guns and think the solution is to arm teachers?


'Thoughts and prayers cannot stop a knife, a gun or a fist. They are, nonetheless, the link to which we all should feel a common bond of humanity.'


The weary will say that sending off our thoughts and prayers to strangers is merely allowing that helplessness and hopelessness has won.  

Jonathan Foiles, lecturer and mental health therapist writing in Psychology Now, says: 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.’

In 2015, President Barack Obama, who fought for greater gun control, commented after a college shooting: ‘Thoughts and prayers [do] not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted some place else in America next week or a couple months from now.’

On the 10th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, John Howard evoked the phrase again: ‘Today our nation's thoughts and prayers are with all of those who bear the scars of that Sunday in April of 1996 - the families and friends of those who died, the injured – especially those whose physical pain continues – and all whose mind and spirit remain burdened.’

And Howard did do something constructive with his introduction of a national approach to gun control, including a ban on military-style weapons and a buyback of firearms.

Recently the phrase has issued from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when a military aircraft crashed off Northern Queensland. Australia’s ‘thoughts and prayers’ were with ‘the families, friends and colleagues’ of the personnel missing. And with the families and loved ones of those targeted by random and domestic violence, such as the Bondi stabbings. And the deaths of so many women.

Of course, it is only right and to be expected from the leader of the country. But this where cynicism and cliché enter the room. After the words have been uttered, then what? Mass movements have wrought change upon society, but a citizenry should also expect its governments to act. Rallies against domestic violence were held recently nationwide. There was lamentation, and anger. More than words were needed. Clearly, if we are not the agents of change then who? 

Thoughts and prayers cannot stop a knife, a gun or a fist. They are, nonetheless, the link to which we all should feel a common bond of humanity. The challenge is to not let the fading of the words become a silence so great it swallows our sense of what is right. 




Warwick McFadyen is an award-winning journalist. He has won two Walkley Awards and four Quill Awards. He has published several books of poetry. The latest is 21+4 Poems. His prose and poems have also appeared in Quadrant, Overland and Dissent.

Main image: People gather at Federation Square during a rally against women's violence on 28 April in Melbourne.(Getty Images)

Topic tags: Warwick McFadyen, Grief, Thoughts, Prayers, Loss, Violence



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Existing comments

When we are not distracted and/or in automatic mode praying the “Our Father” Is a deeply revolutionary act. We pray because we need to be changed and we pray because we need to be kept from temptation - our own temptation to be masters of the universe. If prayer starts to look like a cliche we’ve got it all wrong. It might be better to take someone’s hand and stand silently with them until words are wrought from our anguish.

Pam | 09 May 2024  

Conventionally tired though they may appear to be, the words "our thoughts and prayers" extended in condolence are still more pregnant in significance than the vetted secular version of "our thoughts" that commonly adorn news reports in recent times.
Public religious terminology is an indicator of the life-informing beliefs and practices held by most people in Australia and throughout the world.

John RD | 10 May 2024  

Jesus said if you had faith like a mustard seed, you could move mountains. (Matt 17:20) Prayer needs to be followed by action. I think these days many people have little faith. People of real faith and deep prayer have gone on to change the world. William Wilberforce and fellow members of the Clapham Sect helped to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. They didn't just express sympathy: they did something.

Edward Fido | 14 May 2024  

Thoughts & prayers may be just a phrase from leaders to pacify the multitudes. I desire change from the dictates of war, corruption and violence.Without spare cash or influence, prayer is my only hope. Faith alone leads me to believe God will act for the best

Monica Davis | 17 May 2024  

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