I was just preparing to strap on roller skates for a youth event when the news hit like lightning:
Paris had been attacked.
Conflicting reports emerged, all rife with palpable fear and confusion. I watched in real time on social media as Parisians updated the world on the terrorist attacks occurring on their city.
Numbers poured in: a dozen dead. Thirty dead. One hundred dead and counting.
Glued to my phone, I watched as people streamed live videos of chaos and confusion. My heart was heavy as I greeted arriving students at the roller rink, readying our large group for a night of carefree fun that stood in marked contrast to the sheer terror others were experiencing just a few hours away.
A few days after these horrific attacks in France, my middle school religion classes sat down in a circle in the sanctuary of our church. We bowed our heads in prayer, lifting up those affected in Paris, as well as praying for guidance and wisdom for our government and leaders.
As we finished praying, I asked my students how they were processing the news of terror attacks. A few innocuous questions soon turned to a serious time of reflection and discussion.
My students reacted palpably to acts of terrorism in another country, much more so than I expected. Our teens are anxious to process this, to share what’s really on their minds and how they feel about the atrocities going on around them.
I sought permission from my students to share their words with others, in the hopes that hearing the real thoughts of teenagers would help give understanding to what’s going on in their heads and what they need from us.
In the words of my teenage students, here’s how they view the acts of terrorism that have circulated around the world lately:
Terrorism incites fear in students. “I feel scared,” is what countless kids told me. This fear goes beyond your everyday fear of spiders or bad test scores, however, and strikes a somber chord in the souls of our students. “I feel like the whole world is going to end, and that makes me scared,” confided one student.
Others agree, but share their fear that the next attack will be closer to home. “I feel scared and wonder how they are going to prevent it from happening again,” one student admitted, while another said, “I feel thankful that it wasn’t here [in America] this time. I’m scared because there’s always next time, and where will that be?”
This fear is something our students are thinking about more often than we realize. As they head out to the mall, or catch a movie, or go to concerts, they’re often actively conquering worries by doing these simple actions. “I’m scared, like terrorists are going to come after me and my friends,” one student told me.
In the words of one teen, “I feel bad for the people who are suffering from terrorism. I’m mad at the people who caused it.”
Acts of terror spark righteous fury in many of our students, who struggle to understand how people can murder others in cold blood. “I feel like terrorists are horrible,” said a student, while others agreed. “I’m scared, feel bad, and am definitely mad that people can be so ridiculous and selfish.”
“It’s sad and pathetic. Why haven’t we done something about this yet?” said one of my students, with others indignantly agreed. “I feel mad when terrorism occurs because the terrorists think they can just kill whoever and do what they want. But that’s not the case.”
Many of our students struggle with deep sadness when terrorism rears its ugly head. “I’m sad because I know our world has bad people. Our world is corrupt in every possible way. I’m sad for the families of the lost ones,” one teenager admitted.
Our more empathetic students feel the pangs of misery deeply, vividly imagining what victims and their families must be going through. Their reaction is often physical, as their bodies tense up, their stomachs hurt, or their eyes fill with tears. “I feel bad for the people who lost people, and scared that it will happen to us,” says another student.
“I’m scared for our country and world, but also disappointed in the dumb people who do it. It’s horrible that our world is resulting in this,” confides one student.
Likewise, many students expressed a negative take on terrorism. “I feel bad for the people that suffered, they don’t deserve not to live a full life. Some people are messed up. Life’s unfair,” says a student. Another admits, “I feel disheartened that someone would want to do something to hurt a country or people, and I feel disheartened for the people affected by it. I also think that our country needs to do something about it and not just mourn those who died.”
One of the most immediate responses from scores of kids was overwhelming worry. “I’m nervous that [acts of terrorism] will soon travel over to the US or that we will have something like 9/11 or worse,” said one student. Others agreed, asking questions like, “Have we let our guard down?” and “What if this happens in my city?”
“It makes me realize that this is real world danger going on and that our country is vulnerable. In all honesty, I am scared for our country. I also think about the tragedy in the lives of the victims,” shares one of my teens.
Many our students go so far as to envision a terrorist act playing out in their lives. “I’m sometimes scared, nervous, mad and angry because I’m worried if we are attacked that some of us, including me, won’t stand up for God,” said one candid student.
“People are sacrificing themselves to kill more people,” asked one of my teens in confusion. “It makes no sense to do that. I mean, we’re all human. Why kill your own kind?”
Many of our students cannot fathom the depths of evil that clouds some hearts. Whether their minds are too innocent or their life experiences haven’t exposed them to a dark world, they are truly shocked by acts of terror on innocent people. “How can someone use religion as a stupid excuse to do such bad things?” asked one teen.
“I feel bad for all the families of the injured and killed. I also wonder what inside the group or person caused them to think that way and why they followed those thoughts. I think how it could have been me, my friends or family,” wondered one student.
With A Desire for Action…
Atrocities can serve as a powerful impetus for action. “I feel like we should try to stop terrorism,” says one student, while others eagerly support changing the world. “When terror occurs, I feel something should be done about it, a nation should unite,” another teen tells me.
Many of our kids are frustrated by apathy when it comes to the subject of terrorism. They want strong leaders to act swiftly and decisively. “If terrorism occurs, I think the president of the United States should do something about it, not just say nothing and not do anything about it,” is what one teenager said.
Others agreed. “If terrorists come to America, we’re going to get rid of them. And anywhere else we’re going to help, because we’re the strongest nation. We should pray for those who lost people, but act too.”
How, then, do we respond to the many different reactions our children have to terror? How do we help them to feel safe and secure in the world when their view is overwhelmingly negative?
We must pray about how we build strong children who can face their fears head on when, as one of my students startlingly told me, “I feel unsafe. That at any moment, with government’s so-called ‘protection,’ that I could be killed. It doesn’t matter where I am, I can always be tracked, found and tortured or even killed by terrorists. It doesn’t matter if I am in one of the most protected places; it could be my last few seconds anywhere.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers on the endless questions my students are asking in the wake of such evil acts occurring in our world. I’m neither a foreign policy expert nor military strategist, so I’m not qualified to speak on solutions.
What I do know is that Jesus promises us His peace in the middle of the storms of this life. My middle schoolers and I took a hard look at what Jesus promises us in John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
No matter what we face, may we never lose sight of the fact that we’re a light in the darkness. We must shine brightly, recognizing that this moment is one in which our strength, our attitudes and our words are being watched and noted by others.
Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, our children are looking up to us for direction, courage and optimism as they behold a world pulsing with danger. Whether our kids verbalize their need for it or not, we must nevertheless give them guidance.
This world begs our kids to listen to many voices. As loving adults, we must be willing to be the primary voice in their lives, to have the tough conversations, and address our children’s concerns honestly and truthfully. It’s our duty. It’s how we raise children prepared to tackle the difficult moments, who will be willing to resolutely fight against evil and stand firm in their faith.
Perhaps more than any other time in history, we need to share the love and grace of our Savior, Jesus, who accepts us just as we are, fears, worries, anger and all.
As Christians, we must refuse to give in to hate or fear, but instead stand confidently with a message of grace and the steely strength that comes from knowing that come what may, our futures are secure in Christ. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, and hope for tomorrow.”
Carrying the peace of the Holy Spirit in our hearts gives us an inner calm to face tomorrow, despite what tomorrow may bring our way. As Jesus reminds us in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”