"Thoughts and prayers" have gotten a bad rap lately, and mostly for good reason. Cynically, they have become a way for anybody (but especially for people with power) to offer the illusion of sympathy while refusing to extend a hand that actually helps.
You see both the phrase and criticism of the phrase most often after a major tragedy, such as the school shooting that happened last month in Florida. "Thoughts and prayers to the families of victims," a politician will say, before drowning in responses that say "Thoughts and prayers don't do anything. How about you actually pass some laws that will help us?"
It would be a big mistake, however, to demonize thoughts and prayers altogether. For some, "I'm praying for you" remains a genuine statement of sincere empathy.
Take for example, a tweet from actor Chris Pratt earlier this week. After hearing that filmmaker and writer Kevin Smith had just survived a massive heart attack, Pratt offered his condolences and prayers. "Kevin we don't know each other too good but I have loved you since Clerks and I'm praying my ass off for you cause I believe in the healing power of prayer," Pratt tweeted. "Can you please pray with me people!?"
Pratt is outspoken about his Christian faith (I even talked to him last year about how his religion relates to his role in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy series), so his talk of prayer isn't surprising, nor should we assume that it's an empty offer. To him, prayer has genuine power, and it's the best thing he can offer Smith. After all, what else is Pratt, an actor, supposed to do to help a fellow celebrity recover from (successful) heart surgery? It's not like he can step into the operating room with Smith's doctors, and it's unlikely that Smith needs financial help with the resulting medical bills.
Yet some folks on social media were quick to jump on Pratt for offering "thoughts and prayers."
"That's cool and everything but Doctors and nurses save lives not prayer," says user @RetroBigfoot. "You meant well, @prattprattpratt but praying does nothing; nothing to help, nothing to hear as there's nothing there," says @therealcraigr. One user, @scotstralian, even went as far as to say to Pratt, "Great now I wont enjoy your films as much knowing you're a Jesus nut."
Now, this is the internet we're talking about, so it's no surprise that when talking about religion, no matter your beliefs, there will always be somebody waiting in the wings to call you an idiot for having them.
There's a ring of truth to some of the comments. If it's in your power to fix a problem, yet all you do is pray that God fixes it, you're not helping. But blanket dismissal and condemnation of prayer betrays a misunderstanding of why people of faith pray in the first place.
Like Pratt, I'm a Christian. Sure, if I'm walking past a man on the street having a stroke and I pray for him instead of trying to help him, call me out for being a jerk and not living according to the Bible. But when I say I'm praying for a long-distance friend going through a rough time, it's not my way of brushing them off. It's my way of saying, "You will be on my mind in the moments when I'm focusing on my faith, which is the most important thing in my life."
If you're an atheist who believes prayer does nothing, that's OK. I don't worship the god(s) of other religions, but if someone of the Hindu faith said that they were praying for me I would be thankful. At the very least, this is an instance where the phrase "it's the thought that counts" truly applies, because knowing that someone is praying for me has an effect on me, even if you don't believe it has a metaphysical effect on the rest of the universe.
Kevin Smith responded to Pratt's tweet from a Facebook Live video shot in his hospital room, saying, "No. 1, oh my God, thanks to Chris Pratt, how sweet was that? Star-Lord praying for me. But No. 2, yeah, please don't fight over stuff like that. It's a waste of time. Prayer, whether you're religious or not, somebody saying 'I'll pray for you,' it's like good intentions. It's very nice."
Director James Gunn, who worked with Pratt on Guardians of the Galaxy, summed up similar thoughts in a series of his own tweets. "Prayer alone won't change the world ... If I am ever sick I will gratefully accept any of your thoughts and prayers."
So I, too, am praying for a speedy recovery for Kevin Smith. I hope that all of us can be more grateful for the thoughts and prayers we receive from others, whether the person praying is Chris Pratt, a friend, a colleague or a stranger you bumped into.