My thoughts and prayers should not be the focus of your anger right now.

Another day in America, another school shooting  A little over a week ago, Nikolas Cruz (a troubled former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida), opened fire in the school, killing 17 people and wounding many others. We’re shocked and horrified – again. We’re holding our children just a little tighter – again. We’re angry that such violence is allowed to exist in our world – again. Families are still burying their dead, and Americans are searching for answers and solutions – again. We Canadians are peeking through our blinds at our neighbour’s latest domestic disturbance, feeling both sorry for, and superior to, them. Social media is awash with sorrow and outrage on behalf of the families terrorized by the daily possibility of a school shooting. And rightly so: there were 65 of them in the US last year. They’re on track to beat their own record this year – it’s only February, and there have already been nearly 20 occurrences of a live round being discharged in a school building or on a school campus. Another common theme – at least, in my newsfeed, anyway – is smugness. We’ve got gun control, so we don’t have school shootings. Yay, Canada! Again, rightly so: I worry about lots of things when I kiss my kids goodbye in the morning, but a school shootings – nearly non-existent in Canada – are very low on the list.

Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing another theme emerge: screw your thoughts and prayers, you useless hypocrite, and do something.

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In my opinion, memes like these are judgmental, patronizing, insulting and presumptuous. How do you know that the person who’s praying isn’t doing anything about the problem? You don’t. You just assume. How dare you judge someone else’s sincerity or try to censor their reaction to what is happening, just because their response is not like yours? How arrogant of you to decide that a person is lazily ignoring all possible solutions in favour of prayer and meditation, when all you actually know about the person is that he or she shared a thoughts-and-prayers meme.

Even worse, people share memes like this one, which implies that people who pray are worse than useless – they’re using their prayers to feel like they’re doing something productive so they won’t feel guilty about not doing something:

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Again with the presumption, judgement and insult.

Clearly, if you are sharing memes like the examples above, you don’t believe in praying. You believe that it has no value – and, indeed, no place in the life of any intelligent human being. However, there are millions of people who do not feel that way – myself included. I have known, all my life, that I am surrounded by prayer. My grandparents prayed for me faithfully. So did my father. So does my mother, and my mother-in-law, my husband and my children. So do some of my friends. Does it change things in my life? Maybe – but, again, you don’t believe it. So I guess that’s my personal leap of faith … Does it make me feel better about pretty much everything? Yes. No matter what comes my way, no matter how low I feel, knowing that someone is praying for me – loves me enough to hit their knees on my behalf, and wish me the best – is like receiving a strong hug from invisible arms.

When a child falls and hurts themselves, one of the first things most people do is hug them and speak gently to them. It won’t mop the blood from their knees or heal their bruises, but it will be comforting. It will show the little one they’re not alone, and that someone is watching and cares. When a friend comes out with bad news, most of us will hold that friend and tell them we are there for them. We can’t lift them out of debt, fix the struggles of their children, or bring a dead spouse or parent back to life. But they will draw strength from the warmth of our touch, the emotional caress of our concern. They will know someone sees their pain and gives a damn.

Imagine, now, that it suddenly became trendy to mock that response.

“Hey, you – it’s adorable that you can give hugs instead of making actual change.”

“Oh, look, you kissed her boo-boo! Now it’s going to magically disappear … Or not. Because science.”

“Hug away, selfish asshole. At least now you won’t have to actually help somebody, because you’ve made yourself feel like you already have.”

“Oh, sure, listen to her whine, then tell her you’re there for her. ‘Cause that will totally cure your friend’s cancer.”

Most people wouldn’t do that. That would be insensitive, crass and just plain mean. But so many seem to have no qualms about trampling on heartfelt wishes and bone-deep beliefs, offered by people who are just trying to get through life with a little grace and kindness. I have no control over American politics. I can’t raise shooting victims from the dead and give them back to their family. I can’t banish the nightmares of the survivors. My earnest desire that things will get better, my terribly inadequate shreds of sympathy, my prayers – are sometimes all I have to give. And, frankly, if they never do an ounce of good, at least they’re positive and unifying. That’s alot more than can be said for mean-spirited memes.


My inspiration: old hamsters and lame goldfish.


Whenever we go to a pet store, we look at all the critters. Because we have owned various hamsters over the years, we spend a little extra time looking at them. Most of them are just weeks old, adorable little fur pom-poms either snoozing in their nest or tumbling about. However, there is always at least one adult hamster who is housed alone (because hamsters become increasingly territorial as they grow). This one, we know, will not be chosen by anyone. Hamsters have such short lives that no one wants to take one on if it’s not a baby. Prospective pet owners know an adult hamster is a big-eyed fluffy heartache-in-waiting. At this point in our pet store perambulation, it is inevitable that one or the other of my daughters will say “I wish we could take that one home – nobody else will, so he’s going to die here without anyone to love him”. This has always tugged at my heart strings, but I move us all along quickly rather than go any further down that path. Who wants another pet funeral?

Every year, Lent receives heavy consideration from Fiona and Bridget. They follow the common tradition of giving up something they love – candy or chocolate, usually, although one year it was watching “Spongebob Squarepants”. The purpose of going without something you want throughout Lent is to lessen the power of what tempts you – to examine its impact on your life, to learn how to deny yourself frivolous pleasures in order to focus on worthier pursuits. To that end, I try to encourage them to add things as well as giving up things – to consider what they can give to or do for others. This year, Bridget said wistfully “I wish we could adopt an old hamster – to give him a home, and treats, and love”. My first instinct was to say no again. To point out that there are so many much bigger, more important problems in the world. To ask what difference it would make. But I didn’t. Because I’m trying to be more open, to see the world through unjaded eyes. Because I have started to believe that we are all called in different directions by compassion, by love. And that if we all followed our callings, however small, the world would start to look different. Softer. Kinder. More beautiful.

Derek of San Antonio, Texas, is a believer, too. When faced with a disabled fish (the fish has a bladder disorder that keeps it from holding itself upright, meaning it was stuck at the bottom of the tank all the time), he did not shrug and say “this is stupid – it’s just a fish”. He did not say “flush it” (which, I must admit, is probably what I would have said). No, he came up with a system of airline tubing and styrofoam to help the fish swim – a sort of wheelchair for the fish. Now the fish swims all over the tank, like it was meant to do.

And now Gerry the hamster (Gerry is short for “geriatric”) has a forever home – however short forever may turn out to be for a hamster of indeterminate age. Gerry’s a lovely little thing, with a gentle disposition and an insatiable appetite for pistachios, and I’m glad we took a chance on him.

Many times over the past few years, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tide of deep sadness and desperate need relentlessly rolling in. Wave after wave of hopeless cases and terrible stories. What can we do? Communities that have been destroyed by a natural disaster or a terrorist attack need roads cleared and hospitals rebuilt and people saved and patched up and fed and sheltered – but we can only buy gas for one rescue vehicle or provide a week’s worth of meals for one family. Thousands are dying of preventable diseases, but we can only pay for treatment for a handful of patients. The earth is poisoned, scorched and overheating, but we can only turn off the lights and taps in our own home and reduce our trash by a bag every two weeks. People in our own neighbourhood don’t have enough to eat, but all we can do is toss a few cans in the bin on our way out of the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like our contribution is so small that it’s hardly worth giving, and we start to lose faith in it. Sometimes it feels like there is so much need that the little things – like elderly hamsters and wobbly goldfish – don’t even get a second look.

This may seem like a tall order, but I want to rid myself of that soul-crushing apathy, and I want everyone else to do that, too. Years ago, in Sunday School, we used to sing a little song called “Jesus Bids Us Shine”. I remember, in particular, the lines “in this world of darkness / we must shine / you in your small corner / and I in mine”. The song isn’t about banishing the darkness or saving the world. It is about giving what little we can, when we can, to improve our own little piece of the cosmic puzzle. And, whatever your position on Jesus and Sunday School, you can’t argue against that. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something – and if it alleviates the suffering of any creature, big or small, human or animal, it’s worth it. Let’s not become overwhelmed by our own smallness. Let’s push back against despair, and watch how drops of water become an ocean.