Survivor’s Guilt

I ran away.

I did not lose my house.  I was not in the mandatory evacuation zone.  Yet, after 4 days in the smoke, living just miles away from the flames destroying my town, I left.  I don’t wan’t to tell anyone that.  Mine was not a story of heroism.  But also, mine was not a story of staying until I cracked under the pressure and lost my temper on a hapless customer service employee.  Everyone has a story.  Mine was a story of self-preservation and family-preservation.

I feel guilty about that.

I’ve been hearing a lot of my friends saying they feel guilty; they wonder how they can complain while others have lost absolutely everything.  They wonder why their house was spared when others lost everything.  They wonder what do in the midst of such devastation.

I know friends who left too.  These people have NOT lost everything, yet they are staying with family in Turlock, San Leandro, and as far away as Oregon.  I know friends who left to Santa Cruz and Monterey because their children had respiratory problems due to smoke inhalation.  I know friends who were evacuated to different parts of the county, displaced for nearly a week.  And I know far, far too many friends whose houses burned to the ground that first night of the firestorm, when the winds blew the flames for miles in a matter of minutes.

I have seen families open their homes to the evacuated: cooking big batch meals, and inflating air mattresses on living room floors.  Restaurants have offered free meals, high-end cafes have offered free coffee, Cellular providers have offered unlimited calls and texts the week of the crisis, and indoor play places have offered free admission to kids stuck at home since the schools closed.

Much good has been bubbling to the surface of our humanity.

But also much guilt too.

And I wanted to touch on that.

Guilt is for prompting a person to feel remorse over something bad they did to someone.  The healthy response then would be to apologize, and make amends if possible.

Guilt should come when you’ve done something wrong.  It has to do with blame.

And therein lies the belief under the feeling:  there should be someone to blame for all of this.  There should be a guilty party.  But when a person tries to squeeze the idea of justice onto a catastrophic natural disaster, the shoe never fits.  The amount of suffering and loss of property from these fires is unprecedented.  The toll it has taken on the residents is overwhelming.  Yet, there is no guilty party to blame.  It just happened.

When we experience “survivor’s guilt,” we try to fill the blame void by turning inward.  In an unspoken way, we claim that it must be me.  It must be my fault that I was spared when others were not.  It doesn’t make logical sense, but it’s a reaction that tries desperately, although inappropriately, to make sense of things.

But, thankfully, we are not that powerful.

I could feel guilty all I want, but the reality is: I did not create the strong winds.  I did not cause a rainy winter 6 months ago that grew much more grass than normal, creating a much thicker undergrowth as fuel.  I did not invent the combustive properties of dry foliage.  All these factors are completely out of my control.

From the other side of the coin, expressing survivor’s guilt does not help the person who truly lost everything.  It offers nothing.  It’s a way for me to keep my eyes locked firmly on myself, when I feel too afraid to look into the depths of their suffering.  I would even say that my fear of suffering is a fair and valid feeling, as long as I own it, instead of hiding behind well-meaning guilt.  But the friend who lost everything needs my care.  I can only offer that when I take my eyes off myself.

We in Sonoma and Napa County are feeling raw right now.  As the enormity of this disaster unveils, we will need each other for love and support.  But we cannot love and support every single person.  I can just hear everyone with my same “savior complex” sigh in collective frustration.  But let’s remember who we are responsible to: our spouses, children, and family.  Let’s remember our neighbors, and friends.  And instead of focusing on ourselves and being paralyzed with survivor’s guilt, let’s open our eyes to the dear loved ones entrusted to us, and see what we can realistically do.  When we see each other with both eyes open, we are in a good position to do something both meaningful and memorable, out of a heart of love, not guilt.

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  2 Corinthians 9:7