How an Atheist Copes With Tragedy

Last night I was stunned to see a livefeed pop up on Facebook about an active shooting in Dallas. I used to live and work in Dallas. I actually worked in downtown Dallas, in one of the high rise buildings for a time and would take walks through the city during my lunch break. I watched in horror as gun fire rang out against the backdrop of streets I have walked down and remember thinking about the sheer amount of shots fired. That this was happening in a place that was familiar, not some place I’ve never visited, added another level of horror to the experience, and I started doing a mental tally of everyone I knew in the metroplex and hoped they weren’t there.

3 day. 3 days of horrific gun violence in the US. I am so heartsick over this. I am tired of reading about gun violence. I am tired of a Congress that does nothing while people suffer and die. I am scared to death that Trump will win the election and that the problem will get worse. I get nervous when I consider the fact that I have a noticeably bi-racial son who has autism and worry about what his teenage years will be like.

I was raised as a Secular Humanist, and have dealt with every tragedy in my life with a natural foundation and have never seen the need to appeal to a supernatural wish fairy. During times like these, here is what I do.

  1. Give myself permission to feel my feelings. In the wake of tragedy it is natural and okay to feel sadness, anger, depression, frustration and grief. It is not a bad thing to feel those emotions. It is healthy. Time is the great healer, and there are times when we’re happy, and times when we’re sad. And during the times we’re sad, it’s important to have time and space to feel and process the emotion. Eventually time moves on. Just like happiness does not last forever, neither does sadness.
  2. Go outside. There’s a woods beside my house and I love to hike deep into it. Fortunately my kiddos are young but they are already becoming good little hikers. Walking in the woods has always been extremely relaxing and healing for me. There’s a creek and a spot that’s calm and peaceful where I like to sit. The kids will throw rocks in the creek and I’ll listen for the birds. Unfortunately I busted my foot earlier this week when I stepped on a toy, so we couldn’t go hiking this morning, but my foot was healed enough for me to take them to a playground in the morning. It was outdoors and filled with the laughter of families playing.
  3. Humor. Sometimes I like to watch funny videos, and Youtube has plenty, to help me feel better. Funny cat videos were how I survived my two pregnancies where I was extremely sick. In this case, 3 tragic shootings in 3 days, humor doesn’t seem appropriate though.
  4. Music. There is a song for every mood and every topic. I find Dar Williams to be very introspective and healing when I’m sad. When I’m mad, I queue Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele. And Broadway is always game for providing something cathartic.
  5. Fall back on my friends and loved ones. I reach out to people I care about. We talk. We unburden ourselves. We mourn. We process. We support each other.
  6. Write. I still keep a private handwritten diary. I have since I was 8. I also write creatively, which helps me stop the process of ruminating over tragedy.
  7. Plan. Instead of praying, I ask what can I do to change this? As a white person, what can I do to stop racism? It is not black people’s responsibility. White people in the US have power and we are the perpetrators. So I’ve been going through the police procedures in my city to figure out what needs improvement before bringing those to the attention of my elected officials. I may attend a workshop this weekend about ending racial violence (it’s quite a distance from my house, though, so I can’t say for sure I’ll be able to). What can I do to end gun violence? This November I will be voting for politicians who vow to do something about gun violence in this country.  I will vote for people who want to ban assault rifles. I will vote for people who support background checks. I will vote for people who support banning people with a history of domestic violence from owning a gun. This will help keep all of us, from people of color to police officers, safe. I don’t believe a god will descend and fix things. Change happens when humans stand together and say “enough, no more!”

This is how I cope and deal with life. Do I think this is the perfect recipe for everyone? No. We are all different people, and what works well for one person won’t for another. For instance, writing wouldn’t help someone like my husband deal with tragedy. It stresses him out. But, religious or not, I think there’s a lot of overlap with how people deal with tragedy. And everyone has to find what works best for them.



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