Before we start.
First, can we all agree that we feel what we feel? Believer, non-believer or whatever other religious description we may claim, the fact is, we all feel the same set of negative emotions whenever we encounter trials, tragedy or even terror. (Emotions such as fear, anger, hopelessness, dread, uncertainty, etc.) Life’s trials are serious but usually temporary in nature, like an acute illness, relationship woes, or financial hardships. Whereas tragedies are more likely to be serious, painful and permanent, like a chronic disease or the death of a loved one. Terror and the acts (such as 9/11, school shootings, and now the Boston bombing) that produce this painful emotion are obvious and often make the evening news.
Where we seem to part company is in how we claim to deal with these trying circumstances.
Those who hold a religious or spiritual worldview see those of us who consider ourselves to be purely secular (god-less) as being hopeless and without direction. While many secularists feel that believers are simply weak or immature and only use their faith as an emotional crutch during times of great difficulty.
I for one, only wish it were all truly that simple. Even though I’m now globally known for my disbelief, it’s also common knowledge that I spent most of my adult life as a Christian minister. I was a pastor in the small town of DeRidder, Louisiana, (population 10,578) and I was a fixture of the community both religiously and politically. In private, however, I had begun to question my faith. Late one night in May 2011, a member of my flock called seeking prayer for her brother who had been in a serious accident. As I searched for the right words to console her, speech failed me, and I found that the faith which once had formed the cornerstone of my life had finally crumbled to dust. When it became public knowledge that I was now an atheist, I found myself shunned by much of DeRidder’s highly religious community, losing nearly everything I’d ever known.
Being a pastor may have lead to more honest questions than answers in the realm of theology but it also give me a complete education in the area of dealing with human tragedy. Unlike the infamous televangelist, my congregants weren’t customers, they were as close to me as my closest kin. This precious pastor-church member relationship opened both my heart and my eyes to the complexity of trying to tackle tragedy. No matter who you are or what your believe…or don’t believe, it goes without saying that life’s trials are hard, tragedy is heartbreaking and meaningless acts of terror scare us all.
So what exactly did I learn and how do I deal with with life’s difficulties differently now that I’m “on the other side” of my religious faith? My answer to this question may surprise you no matter which side of the theological fence you think you reside on. It may even make you mad, and for that I apologize in advance.
Lessons learned the hard way.
My 25 years as a Pentecostal evangelist and pastor taught me that not only do almost all humans experience the same set of negative emotions when they encounter difficulties, but that they also deal with these situations in exactly same way.
Let me make my case. We agree that “people are people” and that bad news affects our biology the same way no matter who we are. The sound of the phone ringing at 3:00 a.m. causes all of our hearts to race and our minds to instantly wonder if someone we love is in trouble. A severe weather alert scrolling across the bottom of the television screen stops all of us in our tracks and we all suddenly feel our anxiety level begin to build. There’s a reason that most news outlets swing at us with all types of “Breaking News” interruptions. They know ‘good and well’ that their intense splash screens and theatrical soundtracks both stun us and at the same time completely grab our undivided attention.
The local news anchor begins to inform us that…”something bad”…”is happening somewhere”…”few details are know at this time”…but we think we hear the word “school” in the mist of the journalist babel. Every parent, spiritual or secular has the exact same sense of dread wash over them. They begin to feel as if they are losing their breath while drowning beneath the waves of panic produced by the realization that the terrifying situation may involve their child and that it is completely out of their control. Left with no viable actions to take, what does a frightened parent do? Does it really make a difference if they are believes or non-believers? I think you already know my opinion. I’m claiming that it doesn’t make a difference at all whether they’re religious or not, and that they essentially do the same thing…which is…basically nothing.
Nothing, other than feel negative emotions and instinctively try to alleviate those feelings with their internal dialogue. The believing parent will say to themselves “Dear Lord, please don’t let that be my baby’s school!” The non-believing parent will say to themselves “I hope that’s not my baby’s school!” In reality, their theological differences haven’t caused them to ACT differently in any way.
So what do we do?
On the better days, we all simply have to wait for the “all clear” and on the worst of days, we all have to live through the tragedy one thought at a time. In the darkest of trials we find that friends, relatives and even religious rituals rap themselves around us for the simple purpose of giving us something else to think about or at the very least a different way of thinking about what was previously unthinkable.
Can we now agree that during times of great difficulty much of our energy actually goes toward changing how we feel and not necessarily to changing the situation itself? Obviously, if we could readily change the situation it wouldn’t really be a trial in the first place.
Tragedies haunt our past, terrors threaten our future and trials possess our present, but unfortunately there’s usually very little we can do about most of these, other than change how we feel about them during or after the fact.
This process of changing our feelings naturally occurs through the function of self-talk. When I considered myself to be spiritual, I imagined my self-talk projecting outwardly toward the God of the Bible. Thanks to my spiritual journey, “Me, Myself and I” had been replaced with Me, Myself and Jesus.
At this leg of the journey I seem to have gotten my “I” back, and I now know that my internal dialogue doesn’t escape my own mind…but that’s OK because I can still use self-talk. At the very least I can talk to myself in an attempt to somewhat dampen my negative emotions. In some ways my self-talk is even more effective than when I was a believer. Now I intentionally look at the situation through the lens of reason and evidence instead of unintentionally allowing my emotions to run away with me and I no longer leave my internal conversation wondering if God is going to do something to improve the situation. I’m motivated into action by the knowledge that, if something can be done, it’s always up to a human somewhere to get it done.
Can we tackle tragedy without theology? Yes, non-believers AND believers alike do it everyday. It’s what humans naturally do and usually we do it very well.
In summary here are 3 simple ideas to keep in mind:
1. The tragedy has passed and you talked your way through it, bravo. Allow yourself to feel a sense of pride. You’re probably stronger than you think!
2. Your present trial will also pass, keep practicing positive self-talk and give yourself the gift of friends, relatives and even rituals if they help.
3. Terror is an imagined future tragedy that may or may not ever happen. Let’s tell ourselves that it won’t…but if it does, Repeat #1.