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Finding Temporary Shelter in the Mundane

In some cases, choosing the mundane can be life-giving, help salve emotional hurts and anchor our lives.
PUBLISHED June 06, 2019
Jamie Aten, Ph.D. is a disaster psychologist who doesn’t just study disasters—he’s lived mass and personal disasters—as a Hurricane Katrina survivor and early-age onset stage IV colorectal cancer survivor (almost 5 years NED). He is Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. His most recent book is A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Hurricane Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. Follow on Twitter @drjamieaten or visit
Life as I knew it had gone out the window.  

I had already spent six months dealing with my cancer diagnosis. I had undergone tests, completed oral chemo, finished radiation and had a four-in-one cancer surgery. I thought I was on the other side of the treatments but it was still too early to tell if they’d been helpful in eradicating the cancer from my body.

I was hoping for some good news.

Choosing the mundane can be life-giving.

I headed toward the cancer center to see my oncologist. After reviewing my charts and labs, he told me he wanted me to start a six-month round of drip chemo treatments as soon as possible. The news hit me like a surprise left hook punch. I thought I was on the other side of treatments. I felt like the room was closing in on me; I struggled to breathe; my attempts to fight back the tears were useless.

In the car on the way home, I weighed the option of possibly refusing chemotherapy or at least postponing chemo for two weeks so that I could visit my family in southern Illinois before launching into the grueling regimen.

I was familiar with the kind of data with which my oncologist was working. I also knew how important emotional health and well-being were to survival odds.  Living well—enjoying the people and places that had always been life-giving—was one choice I could make for good.

I decided to begin treatments after returning from visiting family.

Mundane moments help salve emotional hurts.

It felt wonderfully “normal” to be with family for meals, to eat familiar food, to play familiar board games, and to see my relatives, like I had done so many times before.

And though I could still barely walk I went with a family member to the movies. Standing in line for the Sprite and popcorn, I was grateful that—excluding the pain I felt with every step I took and the inflatable yellow donut pillow I’d smuggled in to sit on. This was the only way I could withstand the pain from sitting for more than five minutes because of my surgery.

I had almost forgot what it was like to go to a movie. The sweet fragrance of warm buttered popcorn wafted throughout the theater. What could be more normal than that?

Though for many this would qualify as a relatively boring night out, it was nice to feel a little like me again, though brief and fleeting.

The mundane helps anchor our lives.

When I was first diagnosed, I felt like my life was already over.

Cancer threatened to change everything I cherished. It swept through my life like a hurricane, damaging my health, emotions, security, relationships, work and peace of mind. But I’d also begun to notice that some of the most solid places in the storm I was weathering were familiar experiences I’d taken for granted.

During the storm, the mundane often brought me closer to others and back to myself, and served as a temporary refuge at that point in my cancer journey. Engaging in the mundane helped me see I was loved fiercely. Even the mundane familiarity of a movie theater seemingly offered much needed reprieve. Embracing these experiences had been like finding temporary shelter on dry ground as the storm waters began to rise once again.
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