Dear Amy: I am an atheist and am keeping my spiritual beliefs close to my heart as they would offend most family members and friends who all, to various degrees, identify as believers (Christians or otherwise).
When a friend or a family member goes through seriously rough times or health issues (divorce, cancer etc.), and also in case of a friends’ or family member’s loved one’s passing, I still offer up the expected “thoughts and prayers,” as they don’t know that I’m an atheist.
I think it is the right sentiment to express support and comfort.
Yet every time I write or verbally express “thoughts and prayers,” I feel like a fraud. It feels completely empty to me.
In cards, I have expressed “My heart goes out to you,” “You are in my heart and in my thoughts,” “I feel your pain and wished I could lift it,” etc., and these were heartfelt sentiments.
Unfortunately, for me these sentiments just do not seem to have the same effect and impact as “prayers.”
“Prayers” is what people seem to react to, need, and ultimately thank me for.
Should I keep offering “prayers” although ultimately it’s an empty phrase to me, or express my feelings in other, more personal ways which do not mean quite as much to the concerned persons?
Your point of view is greatly appreciated.
— Wondering Atheist
Dear Atheist: My point of view is that the “thoughts and prayers” phrase has been overused, misused, and sarcastically used so often that it has become a meme and therefore free of any specific meaning — regardless of the faith stance of the person using or receiving the phrase.
The personal phrases you use instead are thoughtful and sincere.
You seem to understand that “prayers” are more valuable to the recipient than your personal thoughts or healing hopes, but I would argue that you can’t really know what people actually hear or receive when they are suffering or under duress.
The most important thing is that you care and are offering yourself up as a concerned and supportive witness to someone else’s grief. This — is an extremely powerful expression of your humanity.
If someone specifically asks you to pray for them, you might be able to do so using the broader definition of the word, which is an “earnest wish.”
Dear Amy: My husband and I have been married for more than 20 years. Whenever we are invited to family gatherings, his siblings do not mind their own children. This can lead to situations, including the youngsters wandering unattended by the lake, riding bikes into busy roads and oncoming traffic, and hitting the family dogs.
The family would rather sit around, visit and drink while their children run amok, damaging property, and being out of control.
For years, I have stepped up to keep an eye on the children as I felt it was irresponsible to leave young ones unattended.
As new children are born into the family, it is always the same.
I, at 40+ years old, don’t get a chance to visit with adult family, as I am chasing the littles around to *literally* put out fires.
My husband and I have brought it to the attention of the in-laws, but they shake it off and say I should just join them and let kids be kids.
Am I wrong to think that young children should have an adult (or responsible teen) watching over them when at family gatherings?
I love our nieces and nephews, but it gives me stress to see them acting out of control or getting into dangerous situations.
— Stressed Aunt
Dear Stressed: Young children are extra-vulnerable when visiting others’ homes, because of the exact dynamic you describe: Lots of kids of varying ages, unfamiliar hazards, and inattentive elders who are drinking and distracted.
Yes, at least one adult or responsible person should definitely keep an eye on the children.
I would react the way you do — nervously surveilling the scene and leaping up. Perhaps instead of physically intervening you could notify a parent: “Brandon seems very close to the lake. Do you see him?”
Dear Amy: “What is Fair” seemed unduly worried about how to distribute gifts to family members who have different numbers of children.
I liked your suggestion to give “family gifts,” such as memberships or experiences.
We have started doing this and honestly — it cuts down on the amount of “stuff,” while offering families opportunities to try new things.
— All’s Fair
Dear Fair: I’ve been doing this, too.
(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)
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