Jamie D. Aten: Don’t Romanticize Suffering Following the Aurora, Illinois Mass Shooting

People pray at a makeshift memorial Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in Aurora, Ill., near the Henry Pratt Co. manufacturing facility where five were killed on Friday. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Saturday night, the day after the shooting at a factory that killed five people, I was asked to offer the closing prayer at a church vigil in North Aurora and provide trauma care after the service.

As the service came toward a close, the teaching pastor invited me up to speak as the attendees finished praying out loud with one another in pairs and small groups. Though I could not make out the muffled words I overheard being spoken as I walked to the stage, I heard both grief and hope in their voices.

I was deeply moved by the grace and compassion I witnessed among those who had gathered to mourn, offer support, seek meaning and worship together.

I’ve spent my career studying disasters like mass shootings; I’m also a Hurricane Katrina and stage IV cancer survivor. Through these experiences I’ve learned that many faith traditions have a wellspring of helpful teachings on understanding and responding to human suffering. In fact, several of the world’s monotheistic faiths teach that those who suffer (e.g., mourn, struggle, are poor in spirit, are persecuted) are blessed.

Unfortunately, people of faith sometimes latch onto ideas about what the “blessing” of adversity looks like — ideas that are not just uninformed, but potentially hurtful to those facing hardships.

It’s natural and beneficial to want to move toward growth in times of suffering like the Aurora mass shooting. But science tells us that those blessings are often different from the ones people expect.

When survivors anticipate that tragedy will lead to significant growth, they may feel guilt, shame, and self-doubt if that growth doesn’t happen. Conversely, when their loved ones or community expect it of them, they may be subject to victim blaming, judgment or even have their faith called into question.

University of Minnesota professor Patricia Frazier and colleagues have studied this difference between perceived growth (how we see our situation) and actual growth (how our situation really is). Her research looks at the way trauma survivors view their growth in retrospect and compares that to how they reported growth when they were going through it. In one 2009 study, she found that those who experienced significant distress following a trauma later overestimated the growth that followed.

(Jamie D. Aten is executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and author of “A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience.” He is also a spokesperson for Prayers & Action, which is committed to ending senseless gun violence and helping survivors. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.)

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Source: Religion News Services