As they say, everything old will be new again. I just never thought it would be the Goo Goo Dolls. I thought I heard the last of them in 1995. As it turns out they actually had some new music in the last decade. Go figure.
I didn't know this until Jackson came home from school a few weeks ago singing his heart out to "Better Days," which they are learning in music class. He became so enamored with this song that he even asked his lovely and amazing piano teacher if he could learn how to play it on the piano. And because she is lovely and amazing, she not only revised the music to his level, but printed the lyrics for him.
After looking at the lyrics, he told us that they changed the phrase "say a prayer for them" to "lend a helping hand." He wanted to know why.
I explained to him that because he goes to a public school there is this thing called separation of church and state. I explained that because this is a good public school doing what good public schools should do, his teachers are following that principle. I told him that this separation is a good thing. I told him that public schools are a very good thing. And I told him that prayer is a good thing - if you're a praying kind of person, that is. But I also told him we need to be careful that we don't tell others how to pray or when to pray, we need to be careful about pressuring people to pray at all or to pray in the same way that we do. We need to be careful.
He nodded his head and went on singing. And singing. And singing.
Later that night, when he was singing with printed lyrics in hand, he asked again: Is prayer a bad thing?
No, I said. Prayer is not a bad thing.
I do not think prayer is a bad thing. I think it is a confusing, messy, sticky, and very personal thing. I think it can be abused and misused, relied upon as a means to an end. I think it can also be empowering and connecting and healing. But how could I explain all of this to him?
How could I explain that, although our family says a prayer before dinner most nights (okay, some nights), prayer still feels awkward to me much of the time? How could I explain to him that my deepest prayers are not the ones that start with a "dear God" or have any sentences at all, but the ones that start with a deep sigh, hold plenty of tears, and consist almost entirely of a desperate "please-please-please"? How could I explain to him that, when I see him hug his brother and get all teary and can't talk, the lump in my throat is one of my loudest prayers of all, one of deep and full gratitude? How could I explain that what I consider a prayer might be blasphemy to someone else? How could I explain that prayer is just fine, regardless of outcome, but that we need to be careful about where and how and why we pray? How could I explain prayer when I don't even understand it all that well myself? How?
"You know what?" I said. "Maybe the substituted words aren't much different than the original words? Helping is kind of prayer, isn't it? Helping just might be the best kind of prayer."
He nodded and started singing again.
We hear it all the time: you're in my thoughts and prayers. I say it and you say it and they say it. We say it when a friend is diagnosed with cancer. When a neighbor dies. When children get sick. When innocent people are shot in a movie theater or a college campus or an elementary school.
But you know what? Thoughts and prayers are not enough.
I know this and you know this and they know this. Deep down, we know this. But as I've said before, knowing a Truth and living a Truth are two separate things.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that we shouldn't say these words. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't hold someone in our thoughts or that we shouldn't pray. On the contrary. What I am saying is that sometimes we need more. Right now, we need more.
I don't have any answers. I don't know what the right thing is. But I do know that blame and diversions and burying our heads in the sand are not the answer. I know that when disaster strikes and the shit hits the fan and nothing - absolutely nothing - makes sense, thoughts and prayers probably aren't going to clean up the ceiling. They just can't get the job done alone. We need hoses and mops and bleach, for heaven's sake. And we need helping hands, lots of them. We need loving arms. We need someone to cry with us and hand us a tissue. We need hard conversations. We need change.
Our neighbor needs long hugs and casseroles and someone to rake her leaves. Our friend needs babysitters and groceries and someone to take her to the movies. Our children need textbooks and crayons and a safe place to learn. Our country needs new laws, more informed laws, more effective laws.
Just think what we might be able to do if we stopped all the blaming and judging, and instead gathered around the table to figure this mess out. Just think how far we might go if we tore down a few walls and used the bricks to build bridges instead. Just think how many lives we might save - maybe even our own - if, along with offering our thoughts and prayers, we also offered our helping hands.
And pray too - if you're the praying kind, that is.
But we better make damn sure that along with our thinking and our praying, we are also doing and helping.
A version of this essay originally appeared on the author's website. Christine Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life.