Thankfulness amidst tragedy

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In the years I’ve written this column, I note with sadness, our nation and our world have experienced numerous tragedies that have had devastating effects on children and families: The explosions of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the tsunami in Sri Lanka, Waco, 9/11, Columbine and Newtown, the bombing in Oklahoma City, and most recently, the tragedy in Paris.

 My own adult children have asked me questions about the massacre in Paris as they have tried to make sense of this senseless act of cruelty.

It is a basic human need to make sense of the world and to find order in chaos. Unfortunately, as I learned firsthand while counseling children after 9/11, it is hard to make sense out of terrorism.

Shortly after the Paris tragedy, I texted with one of my daughters who had just returned from a concert herself when she learned that the majority of the victims were at a music concert.

“Why a concert?” she asked. “Could this happen to me?” was her unasked question. She wanted to know if she was safe.

Sadly, I couldn’t promise her that it wouldn’t happen to her. But the news is not all bad.

Terrorism is aimed at those watching. The purpose of the terrorist’s behavior is not to kill, but rather to create terror in the hearts of survivors.

I wrote this column while in a hotel in Washington, D.C. Out of my hotel window I could see the U.S. Capitol and the skyline that includes iconic structures of our nation. Police cars lined the streets and every officer was on high alert for the possibility that we could be targeted next.

For days, every news program ran non-stop interviews of the tragedy in Paris, another iconic city of our world. Names, grainy photos, and biographies of the perpetrators were just beginning to be made public.

This is exactly what the terrorists hoped for. These cowards wanted their pictures to be shown over and over. They wanted a never-ending stream of coverage of their actions. They wanted photographers to capture bodies covered in blankets, pools of blood on restaurant floors, and the facades of buildings damaged by explosions.

Through these means, terrorists could then transmit terror and repeatedly infect a viewing public. If I had my preference, their names would never be uttered, their pictures would never be shown, and no footage from Paris would ever be broadcast. I know it is unrealistic, but I’d prefer the story relegated to 30 seconds of airtime sandwiched between the weather and the sports update.

We don’t have to wait for the media to help us defeat terrorism. We can inoculate ourselves. The media will continue to run these stories as long as we will watch them. Turn off the television and go on with the business of life.

Live your life. Breathe the air of the day. The terrorist wants you to believe – no, they want you to fear – that it could happen to you. I can’t promise you that it won’t, but as much as I grieve for the victims and families in Paris, I am thankful that it wasn’t me or my family.

In social psychology we use the phrase “the scary world phenomenon” to describe the fact that people believe they are more at risk for danger than they really are. Again, this is exactly what the terrorist wants. He wants you to think that he is right around the corner when, in fact, the probability is that none of us will ever personally experience an act of terror.

I will not live my life in fear. If I do, the terrorist wins. I am in control of some parts of my fate. Those are the things on which I’ll focus my attention and be grateful. Things beyond my control, whether they be natural disaster, accidents, or acts of terror, will not possess my thinking.

These are the lessons I tried to teach my little clients after 9/11 as well as the little ones who come through my office doors worried that something bad might happen – something like a shooting in a school or a concert hall.

I make no promises, but I can teach gratitude for today.

[Dr. Greg Moffatt, Ph.D., a regular columnist for the Healthwise section of this newspaper, is also a college professor, a licensed counselor and a public speaker. In addition to wearing those hats, he has served as a regular lecturer at the FBI Academy, as a profiler with the Atlanta Cold Case Squad and is also author of “Survivors: What We Can Learn From How They Cope With Horrific Tragedy.” His website is gregmoffatt.com.]