Much has been written about the destructive effects of social media. There are studies showing that platforms such as Twitter are eroding our intelligence, corroding our democracy, fueling our anxiety, harming our mental health and making us miserable. But during today’s pandemic, social media has also been an unprecedented source of comfort for many who are struggling with the horrific impact of this pathogen. I know, because I have experienced those comforts firsthand.
My mother has covid-19 and is in a New York City hospital fighting for her life. I usually keep my private life private, but when we learned she had taken a turn for the worse, my wife told me I should ask for prayers on Twitter. At first, I hesitated. I tend to tweet about politics and not share much private information. But desperate times call for desperate measures. So, I typed “My 91-year-old mom is in the hospital in New York with covid-19. I’d be grateful for your prayers for her” and hit “send.”
Almost immediately, the spiritual floodgates opened, as my feed filled with messages of empathy, love and compassion. Many shared their own stories. “Sorry to hear. Pulling for her. My father with Parkinson’s disease is on a ventilator with COVID too,” wrote one. Kindness poured in from supporters and antagonists alike. One person wrote: “Mr. Thiessen, I despise your political takes, I pray with every fiber of my being your mom is ok. God bless sir. I truly hope she pulls through.” That touched me more than words can say. A tiny fraction did write nasty tweets saying, in effect, that I was getting what I deserved for my political views. But here’s what’s amazing: Others pounced on them and shut them down. (“What is wrong with you?” was a typical reply.)
I received more praying hands emoji than I can count from people of many faiths. Many sent Bible verses, prayers of the saints and promises to light candles. Others who do not share my faith still sent “healing thoughts,” “virtual hugs” and “good vibrations.”
People with whom I’d sparred with over politics sent messages of support — a New York Times reporter I’d never met, an MSNBC anchor, a former Obama administration official, a Biden campaign adviser. So did colleagues from The Post, the American Enterprise Institute and Fox News, as well as from my old days in the Senate and the George W. Bush administration. So did old college, high school and even grade-school friends, who shared reminiscences of my mom and how they remembered her as a fighter. A friend who is an opera singer promised to sing for her that night. A friend who had recovered from the virus offered to donate plasma. Two friends who had donated iPads to my mom’s hospital helped set up a FaceTime chat with her grandkids.
As a teenager, my mother fought with the Polish underground during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis. Through social media, word of her illness traveled across the Atlantic. The Warsaw Uprising Museum tweeted: “A hero of the Warsaw Uprising. We are thinking of you and hoping for her speedy recovery!” Suddenly, Polish Twitter swung into action, as prayers poured in from the Polish diaspora.
One study found that including strangers in your social network can hurt self-esteem. Maybe so, but this week my family was enveloped in the compassionate embrace of countless strangers. I tried to “like” every reply but eventually gave up. There were just too many. According to Twitter’s analytics, 2.6 million people saw my tweet and more than 254,000 engaged with it — reading, liking, responding or sharing it with others. There is no analytic to show how many stopped to pray, but if even a fraction did, then my family has been blessed beyond measure.
I believe in the power of prayer. When I worked in the Bush White House, my dear friend Monsignor Charles Pope gave a homily at the National Day of Prayer that has always stayed with me. “I’ve often thought that one of the joys of heaven will be that we’ll be able to see what a difference our prayers made,” he said that day. “I think in heaven we’ll see that we changed world history by our prayers working with God’s grace. … We’re going to find out that hearts were changed, enemies were reconciled, communities were renewed and families were restored because we prayed.” He ended by quoting an old gospel song: “Somebody prayed for me. Had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me. I’m so glad they prayed.”
To everyone praying for my mom: Thank you. I’m so glad you prayed.