A Walking Disaster

What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience

Jamie Aten

Is there a meaning to our suffering? Is hope realistic when tragedy befalls us? Is a return to normalcy possible after our life is uprooted by catastrophe? These are the questions that disaster psychologist Dr. Jamie Aten wrestled with when he was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. In this gripping memoir, Aten shares the life-affirming and faith-renewing insights that he discovered during his tumultuous struggle against the disease.

Aten’s journey began in 2005 when Hur­ricane Katrina struck his community. After witnessing the devastation wrought by the storm, he dedicated his career to investigat­ing how people respond to and recover from all manner of disasters. He studied disaster zones around the globe and founded the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. His expertise, however, was little comfort when a fateful visit with his oncolo­gist revealed advanced and aggressive cancer. “You’re in for your own personal disaster” was his doctor’s prognosis.

Thrust into a battle for his life, with cancer cells and chemotherapy ravaging his body, Aten found his professional interest taking on new meaning. His ordeal taught him firsthand how we can sustain ourselves when burdened with seemingly unbear­able suffering. Some of his counterintuitive insights include: to find hope, be cautious of optimism; when you want help the least is when you need it most; and spiritual surren­der, rather than a passive act, is instead an act of profound courage.

This last point speaks to the element of grace in Dr. Aten’s story. As he struggled to understand the significance of his suffering, he found himself examining his Christian faith down to its bedrock and learned to experience the redeeming presence of God in his life. Dr. Aten has a natural exuberance that shines through his writing. Infused with his compassionate voice and humanitarian concern, A Walking Disaster is ultimately an inspirational story about the power of the human spirit to endure trauma with cour­age.

Chapter 1: Evacuation Impossible: My Body Was Ground Zero / 3

Chapter 2: Don’t Be an SUV: When Helpers Make It Worse / 19

Chapter 3: Sheltering in Place: Seeking Refuge in God / 29

Chapter 4: Crisis Communication 101: Honoring Your Whole Story / 41

Chapter 5: The President Visits Ground Zero: Why We Need Community / 51

Chapter 6: Where Is God in the Storm? Making Meaning of Disasters / 63

Chapter 7: FEMA X Codes: Grappling with Ambiguous Loss / 75

Chapter 8: Katrina Mardi Gras Trailers: Establishing New Rhythms / 87

Chapter 9: Allowing the Waves to Wash Over You: Dealing with Pain / 99

Chapter 10: Keys to a Home Destroyed: Distinguishing between Optimism and Hope / 109

Chapter 11: A Year of Drought: When Resilience Isn’t Enough / 119

Chapter 12: When God Sends a Helicopter: Understanding Spiritual Surrender / 131

Chapter 13: After the Storm Passes: Finding Your New Normal / 141

Chapter 14: An Epidemic of Fear: Facing Our Mortality / 153

Chapter 15: Flooded by Comparison: Coming to Terms with Survivor Guilt / 165

Chapter 16: Surviving Survivorship: Living with Fortitude / 181

Postscript / 197

Acknowledgments / 199

Notes / 203

Recommended Reading / 207

“What a script: The head of a disaster institute, who trains others on emergency response, discovers he has Stage 4 cancer, putting to the test everything he has taught. Jaime Aten blends together what he has learned from disasters, both large and small, and offers practical suggestions that can equip all of us to prepare for our personal trials.”

Philip Yancey, author of Where Is God When It Hurts?

“Sooner or later we’re all smacked by the great storms of life. Whether hurricanes or illness or divorce or death, it’s hard to know what to do and how to respond. Drawing on rich research and personal storytelling, Dr. Jamie Aten provides an inspiring and practical resource to get you through. Don’t miss this gem of a book.“

Margaret Feinberg, author of Fight Back With Joy

“Jamie’s vulnerability in sharing the raw reality of his ‘personal disaster’—being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at age 35, a young father of three girls—will be a balm to anyone who has experienced a disaster of their own. There are no empty promises or inspirational clichés here. Through his personal story and his expertise gathered through years of disaster research, he finds meaning in the struggle and continually comes back to the powerful, enduring promise of God’s faithfulness to redeem our suffering.”

Ed Stetzer, Billy Graham Distinguished Chair, Wheaton College

“This beautiful book perfectly marries vulnerable personal narrative with professional expertise. The result is a work that leaves a lasting impression and one you will go back to over and over for reference. Aten pulls us in and carries us along as he paves a clear path for all who need to maneuver through our own personal disasters.”

Shayne Moore, author & director of operations at One Million Thumbprints, NFP

"Dr. Jamie Aten has crafted something special here. Through the lens of his own local suffering, Aten simultaneously takes readers on a global journey—reminding us all that though we are irrecoverably marked by our pain, we are also united by it. Where there is suffering, there is authentic resilience. And where there is resilience, there is hope. Reader, dive in and allow A Walking Disaster to gift you with its hard-won, authentic hope."

Aubrey Sampson, church planter, speaker, and author of The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament

“This beautiful book perfectly marries vulnerable personal narrative with professional expertise. The result is a work that leaves a lasting impression and one you will go back to over and over for reference. Aten pulls us in and carries us along as he paves a clear path for all who need to maneuver through our own personal disasters.”

Shayne Moore, author & director of operations at One Million Thumbprints, NFP

“Dr. Jamie Aten has crafted something special here. Through the lens of his own local suffering, Aten simultaneously takes readers on a global journey—reminding us all that though we are irrecoverably marked by our pain, we are also united by it. Where there is suffering, there is authentic resilience. And where there is resilience, there is hope. Reader, dive in and allow A Walking Disaster to gift you with its hard-won, authentic hope.”

Aubrey Sampson, church planter, speaker, and author of The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament

A Walking Disaster is a compelling personal story, woven with psychological and sociological research, and at the same time instructive in healthy responses to both natural and personal disasters. This book is timeless, written in the tone of humility, and deserves a long shelf life."

Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita and ambassador of the Wesleyan Church

“Dr. Aten has written a moving, honest, and inspirational memoir that will give hope to anyone seeking to recover physically, psychologically, and spiritually from a personal disaster. As a scientist and a Christian, rooted in his family and his community, Aten delivers a fully human account of enduring a period of immense suffering and emerging on the other side, fragile but intact, with a new conception of his life, his work, and his faith. Highly recommended.”

Harold G. Koenig, MD, professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University, and codirector of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health

“Jamie tells his story with vulnerability and humor, weaving in relevant research with gems of insight from the faith. I couldn’t put this book down. This book is a powerful model of the redemptive meaning the Christian faith brings to even the worst of disasters.”

M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, PhD, professor, Rosemead School of Psychology and associate editor, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality

“This is a book for everyone. Why? Because nobody is immune to the jolts of life. And that’s why I urge you to read this compelling book by Jamie Aten. It’s grounded, practical and powerful. Every page will inspire you. Don’t miss out on this powerful message.”

Les Parrott, PhD, #1 New York Times bestselling author of You’re Stronger Than You Think

“Jamie Aten has written a beautifully human book, endowed with the superhuman strength of hope. Fiercely honest, he makes navigating impossible circumstances possible, breathing courage into not only those of us working to mitigate conflict, disaster and human suffering, but also into those of us who are experiencing our own painful life disasters. I walked away from this book changed, and profoundly grateful.”

Belinda Bauman, executive director, One Million Thumbprints

“Dr. Aten writes with a holy charge, telling his survival story with cancer in a gripping manner. What is unique about this account is the comparison of his personal disaster with mass disasters that are happening worldwide. This book is a must read for disaster response practitioners who want to ‘get’er’ done’, alerting us to the emotional and spiritual toll disaster survivors go through.”

Kevin King, executive director, Mennonite Disaster Service

“Many people feel compassion for and respond to disasters. Few study them. And even fewer commit themselves to teaching others how best to care for men, women, and children during and in the aftermath of unexpected trauma. Dr. Jamie Aten is one of those few. His insights, both from working in disaster zones and from an unexpected encounter with early-life cancer, are deep, nuanced, and profoundly spiritual. If you are looking for wisdom on how to engage disasters—both personal and communal—there may be no finer book. I can’t recommend A Walking Disaster highly enough.”

Ken Wytsma, author of Pursuing Justice and The Myth of Equality