Praying on Facebook

Published on May 22, 2013 by      Print
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By Joslyn Hamilton

The phenomenon of “praying on Facebook”: when something terrible happens (like the recent horrific bombing of the Boston marathon or the tornado in Oklahoma), and the Facebook feed gets flooded with people posting things like “We’re praying for you, <insert catastrophe shorthand>” and “I’m going to get on my yoga mat and pray.”

Maybe it’s because as a card-carrying Masshole*, I’m not really into the touchy feely woo woo, but this rubs me ever-so-slightly the wrong way. I’m fairly confident the sentiment comes from a truly good place, and I understand how it feels. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, it was hard to be 3,000 miles away from a city super close to my heart, worried about all my friends and wishing there was something I could do. It’s a helpless feeling. Our hearts truly do “go out” to the people of Boston and Oklahoma (and Connecticut, and Haiti, and New Orleans, etc.)—maybe not literally, but in spirit. We want to be there to offer support, comfort, solidarity, what have you.

Instead, we offer solidarity through social media.

One of the best things about social media is its ability to connect us and make us feel closer to old friends and family and people who aren’t where we are. I don’t begrudge the idea of social media support. I am an avid champion of social media and our ability to communicate with people quickly and express ourselves easily. Social media can also be a powerful forum for activism. In the case of the Boston bombings, it helped spread bystander photographs and videos quickly, which may or may not have helped to catch the bombers. (It also ruined the reputation of an already-dead Brown student totally unrelated to the bombings, but that’s another story which The Atlantic told well.)

Where I get tripped up is with the suggestion that praying, or worse, “sending good energy” is actually doing something for victims of tragedies. When I read these posts, it seems like the person on the other end has the false sense of having affected change or contributed in an essential way to help out. I would wager a guess that the person this post helps the most is the person who made the comment.

After the bombing in Boston, I was having a conversation with my mom about the violence in the world today.

She made a comment about how things started getting bloody in the ’60s and just keep getting worse, with no end in sight. My mom came of age as an idealistic young hippie during the Woodstock era. She has remained an idealistic young hippie through the Reagan era and the Bush eras and all the way up until now. My Facebook friends who talk about “praying for Boston” and “sending love and support” (presumably over the internet, although it’s possible they mean telekinetically) remind me of my mom’s generation of peace lovin’ longhairs: the intention is there, but not much meaningful action. Except, one could argue that my mom’s generation actually did try to get out there and make a difference. They didn’t have Facebook, so to make a statement, they actually had to march on things and make signs.

At any rate, while love-ins and peace marches make a good statement, I’m not sure if they’ve ever made much of a difference. By now I think we’ve learned that simply voicing our opinion doesn’t necessarily effort change—and certainly not when we’re voicing it over social media, where most of our friends already agree with us. It’s an insular world, Facebook is.

But here is who is not listening to your effortless Facebook post: the guy staying up all night learning how to make a crude homemade bomb in his basement so he can go commit a terrorist act that kills and injures innocent people. That guy is not paying any attention whatsoever to the Facebook messages pleading for peace on earth, because that guy is busy. He is motivated. He is ambitious. He is coming up with a plan and setting it in action. He’s getting shit done. And that guy is winning.

Those of us who rally on the side of less violence and more peace’n’love are in a bit of a quandary, because really, how do you take MORE action on LESS violence?

Sure, you can lobby for gun control laws (and for those who have, I commend you, even if Congress sucks right now). But without guns, terrorists will simply find another way. Is naively trying to spread goodwill on social media our only option? What can we do to make a difference?

Well, we can start by being more prepared. On the New Yorker website two days after the Boston bombing,  Atul Gawande wrote an essay explaining why Boston’s hospitals prepared to intake the victims and sprang into pragmatic action so quickly:

Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them.

My friend Jesse Seaver wrote a piece for his column on Huffington Posts’s Impact vertical about the real steps we can all take to help in a catastrophe, even from across the country or around the world. We can make sure we are signed up to be organ donors. We can give blood. We can take a CPR course. We can volunteer for a cause that speaks to us. We can give our time. We can give our money. (Seriously. Give money. To the Red Cross, to the Salvation Army, to someone you know in Boston or Oklahoma who is struggling. Money helps.)

These tactical bandaids don’t really get to the root of the problem, but I would argue that they are a more proactive way to contribute to our world than simply posting benevolent well-wishes on Facebook. Every time something like this happens, we all freak out on Facebook for five minutes, and then we don’t hear about it again. A few days after every major disaster happens elsewhere in the world, my Facebook feed always goes right back to normal: people posting pics of their food, pimping their next yoga class, checking in at the ballet. In one way, this speaks to our resilience. In another, it feels trite.

I’m not claiming to have any solutions—God, I wish I did—but wonder what it would be like if we all stopped praying on Facebook and instead went out and took an EMT class or gave a pint of blood. While you’re at it, thank a cop or a fireman today.  Cuz those guys are also getting real things done on a daily basis. 


* I googled “what do you call people from Massachusetts because I have always called them Massholes but felt like maybe that would be obnoxious in this case, but I was wrong. According to the web site, this is actually proper nomenclature.


 About Joslyn Hamilton


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  1. Eric says:

    I think you answered the question in the opening. People pray on FB because of a combination of the feeling of helplessness and wanting to reach out.

    One problem is that the people who create the action also want the power, while the people who want the change shun power. The number of peace loving hippies who want to be powerful CEOs, or congressmen, or even armed protectors of peace are few and far between.

    What I would like to see is what would happen if people got off FB (and TV, video games, smart phones, etc.) and began to interact more with their neighbors and communities. What would happen if people let their sense of self and acceptance, their sense of what is normal and acceptable, be shaped by interaction with their neighbors and communities rather than being dictated by media including FB?

    Response posted on May 22nd, 2013 , 11:52 am
  2. Matthew says:

    This is truly excellent, Joslyn.

    Response posted on May 22nd, 2013 , 12:26 pm
  3. Michelle says:

    This is a question for me a lot, not just for the big disasters, probably more for friends and acquaintances, especially if they don’t share my faith. I get waht you’re saying: victims need practical help. The thing is, I believe prayer is a kind of practical help. I actually believe it makes a difference, even if that difference can’t be observed right now. The thing is also, love motivates one to give all kinds of help–the prayer AND the money/blood/supplies, etc. There’s a very old Christian motto that says “Ora et labora.” Work and pray. They’re two sides of tbe same coin. So yes, saying a prayer or prayers can’t exonerate you from getting off your duff, but in my view, a person who has the ability to ask God for the needs of suffering people and doesn’t is just as remiss. It doesn’t have to be on a mat in a quiet room. Prayer is a great way to pass the time while giving blood or cooking a meal or holding a hand up at the hospital. Now whether it’s necessary or attention-seeking to announce that one is praying for someone probably depends on the circumstances, but since people often feel supported to know that, right now, my stanceis to say so if I am, but also to stop on the spot and do it right then. Potential terrorists and havoc-wreakers, no, are probably not in a loop of caring, loving, praying, supportive people, but the goal is to reach out to and yes, even to pray for, them.

    Response posted on May 23rd, 2013 , 8:39 am
  4. Susan LaRue says:

    Excellent article. You’ve really touched on some points that have bothered me for quite a long time. And you’ve given some good food for thought.

    Response posted on May 23rd, 2013 , 12:07 pm
  5. Louis says:

    Empathy, no matter how or where it’s expressed is not in any way a bad thing. It may not accomplish anything that is concrete but without it this cruel, cold world would so much more so. By the way, I’m liking your mom.

    Response posted on May 23rd, 2013 , 12:40 pm
  6. Lisa A says:

    I totally agree with you Jocelyn. The whole nature of Facebook is ephemeral hence much of the sentiment expressed on it feels hollow. I wonder if the people who are “Praying for” anything actually even are praying or if in their mind the comment counts as the prayer! I completed two civilian emergency response team courses this year. One for humans, one for animals. I think if more people participated in things like this maybe their addiction to facebook would lessen. I even wrote an article about last year.

    Response posted on May 26th, 2013 , 4:38 pm
  7. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    A reader sent me this wonderful Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker called “Small Change (Why the revolution will not be tweeted)” and it perfectly sums up my thoughts on Praying on Facebook. Of course Malcolm Gladwell did a much better job of explaining this than I ever could, with a great narrative about true activism during the Civil Rights movement. Interesting read:

    Response posted on May 30th, 2013 , 11:28 am
  8. Deep Thoughts on Social Media | Outside Eye Consulting says:

    [...] recently wrote a post for Recovering Yogi about the modern phenomenon known as praying on Facebook: when something terrible happens (like the recent horrific bombing of the Boston marathon or the [...]

    Response posted on June 5th, 2013 , 10:16 am
  9. Boodiba says:

    People do a LOT of flimsily sincere things on Fakebook, but what amazes me the most is how complaining about various aspects of it has become a sort of cottage industry. Why don’t more people simply quit Facebook? It IS possible. I know because I did.

    Response posted on July 1st, 2013 , 4:51 pm
  10. Ang says:

    As a card carrying unemployed actor (not really, but that’s what I got when I googled “What do you call people from California”), I feel the same hives inducing cringe when people post about loosing a family member or friend. While the non- Massachusetts native in me wants to support anyone’s grieving process, it makes me almost tic to consider if I am supposed to offer my condolences for such a personal loss (or worse, “like” the status) so publicly.
    A friend and I call these people (along with those who offer cryptic, vague, “cliff hanger-esq” updates to bait you into responding with concern or encouragement) “Facebook cutters”. While I have to believe a degree of comfort offered/solicited is received, how much more supported would one feel receiving a phone call, card or cup of tea?

    Response posted on March 16th, 2014 , 8:08 pm