In the wake of last Saturday’s tragedy in Orlando that took the innocent lives of 49 people enjoying a night out at a bar that caters to the LGBTQ community, it is hard to find the words to express the sorrow, the anger, the hopelessness, and the desire for change that all swirl around together in the minds and hearts of most of us.
What people come to quickly, myself included, is a desire to express “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, and for all of their loved-ones who now carry a burden of loss and grief that I’m sure feels too heavy to bear.
This tragedy brings up within us a visceral reaction to the event itself, but unfortunately in our country, it also brings up the cumulative feelings of events like this that take place far too often here. There have been 182 mass shootings this year alone (and we’re not half way into the year). These shootings have taken the lives of 288 people and injured another 673. Six of these shootings have taken place since Sunday’s shooting in Orlando alone. And, we as a society have become numb to it all. We throw up our hands and wonder what can be done?
But, we always come back to thoughts and prayers. And this is a good thing. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, there have been numerous sentiments expressed through social media saying things like, “No more thoughts and prayers.” The thought behind these posts is that thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need action if things are going to change. And they are right.
However, I think these statements create a false dichotomy. The reality of what we need is not a decision between “thoughts and prayers” OR “action”. What we need is thoughts and prayers AND action. Thoughts and prayers, if authentic, will lead to the best action.
Thoughts are an important first step because these lead us to be focused on people, to be focused on compassion, to focus on doing what is truly best for the safety in our world. We keep the victims and their family and loved ones in our thoughts, because in that way we share some small measure of the burden of their loss and grief. Our thoughts tell those who remain that they are not alone; that we are with them in their pain. Saying “you are in our thoughts” is a way of saying, I stand with you in solidarity in this tragic moment.
Thoughts lead to prayers. Pray for those who have died and for those who grieve. By connecting our thoughts in and through prayer, it brings us to a very different interior space. It brings us into a space that is God-centered and God-focused. When we bring these thoughts to God, we are more likely to be rooted in the best of who we are – in compassion, in kindness, in solidarity, in sorrow, and in a desire for healing and authentic change.
When we do not connect our thoughts to our prayers, we are lead to the worst side of who we are; a road of irrationality and vengeance fueled by our anger. Our “solutions” will more likely be temporary and designed to make us feel like we’re doing something, but which actually won’t solve the problems we face. It brings us into a space of accusation, and prejudice and name-calling – which cloud our vision from real solutions.
Prayer places us in a balanced space which allows a thoughtful process so we might enter into the complexity of these issues. This tragedy in Orlando isn’t about terrorism, or mental health, or gun laws, or immigration, or religion, or prejudice towards the LGBTQ community. It isn’t about any one of these things. It is about all of these things in a complex mix that will take time to unpack, and a one-size-fits-all solution will not make things better. From thoughts and prayers, we can find the courage to act.
We can seek to advocate for reasonable, sensible gun reform. No one is coming to take all of the guns. But, surely there are sensible first steps that we can take to live in a safer world. Reforms could include background checks and bans on weapons that are needed only by the military in a war zone. This will mean putting aside the political divisions on this issue that are so entrenched that we have all stopped listening to each other.
And we can stand up and demand of our leaders every effort to assure that this never happen again. We have to shake ourselves out of the numbness or helplessness that has overtaken us; the sense that this won’t change, that this can’t change. It can change and we need to be the ones holding our leaders to task to make sure that it does.
Let us never again have to add another community to the heartbreaking list that includes Columbine, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Newtown and now Orlando.
Let us pledge, especially we who follow St. Francis, to truly be instruments of peace in a world full of violence. Let us offer our thoughts and our prayers – and then, let us act.