WASHINGTON -- Nothing can kill it. It has outlasted maniacs with machine guns. It has withstood the fury of hurricanes and earthquakes. It has even endured withering satire -- public ridicule of the sort that costs government officials their jobs -- and each time it has come back in full force, unbowed and unashamed.
I am talking about "thoughts and prayers," the three-word hiccup of a phrase uttered after tragedies by politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk. One's thoughts and prayers usually "go out to," or, less frequently, "are with" the victims and their families. Oddly, it is seldom "prayers and thoughts," as though that formulation so violates the consensus cliche, the go-to banality, that it approaches syntactic sedition.
As a fan of the Enlightenment, I think "thoughts" are precious commodities. As a secular humanist, I think "prayers" tend to reflect the better angels of our nature. Whether or not a deity is listening is beside the point: The point is compassion and connection and a belief in something mightier than ourselves.
So what's the problem?
The problem is that "thoughts and prayers" so often seems like a reflex issued with all the forethought and sincerity of a "bless you" after a sneeze. ("Bless you" actually might be more sincere, at its self-involved core: In medieval Europe, it was a prayer to ward off the Black Death, whose presenting symptom was often a blast into a hankie, dismayingly in your vicinity.) Particularly galling is when thoughts and prayers are issued by politicians after massacres whose underlying causes they have no courage to legislatively address.
Yes, I'm grumpy about this, and have been for a long time, but I'm not alone. The splendidly acerbic political folk singer Roy Zimmerman has a viciously punny song about it. "The congressperson semi-automatically declares / 'To the victims of this tragedy we send our thoughts and prayers.'"
A YouTube video, already viewed a million times, advertises a supposed app named TP that automatically posts your thoughts and prayers every time a new tragedy occurs. (A satisfied user giddily declares: "I feel like a better person, and I didn't have to do anything.")
You'd think that by now people would have re-crafted their sympathies in a way that does not echo so hollowly. But no. The knee-jerk response is now just jerk. The numbers are startling. There were more than 1,000 "thoughts and prayers" published on American news sites during the three days after the Las Vegas massacre.
To offer your thoughts and prayers is so instantly reactive and so lacking in authenticity that it suggests you have neither thought nor prayed and have no intention of doing either. You are not only trite, but also a liar. Sorry.
How can we combat this scourge? The United States is about free speech. You can't legislate against a phrase any more than you can restrict people's access to weaponry with the ability to explode people's heads from great distances at enormous speed using military-issue firearms legally modified to exact maximum damage.
Or possibly we can. Possibly we can build upon a feeble template given to us by our state legislatures, which are trying to look as if they care. I propose a three-day "waiting period," between the time that you decide to issue your "thoughts and prayers" and the time you actually do.
Maybe given three days, 72 whole hours, we'll all think of something more productive to do.
Nice dream. But I don't think it has a prayer.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.
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