Survivor’s Guilt

It is well known that soldiers who have been through battles together and who have lost members of their group, sometimes feel guilty. “Why were they killed when I was not?” is the basic question. Those who feel guilty—not for something they have done, but just for having survived—are said to have “survivor’s guilt.”

This can be an emotional crisis for the soldier. On the other hand, some soldiers who have been in similar circumstances don’t have it at all. And others have gone through that crisis and have emerged, damaged but whole, on the other side. [1]

At the risk of offending people who have had or are having feelings of guilt that such situations can produce, I want to look at the rational infrastructure of those feelings. There is a very popular and unusually effective kind of therapy called Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). [2] The operating premise of RET is that we believe things that are not rational and some of those beliefs damage us. We need to change our minds about those beliefs. [3] We need to withdraw our consent from the rational infrastructure that gives those feelings their power and that enables them to harm us.

A firefighter suffering PTSD might hang onto the formulation, “I should have done something.” The feelings he is suffering are real feelings and they may be debilitating, but the belief on which those feelings are based is nonsense. A veteran firefighter might sit down with this sufferer and say, “I felt like that too the first time I failed to save a child.” And that might help. But I am thinking that the veteran might also say, “Look. There are three possible responses to the crisis you faced. Three things you might conceivably have done. Here are the costs of A, whicsurvivor 5h you wisely rejected. Here is why B was not possible. C might have saved the victim, but you would have lost three members of your squad. Continuing to BELIEVE that you could have done something is wrong and you will not return to wholeness until you give it up.”

I think that is a wonderful approach, particularly if it works. It removes the reservoir of flammable fuel the fire fighter is carrying in his heart. It doesn’t just put out the fire—which is well worth doing. It removes the fuel.

I want to raise another question now. What if that “fuel”—that persistent and powerful sense of guilt—could be turned into a persistent and powerful sense of obligation? Would that be better?

I think it could be better. I want to be careful not to follow my own metaphor too closely, but I think it might be better to use that fuel for other things than not to have any fuel at all. Imagine, for example, that one of the effects of flattening these feelings of guilt is flattening all feelings. The person’s emotional sensitivity has been the means of his suffering so he has learned to blunt that sensitivity; he has learned not to feel anything at all. I don’t know that literature, but it seems plausible to me that people might “learn not to feel” so that they don’t have to feel THAT.

I’d like to pursue that point in another setting. I don’t have any combat experience atsurvivor 3 all. I don’t have any sports experiences that approach this kind of bonding intensity. Because I have lived a long time, I have fought in quite a few theaters of operation. If they gave awards for wounds suffered in these operations, I would have quite a collection. I know why there is a scar on my left shoulder and on my left knee, for instance. I wouldn’t want to say that living is combat, but my experience is that living includes combat and combat produces casualties.

Let me tell you how I got to thinking about this question. I’m old. If you want to think about the trip from birth to 80 years of age as a walk, I have walked with a lot of people who aren’t walking any more. Some have died. I look at my high school yearbook and see all those 17-year olds. Then I look at the pictures from our recent 60th reunion and I see that more than half of us are not there. [4]

Some have lost their minds. They don’t know who they are or where they are or why they are there. Some have lost their drive. They don’t see one thing as more worth doing than another and have taken on the project of entertaining themselves until they die. They purchase “diversions” as a way of living and no longer wonder what they are being diverted from. They are being diverted from caring deeply about something.

These are no longer walking along with people who were once a crowd. I look around and I see a smaller group of us who are still walking along and we are not walking at the pace we once did. But I could ask—I don’t think it is a good question, but it is the survivor guilt question—“Why me?” It isn’t any merit of mine that spared me from the fatal accident of my friend M or the debilitating sadness of my friend N or the dementia of my friend O, or the purposelessness of my friend P or the despairing emotional flatness of my friend Q.”

survivor 6I don’t have any of those problems N—Q to the extent my friends have them and I don’t have problem M at all. My paint job has been chipped here and there, but I can still drive the car. If I can’t come up with a good answer to the question Why me? (and I can’t) I could very well feel guilty about it. The fuel for guilt is there and I have already expressed my doubts about eliminating the fuel and a way of putting out the fire.  You will likely need that fuel for some other task.

I offered, when I passed this way a few paragraphs up the page, the possibility that a person might by moved to obligation RATHER THAN guilt. I do not bear any guilt for having survived, but I do bear an obligation. What if I were camping with a group of friends, all of whom were damaged by a landslide or a falling tree? Whose job is it to get some water or make a fire or administer first aid before going for help? Mine. On what grounds? Not on the ground that I am guilty for not having been injured when my friends were; on the ground, rather, that I can. I can do those things and they cannot; therefore I am obliged to do them. [5]

Let’s deal with events less catastrophic. My friend O has Alzheimers and loves to have someone read to him. I read to him because he can no longer read and I can. What if I had a close friend who died in a plane crash, leaving behind three little boys who are going to need someone to play the part of a father to them. I could feel guilty for not having died—I was scheduled for that same flight and couldn’t get to the airport in time—or I could use the fuel those feelings provide to help me do the work of taking care of the boys. I could say that my friend would have done the same for my boys had the situation been reversed (and that might be very likely) but I think it would be better to say that he can no longer care for them, but I still can.

If I can still do things that matter to me, things I think are important and that cost me something, then I am really fortunate.

[1] “Damaged but whole” betrays a notion of human functioning that I can’t entirely explain. It has a notion of “wholeness” that it not essentially cosmetic. Using the cosmetic standard, you would say that a new car, having picked up a blemish or two in its paint job, is not “whole.” I’m calling that standard cosmetic. By wholeness, I mean something more like “functional.” Bearing the burden of your experiences does not prevent you from living fully, from making and keeping commitments.
[2] Wikipedia informs me that it is now more often called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is not a term I have heard, but I’ve been out of the active study of it since grad school.
[3] “Change your mind” is the literal meaning of the Greek metanoia and often translated “repent” in the New Testament. It would be too much to try to say in modern English that these emotional sufferers need to “repent” of the beliefs that hold their emotional disorder in place, but that expression does open the door to a separate and complementary literature.
[4] And, of course, I notice that all of us 17 year-olds and now old people.
[5] I’m not changing the argument here. We routinely talk about obligation, the noun, and very rarely about the passive verb “to be obliged.” I don’t know how that happened, but if you are “obliged to do something,” then you have “an obligation” to do it. It’s just an alternative phrasing.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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