Can you do your duty despite “survivors guilt?”

Now that I have gotten a lot of the polemics out of my system with my previous blog purges posts, I want to put on my compassion hat and address a subject that, as common as it is will no doubt be even more common in the future: “survivor’s guilt” or trauma-related guilt.

(from the website “Trauma-related guilt refers to the unpleasant feeling of regret stemming from the belief that you could or should have done something different at the time a traumatic event occurred. Trauma survivors may also experience a particular type of trauma-related guilt, called survivor guilt. Survivor guilt is often experienced when a person has made it through some kind of traumatic event while others have not. A person may question why he survived. He may even blame himself for surviving a traumatic event as if he did something wrong.”

I want to be sensitive about this, as it feels real to sufferers, but… I don’t get it. When I was 24 I was sent to Vietnam courtesy of the U.S. Army, starting out as an infantry grunt but soon found myself, due to my having a B.A. in psychology, being assigned as what the military called a psych tech. In my case, I was the sole arbiter of who was and was not fit for combat, operating from a fire base called Quan Loi, many miles and a long helicopter ride from professional supervision. A degree in psychology was hardly any preparation at all for my duties.

In a sense I had the power of life and death, in that if I decided someone needed a break from combat, I could assign them non-combat duty for up to 90 days. How did I decide who was fit and who was not? Eeny meeny miny moe, more or less. But I actually was quite good at it and even maintained some semblance of sanity. I can’t say the same for my predecessor, who became a nervous wreck before he handed off the pleasure to me.

One day a soldier came to see me, desiring to be relieved of duty as helicopter door gunner. His story was that he was having blackouts, periodically losing awareness. I asked for examples but he couldn’t give me any. I asked his crew members but none of them were aware of any such behavior. In the absence of any corroborating testimony (including his own) I couldn’t justify relieving him of duty. Two weeks went by and I saw him again. This time he was dead, as were most of his crew. The one survivor said that my patient pulled the pin on a hand grenade and then appeared to forget to throw it, just staring at it. It blew up and caused the helicopter to crash.

I could have used this incident to beat myself up, calling into question my judgment and my competence, justifying quitting or sinking into drug abuse. I felt traumatic guilt for a few weeks, then asked myself the questions, “do I think someone else could do a better job if I quit? Wouldn’t quitting be indulging in my feelings of guilt to the detriment of my patients and my duty?” My answers led me back to the job, with a resolution to be more thorough. That is why I still have trouble understanding the degree to which so many people allow themselves to be debilitated by guilt that they survived or made a bad decision.

Existence is full of uncertainty. Everyone will make bad decisions, we will know people who died or were maimed by horrors we were spared from, but life goes on and our duty remains. True judicial guilt usually means a person consciously did wrong and deserves either punishment or making restitution. But what we call guilt feelings when we didn’t consciously do wrong can be an indulgence that justifies shirking our duties.

One of my favorite sayings is ” I slept and dreamt that life was pleasure. I awoke and found that life was duty. I acted and found that duty is pleasure.”


Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

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