Have you ever gone up to a homeless person on the street and said:
"I'm sorry for your situation. I'll be thinking of you?"
If you think doing so would be ridiculous, well, you're pretty much doing the same thing when you tell someone that you're "sending them your thoughts and prayers."
Showing someone you're empathetic to their situation isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if that's the extent of your empathy, merely indicating that it exists, then you're not really doing much.
When words mean nothing
Words always retain value, and you can't entirely strip words of their impact and meaning.
But think of how much your words mean to someone in peril.
Specifically when you give them the words "thoughts and prayers."
Knowing you're in somebody's "thoughts and prayers" doesn't really mean much when you've lost everything.
To them, your thoughts and prayers likely mean nothing at all.
To them, what would actually be more helpful is if you could send them tangible, usable resources, which doesn't necessarily mean money itself.
People who've been hit with natural disasters and lost their homes could use, to list a few things:
- Food donations.
- Monetary contributions.
- Resources that point them in the direction of temporary housing.
- Warm clothes and shoes.
Thoughts and prayers aren't going to protect them from the environment or fill up their stomachs.
I actually find it a little insensitive to tell someone you're thinking of them but other than that, you'll do nothing for them.
If you don't plan on doing anything at all, consider keeping your thoughts and prayers to yourself, because what that ultimately looks like is virtue signaling.
You're "doing your part" by showing the world what a good person you are, that you can "feel" for someone and their plight.
what you say you do,
and what you actually do.
You think you're helping someone by telling them that they're in your thoughts and prayers.
You're telling them that you're thinking of and praying for them.
And even if you actually do think of these people and pray for them, it's hard to argue that this is doing anything for them.
More on the last point in the last section.
Of course, it's a little different for people who want to give but aren't in a great place to give themselves.
But if you're as empathetic as you portray yourself to be, think about what your thoughts and prayers (if you're really even thinking of and praying for someone) really mean to someone who is suffering, and think about how they perceive that.
The value of independent thought and action
There is a sociopsychological phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility whereby someone is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when other bystanders or witnesses are present.
"Group size significantly influenced the likelihood of helping behavior in a staged emergency:
85% of participants responded with intervention when alone,
62% of participants took action when with one other person,
and only 31% did when there were four other bystanders."
Now think of the multitude of bystanders and witnesses in large-scale emergencies and disasters, whether as a result of a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or war.
And if that wasn't enough, add on top of that the barrier of screens and distance that separate us from the conflict.
All of these factors combined make it easy for us to hold the plight of others at arm's length.
But as someone who's always hated groupthink, conformity, and the lack of individual choices due to group influences, I urge you to learn to think and act for yourself.
It doesn't matter if:
- There are 5 or 500 people present.
- Many people will disagree with your decision.
- Many people won't understand your decision.
Free will has its cons, but it also has many benefits, and many of these benefits and helpful actions for others never get to see the sun because too many people can't think and act independently.
An empathy experiment
So, the next time you become aware of a disaster or emergency, whether local or far away on the other side of the planet, consider being smart about how you get involved.
Obviously, I'm not urging you to donate and help with every single one of these emergencies. Heck, I'm not even necessarily urging you to help at all, even though it is a good and charitable thing to do.
The purpose of this article is to call out all the people who spend three seconds telling someone in peril that they're in their "thoughts and prayers," as if that's a sufficient form of "help."
I'm willing to bet that most people who bother to say that don't give those in need a second thought, let alone devote some time to pray for them.
Even if someone did actively think about those in need and prayed for them, this would open up the religion debate, and one could argue that a prayer would hardly do anything at all. There are people who need help now, and waiting for a prayer to be answered might mean waiting until it's too late.
Here's a little empathy experiment you can use if you're still having trouble seeing where I'm coming from.
Just take a minute to place yourself in someone's shoes and ask yourself:
"If I really needed help right now because:
- I no longer have a home.
- I have no money.
- I have no food.
- I lost all of my clothes except the ones I'm wearing right now.
- I lost my family.
Am I going to ask for resources and guidance...
or thoughts and prayers?"
In other words,
if you really want to help someone,
keep your thoughts and prayers to yourself.
Take meaningful, impactful action instead.