A Walking Disaster with Dr. Jamie D. Aten

Tornadoes, shootings, violence, hurricanes, floods and firestorms, every day our headlines are filled with tragedy here in the U.S and abroad. Homes are damaged, memories lost, and people are injured or worse.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten, disaster psychologist and founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College, intertwines his journey of battling cancer with lessons learned from being in the throes of disaster zones around the globe in his new book, “A Walking Disaster: What Hurricane Katrina and Cancer Taught me About Faith and Resilience.”


After spending years helping others in disaster areas as executive director of HDI,Aten, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, received a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35. Knowing his profession as a disaster psychologist, his oncologist remarked, “You’re in for your own personal disaster.” Aten underwent a yearlong battle that included surgeries and multiple treatments and is currently a survivor in remission.


Aten opens up on what his battle with cancer taught him about disaster and tragedy.


“My fight against cancer was by far the scariest and most difficult time of my life. This personal tragedy taught me more about suffering and adversity than I liked. However, this painful experience taught me spiritual and psychological lessons I don’t think I would have ever been able to learn from just my research…Disaster survivors taught me it was possible, even if for only brief moments, to continue living life in the wake of catastrophe. During my extended cancer disaster, my family doing what we’d been doing prior to my diagnosis was critical to stabilizing our lives during the storm in its aftermath.”


“A Walking Disaster” details Aten’s journey from diagnosis to recovery, while sharing stories from his fieldwork in natural and widespread disaster areas. By connecting these two types of catastrophes, he helps readers notice a discernible rhythm from the moment of impact they might undergo in their own life—a diagnosis, calamity, death, divorce or other disaster—to a time they can flourish despite their hardship or suffering.


Aten says one of the key elements in any individual’s path forward after disaster is finding meaning in suffering. Through his research of natural disasters, which is unpacked in “A Walking Disaster,” he discovered that those who engage in spiritual surrender fare better psychologically. Yet through his own crisis, it was something he found difficult to put into practice.


Aten reflects in his book on how spiritual surrender can help people overcome and how it was a struggle for him personally.


“While I understood that the data on the benefits of spiritual surrender proved that it worked for many, I frankly struggled with the idea. What I learned … when I’d come completely to the end of myself, was that nothing was passive about spiritual surrender. Deciding to trust God when the outcome of that choice was unpredictable was a willful act of obedience.”



“A Walking Disaster” specifically addresses stages and situations that could be experienced in a number of personal tragedies. Themes addressed in the book include: helpers who aren’t helpful; survivor guilt; sharing tough subjects with children; finding a new “normal”; fear; lament and dealing with pain and trauma. Aten shares stories of how he was able to help in disasters, research from disaster aftermath, how others helped him during his own disaster and insights he took away from working with disaster survivors.



Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we[also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5



Risen Reflections

Surrender. This can be a difficult thing to do, but it is important to spiritually surrender your situation to God. Whether you are just at the beginning stages of a disaster or have been battling through it for years, ask God to help you give it over to Him. Pray and ask Him to give you His perspective. It can also help to ask a friend who has gone through something similar to pray for you during this time.


Seek support. While it is humbling to ask others to help, help is often closer than we think. God created us for community and He wants the body of Christ to help one another. Share what you are going through with a friend, your small group, a pastor at church or ministry you are involved in. You can simply ask them to pray for you and what you are going through. If you are open to it, share any needs or ways that they might be able to help out. Many churches have groups and resources set up to help support those going through difficult situations.


Support someone. Each of us have been there at one point or another where we needed a helping hand. It could have been a bag of groceries or a meal during a financial hardship, or a ride to a doctor’s appointment while going through chemo, ask God to show you how you can pay it forward to someone else. There might be someone in your neighborhood, church or group of friends that is going through a tragedy and needs support. You have a great opportunity to display the love of Christ to them through service.


For more on A Walking Disaster, visit: www.templetonpress.org/books/walking-disaster.

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