Survivor Guilt: Destructive or Instructive?

While many Park Avenue tenants are comfortably sequestered in their peaceful summer homes with spacious grounds, their fellow New Yorkers are having trouble sleeping due to the unceasing wail of sirens. Many have died. Many suffered a long time, near death, but somehow recovered. The joy of their recovery is dampened by their guilt – the guilt survivors commonly feel. They survived, while others did not.

Unlike the wealthy New Yorkers, I didn’t have to leave town to be in a safe place. I live in one. Unlike those with inadequate resources, I could have left town if I needed to. It is wise to feel unsettled about that.

Survivor guilt is quite normal. Depending upon what you do with it, it can be either meaningless or transformative, destructive or instructive. It is meaningless when we flee from it like fleeing from the memory of the illness itself. It is instructive when we sit at its feet and learn from it. It is destructive when we torment ourselves with the question “Why?” Why did I survive when so many others did not? Does my life have more value than theirs? Am I blessed but they are not?

Survivors may well have some physiological quality that helped save them. Or maybe they were just lucky. For some, they survived because their wealth allowed them to have decades of better nutrition, less financial stress. They lived in safer neighborhoods. They were not weakened by other medical conditions or mental health conditions.

Even though the wealthy might think that God has been good to them, Jesus pushed the point that it isn’t so. The poor and sick are not out of favor with God. That isn’t what is happening. God’s goodness is scattered equally to all, he said.

These are the kinds of things that are instructive about survival when others perish. They only come with reflection, which is positive use of the guilt.

The wealthy in their safe quarters may not feel guilt for surviving. They haven’t been taken to school about injustice and chance the way survivors have. They might have come out of this more awakened had they stayed and served in their communities.

Awakened, survivors understand their responsibility to work for justice and fairness. It is sobering, as it should be.