Saul: The Pittsburgh Shooting Taught Me That Your Thoughts, Prayers And Love Are Valuable

I used to criticize "thoughts and prayers," but I won't anymore.

As a reporter, I often write about the major tragedies that happen across the United States from afar. But this weekend, a tragedy struck close to home.

On Saturday, a  gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during a child's bris and murdered 11 innocent people. That synagogue was one I had been to while a student at the University of Pittsburgh. It was just a few blocks away from the house of my college rabbi where I spent so many Friday nights for Shabbat learning about my faith and my people. Inside, a friend and former teammate's cousin was murdered in cold blood. A former coach of mine was three blocks away working at the Jewish Community Center in the same neighborhood — he heard the sirens of the police and ambulance go by that morning while he was at work. 

I had never been so close to a national tragedy like this. Typically, in the wake of a shooting or terrorist attack or other horrid, preventable event, I joined the choir of people calling for more than just "thoughts and prayers" but for real reform. In many ways, I still hold that feeling. There are so many avenues where this attack could have been stopped and so many ways we could stop it from happening again: better gun control, better social media screening for potential violent actors, a stronger rejection of the rhetoric, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that fed the shooter. 

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But I also discovered something that surprised me: all of the messages I received in the wake of the shooting actually did help, and did make a profound difference to me. They no longer felt cheesy or hollow or grating. To me, people's thoughts and prayers mattered.

An old friend from college whose voice I hadn't heard in years left me a touching voicemail saying that he loved me and was praying for me. A former coach texted me to ask if there was anything he could to help me. Current and former teammates from my ultimate Frisbee teams in Pittsburgh and New York City sent messages of love and scorned the current political climate that helped facilitate this tragedy. Colleagues sent emails of support, friends gave me hugs when they saw me, even an A Plus reader who had my phone number from an email exchange called to leave an emotional voicemail saying she was sending love and prayers to me.

Each of those messages and moments helped drown out the dark thoughts I was having in the wake of the shooting. At first, I felt anger — I wanted to avenge those innocent people. I wanted to break something or find the person who was responsible and make sure they were properly shunned by society. Then I felt fear and the flood of conspiratorial, paranoid thoughts: was I safe going to synagogue? Should I stop wearing my yarmulke on Shabbat? Was I endangering my girlfriend by bringing her to Shabbat dinners or services? Would this become the new normal?

Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray from a prayerbook a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Every time those thoughts bubbled in my head, my phone buzzed with another message. Another text. Another supportive email. Another person commenting on my Facebook status about the shooting and telling me they loved me and they were sorry. And each time, those words helped soothe the dark thoughts, helped flood the zone in between my ears with love, care and empowerment. 

From this experience, I came to the realization that your thoughts and prayers and love and support and good vibes do matter. We should continue to send them to the people hurt by these tragedies that are happening all too often in this country. They are meaningful and helpful so long as they are a supplement — and not a substitute — to the actual reform needed to prevent this from happening again.

Cover image via Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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