At the turn of a new year, people often anticipate weddings, births, reunions, a promotion or other joys. Few greeted 2019 this week by counting on a flooded home or a dreaded cancer diagnosis.
Even Jamie Aten, a disaster psychologist who founded the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, wasn’t prepared for the news he received in 2013, when his doctor told him he had Stage IV colon cancer. Only 35, he had a wife and three young daughters. His academic career had just begun.
But as his oncologist told him, “You’re in for your own personal kind of disaster.”
Indeed, Aten would come to see his encounter with cancer through his field of study, which concerns resilience on the community level (he studied Hurricane Katrina) as well as the individual level.
Now 41, Aten has written about his journey in “A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience,” which will be published Jan. 14.
In it, he offers hard lessons learned from his illness, along with advice on how to lament what’s happened. He writes about how to accept help from others and cultivate a spiritual path that offers meaning and hope. As a Christian who teaches at an evangelical school in the Chicago suburbs, he tells his story through that particular faith tradition.
Aten gives a full accounting of his shortcomings, his initial denial of the gravity of the diagnosis and his wishful thinking that once the treatments and surgeries were over, everything would go back to normal.
He also writes candidly of his colostomy, the surgical procedure that followed the removal of a large chunk of his diseased colon.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
How is your health today?
I’m really feeling grateful. At the end of December, I had another clean scan. I now have no evidence of disease for a little over 4½ years.
Do you advise people to prepare themselves for disasters such as your illness?
It’s human nature to avoid thinking of worst-case scenarios. But the reality is that at some point in our lives, all of us will be directly or indirectly impacted by some sort of trauma. I would encourage people to think about disasters in their lives, whether it’s a mass disaster or a personal disaster like cancer.
One of the things I tried to really be conscious about was to let readers know that I didn’t always navigate this well. I do hope others will be able to take some of the lessons I learned along the way and apply it in their lives so they can live more resiliently and faithfully through the traumas and challenges they face.
You say spirituality is an important part of facing disaster. Does that mean people who aren’t believers will have a more difficult time?
An important bedrock for weathering hardship in our lives comes from being able to find meaning. That’s going to vary from person to person. One of the things the research has shown is that individuals who are able to embrace spirituality in times of hardship can add an additional layer of meaning for navigating those challenges.
Our faith can offer a way to understand the suffering we’re going through. One of the things I highlighted is the role that spiritual support can play — the way our congregation and the faith community at my college came around and supported me and my family during difficult times.
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Source: Religion News Service