El Paso and Dayton mass shootings: Christians must act as well as pray

This article was originally published at Religion News Service on August 5, 2019.

On the heels of the California food festival mass shooting in Gilroy, two more senseless shootings occurred within roughly twelve hours of each other over the weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Collectively, these back-to-back murderous acts of gun violence have left 29 dead and at least 53 injured. Many Americans, grieving across our nation, will want to help but feel helpless to do so in the aftermath of these shocking events.

One doesn’t have to look any further than social media feeds to see countless posts from well-meaning people offering “thoughts and prayers,” a phrase that has become a common condolence used in the public square in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Because we are at a loss for what to say — let alone do — after these tragedies occur, it can be tempting to offer trite platitudes.

But this does more to help ourselves deal with fear and discomfort than it does to help those who have been impacted.

The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been used so commonly that there has been public backlash of late — and for good reason. For many, the phrase has become nothing more than an empty cliché, as oftentimes no further action is taken by the person offering up said “thoughts and prayers,” especially among prominent Christian public figures and influencers who tend to invoke it.

It is understandable that the phrase often triggers a negative reaction and comes across as nothing more than a soothing sound bite. As a Christian, I even find myself quick to judge “thoughts and prayers” sometimes as a shallow statement following the latest mass shooting.

However, it is important to remember that for many Christians, prayer is more than a mere afterthought. Rather, Christianity teaches that praying is one of the most powerful ways people can help. When Christians authentically offer up prayers in the aftermath of a senseless act of gun violence, it’s more than a meaningless gesture.

Within the Christian tradition, prayer is a pathway to God. Throughout the Scriptures, there are examples of the faithful calling out for divine help on behalf of others facing hardship and hurt and of God hearing and responding to their prayers.

As a praying Christian and disaster psychologist who has studied numerous mass shootings and has provided trauma care in the aftermath of the Aurora, Illinois, shooting, I would argue that prayer is not the problem — how we have prayed is the real problem.

Many are quick to offer words but slow to act — if at all — and therein lies the rub.

Author Philip Yancey, sharing his insight on what it means to pray, said:

“Now I view prayer as two things: inviting myself into God’s life and inviting God into my life. I know what God wants done in the world by looking at Jesus, who brings mercy and grace and justice and compassion. What part should I play as a partner of God’s activity on earth? Prayer connects me with God so that I ‘tune in’ to what God wants accomplished through me.”

Though Yancey was not addressing the topic of gun violence, his thoughts offer helpful guidance for how Christians can begin to redeem our “thoughts and prayers.”

As Christians, we have a moral obligation to give serious thought and prayer to what God is calling each one of us to do to help address the issue of gun violence in our country. We should begin by lamentinghow our collective apathy has allowed so many countless deaths in our country. Let’s ask God to reveal how our ways, including our inaction, may have contributed to the societal ills, including ideologies of hate, and systems of injustice giving rise to these mass traumas, so that we may repent. Let us also ask what it might mean if we were to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

But don’t stop there.

I am a founding signer of the Prayers & Action petition, and I encourage Christians to join me in committing to coupling our prayers with action in order to end gun violence in our country. This can take the form of holding a Survivor Sunday event at your church, engaging in political advocacy, or joining in a peaceful demonstration to protest harmful policies.

Please keep praying — loving our neighbors in word is important, but not enough. We must also act if our thoughts and prayers are to have meaning and ring true in our country today.

Jamie D. Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and a founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

Mitigating the Hurt When Friends Withdraw

This article was originally published on CureToday.com on June 25, 2019.

This past week I had the opportunity to visit the National Cancer Institute Emergency Management & Physical Security Branch. As a cancer and Hurricane Katrina survivor, it was very meaningful to have the opportunity to connect and learn from this great team of professionals.

One of the things I took away from our meeting was a quote they shared from Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director Russell Strickland: “Mitigation is the center of the universe!” Simply put, mitigation is what we do when we take steps to lessen the impact of negative events.

I am grateful that I had a strong support system that came to my aid after I received my diagnosis of cancer. However, I was surprised by several close friends and family members that seemed to fall away after I made my diagnosis public. Some of the people I needed the most were suddenly nowhere to be found. I felt saddened, hurt, and struggled not to feel forgotten at times. And even though this was a small minority of just a few people, it threatened to make the fallout of my cancer disaster worse.

While there’s no prescriptive way to respond to those who pull away during difficult seasons, there are alternatives I learned that helped mitigate the hurt from worsening.

While my feelings may have been bruised when people in my life withdrew, I tried to reach out. I found these conversation starters helpful in doing so:

“I wanted to make sure you heard the news from me.”
“Just wanted to check in and see if you had any questions for me.”
“I’ve missed you, I hope we can connect soon.”
“I’ve been thinking about you.”

But I quickly came to the realization that in most instances I just didn’t have the emotional energy it takes to rebuild a friendship. This was especially true when I was actively in treatment. It was hard, but I learned to give myself permission to release the friendship, for a time, and a couple times returned to it when I felt able. I discovered that sometimes mitigating relational strain involves lovingly releasing those who weren’t able to care well for me. Whether I chose to pursue someone I’ve cared about or whether I chose to release that person for a season, doing so reduced this hardship.

I also learned no mitigation effort is foolproof and what worked with one person might not be effective with another; the same holds true with disaster. For example, in one instance, I tried to engage with a lost friend to repair the relationship, yet he remained distant. When that didn’t work I expressed my concerns and aired what I felt were wrongdoings. I eventually came to terms with the fact that this friendship wasn’t healthy for me. I needed to be surrounded by others that helped bring peace to the chaos I was going through. It was challenging, but boundaries needed to be set. But it took forgiving this person that fell away after deeply wounding me before I could move forward. When I chose to forgive, I gave a gift not just to the other person but also to myself.

I feel grateful that I had more people show up than who disappeared after my cancer diagnosis. It can be easy to focus on those that aren’t there, but I found it more helpful to focus on those that supported me. I felt encouraged as I became more mindful of others who came to my aid that I didn’t expect, and some that I didn’t even know. I found the more I welcomed others who wanted to help, the less lonely I felt.

But when I look back over the last six years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve come to see that after I finished my cancer treatments that I pulled away from many people in the community that were there for me. In a few cases I took mitigation too far, unintentionally walling myself from others without even realizing. I still struggle with this at times, but I’ve tried to be more intentional in building and maintaining relationships.

Talking with the emergency management team at the National Cancer Institute I was also reminded how important it is to address gaps in our resilience. Because I had gotten so sick so quickly and had periods where my mobility was limited, I never really became connected to the cancer community. Then a friend of mine encouraged me to post a Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC) #StrongArmSelfie on Twitter this past March as part of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. I was deeply moved by how this simple act brought me into community with others affected by cancer. Though I’ve never met any of these incredible people in person, I’ve found community online with others whose lives have been changed by cancer. For example, I’ve personally benefited from participating in Fight CRC’s ADVOCATES at Fight Colorectal Cancerand Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s Blue Hope Nation Facebook groups. I’ve also found support through the health social network Inspire and from connecting with AnCan that facilitates peer-to-peer virtual support groups.

Even though there were some relationships that weakened and even fell apart in the aftermath of cancer, there were steps I could take to lessen the fallout, and even build relational resilience.

A Tornado of Survivor Guilt

This article was originally published on CureToday.com on June 11, 2019.

Facebook reminded me of a memory I shared five years ago on this day (May 15th, 2019) in which I posted: “Celebrating being done with my last chemo! We did it! Nurses sang Happy Last Chemo.” Beneath the caption I posted a picture of my oncology nurses surprising me with a small cake that captured them singing "Happy Last Day of Chemo" (sang to the tune of "Happy Birthday").

One of the nurses had also made a large fake candle piece out of some medical supply odds-and-ends. I remembered feeling relieved and excited to be able to share the news with my family and friends. I felt a deep sense of joy and happiness as I thought about the amount of time that had passed since my last chemotherapy treatment.

I felt an incredible sense of joy and gratitude sweep over me as I reflected on the significance of this milestone anniversary. To my surprise seeing this picture unearthed lots of hurts and painful memories, too.

The post also reminded me of when my oncologist told me I was going to need a second round of chemotherapy and feeling like I couldn’t do it. I had been so beaten down by the first round of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery that I felt like all my coping reserves had been depleted. I couldn’t help but remember the way the needle felt every time it punctured my skin each time the port in my chest was accessed for chemotherapy. I remembered how much I struggled and desired to be done with chemotherapy. I recalled how fatigued and weak I felt by the end. Like a marathon runner nearly faceplanting as legs give way, collapsing across the finish.

The nausea, fear, anxiety and worry came rushing back from that day thinking about having to wait a couple weeks before doing another scan. These difficult emotions multiplied when I realized I have my five-year post-chemotherapy scan scheduled in a couple of weeks still hanging over me.

After taking a few moments of further reflection I started to share the post with a new caption. But no sooner than I had finished typing I found myself quickly deleting what I had just written: “Feeling incredibly grateful! 5 years-ago today I completed my last chemotherapy treatment.”

I quickly deleted the post because I could feel survivor guilt trying to form as emotions like joy and sadness crashed into one another.

I sat in silence in front of my laptop gazing at Facebook’s prompt to post something that read “What’s on your mind, Jamie?” As my gaze became more intense, so did my emotions. The updraft of emotions caused survivor guilt to swirl inside of me like a tornado.

I started to worry that if I shared that it might others going through cancer treatments feel worse. I wondered if I shared if it would pull up the hurt and pain experienced by those that had walked alongside through my treatments. I thought about friends and colleagues I lost to colon cancer in the years following my last treatment session. I felt horrible for feeling happy when so many feel hopeless. I even started to feel guilty for feeling guilty.

As my guilt threatened to funnel out of control, I remembered meeting an elderly woman leaving her last chemotherapy appointment as I sat in the oncology unit’s lobby nearly six years ago waiting to be called back for my first drip chemotherapy appointment.

My nervousness and fidgetiness must have caught her attention as she walked toward the exit. She paused and asked if she could give me a hug. I silently nodded with affirmation. I don’t remember her exact words she whispered while slowly leaning to embrace me. All that I remember is her smile and that she wanted me to know she had made it through this round of chemotherapy.

As I thought about this small act of kindness from a stranger, the sadness that had swept in like a cold front in the middle of an unexpected storm began to dissipate. My survivor guilt downgraded and eventually passed. Like the elderly woman’s smile that broke through my worry several years before, hope emerged from behind cloudy emotions.

Being reminded of past and present struggles reminded me that today was not meant for guilt, but rather gratitude. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go so I can let Facebook know what is on my mind…

After my cancer diagnosis, some friends abandoned me. Then I did the same thing. Here’s why.

This article was originally published on Inquirer.com on June 6, 2019.

I was fortunate to have an incredible social support system when I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35. Still, I struggled when some of the people I thought I could count on virtually evaporated from my life. A few unfriended me on Facebook after I started occasionally posting about my cancer experience. I noticed some suddenly became slow to return text messages, calls, and emails, while a couple stopped responding altogether. At the time, I often felt hurt, isolated, and rejected. Over the six years since my diagnosis I’ve learned this is a common experience in the cancer community.

Why it happens, however, remained a mystery. I found a clue to explain my friends’ surprising behavior in the research my colleagues and I conducted after the first cases of Ebola were reported in the United States.

We set out to discover why it was that although Americans seemed mostly unconcerned when thousands of cases of the virus were reported in Africa, the threat of one or two in the United States triggered widespread panic. So we studied people from all over the country to see what we could learn.

We discovered documented evidence of what social psychologists refer to as “terror management theory” (TMT). Essentially this is a fancy way of saying that human beings will go to great lengths to avoid reminders of our own mortality. Some folks dodge funerals and cemeteries. Others refuse to enter hospitals or nursing homes. And some ignore the person they pass at the mall who is elderly, frail, or disabled. We do this as a way to manage our anxiety.

And we do it — as I later observed in my own behavior — because it helps keep our fears from overwhelming us.

When a dear friend was diagnosed with cancer after I’d finished my own treatments, I wanted to support him. But as he become more and more sick, I began to pull away from the relationship. One afternoon I was hiding out at a local coffee shop writing. I glanced up when someone approached who seemed to recognize me. At first, I didn’t recognize that it was this dear friend standing in front of me because of how much weight and hair he had lost and because of his gaunt appearance. I had to do a double take to make sure it was him.

Shocked, I was flooded by fear at the sight of my friend. My stomach sank as I realized that the man I was seeing might just as easily have been me. Until accidentally running into my friend, I hadn’t fully realized that I’d been avoiding reminders, including people close to me, that made it harder to keep my fear and sense of mortality at bay.

After he died, I realized I had unknowingly responded similarly to those in our Ebola study. My retreat wasn’t because I didn’t care; it was because I was scared. His experience had brought up all my own hurt and terrifying memories. While I’d previously understood TMT research at an intellectual level, running into my friend was the first time I understood it in my deep places.

Now I realize some of the friends that pulled away may have done so because of their own unhealed pain, or fear of their own mortality. There were also a couple of relationships that just weren’t as close as I had thought, or that drifted apart because of changes in jobs and location. Others may have thought I wanted to be alone because I felt too sick to be social, and regularly canceled efforts to connect because of treatment side effects.

There are probably many more reasons people withdraw. But regardless of the reasons, I know it still hurts.

Even though we can’t control how others respond, the good news is that we can choose the sort of friend we want to be to others. But first, we need to understand that even when compassion is painful — perhaps especially when it is painful — we need to set aside our own discomfort and reach out to a friend who is suffering.

Jamie Aten, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is the author of A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press). He is a contributor to Cure Magazine’s Voices and blogs at Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Emotional First Aid and Psychology Today’s Hope + Resilience. In 2016 he received a FEMA award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com. This guest column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for more than a million patients and caregivers.