Houston, Harvey, and survivor guilt

from Houston:

It is very difficult to live in the middle of a catastrophe even if you have survived relatively unharmed. The grief feels palpable, though that sense may be due to the fact that you know too many people who are suffering. The television is full of images of very stressed people who are helping out on a volunteer basis. The elderly, the very young, pregnant women are trying to escape circumstances that they might well not be able to survive without help. And the animals. Not so much cats, I worry, but dogs of all sizes are being carted around, carried down ladders, sheltered in the GRB Convention center and help tightly. None of them is finding it fun.

There are some sweet reminders that we are, after all, in Texas. Thus down the street of some adjacent area 50 cows are herded to higher ground by lots of dogs, men on horseback, and police cars. And Lousiana cajuns – the “Cajun navy” – have appeared with boats to rescue people. There is a Dunkirk look to many scenes, though the Dunkirk rescue may have been better planned.

What is so stunning is that so much is done by volunteers who seem often to be working outside any official parameters. They get a phone call, head off down a particular street, and find hundreds of people at corners looking to be rescued. A lot of fairly robust people, sometimes with young children, are walking on the edges of flooded freeways, hoping to get to their friend’s home five miles away. One young man, who was featured in many reports, had walked 12 miles hoping to find his father. He did and was crying as he talked on the phone to him, one presumably lent by the press people who had interviewed him.

News reporters are joining in rescues, flagging down people with boats to tell them of others trapped in their cars.

So what about survivor’s guilt? Well, my partner and I and our three cats are just fine. No flooding and full electricity. The waste water processing is way overworked, so we’re not supposed to create a lot more of it. No showers, no washing machines running. But if we do take a shower, any damage we cause will be to our house, so it we’ve tried some quick ones.

So why do I feel so horrible about being just fine? Part of it may be the sort of emotional contagion Hume described, where proximity is a big factor. Just knowing that there is a lot of fear and pain very, very near is awful. That sense is close to grief.

Of course, I whipped through some search engines to see what I could find. Survivor guilt can be caused by a sense that one is responsible. It would, however, be hard to feel that even irrationally in this situation. There is so little control anywhere. Relatedly, it can feel just wrong that you survived and another did not. Nothing explains the difference.

In fact, I suspect it is the lack of explanation that may be at the heart of it. The ill-feeling that can feel like guilt is closer to fear as one realizes that there are things influencing results and one has little to no idea of what they are. However much you try and work toward goals, nothing is remotely guaranteed. It can all be quickly undone.

As a young Roman Catholic I was told that God, being just, never left a good deed unrewarded. Hence, if you were going to Hell, you had to get the rewards while you were alive. There are no rewards in Hell.

That view could explain how this situation feels. Surviving nearly untouched by this horrible, terrible catastrophe feels like a huge reward. God knows why I got it. Omigod, am I heading for Hell?

PS: let me acknowledge that we might feel better if we got out and helped. But we are still truly flooded in. The official word is that the situation is life-threatening, with snakes, spiders, alligators and rafts of fire ants in the water we would need to get through. I believe that.

6 thoughts on “Houston, Harvey, and survivor guilt

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, and helping us to see more closely what is happening. Stay well.

  2. I can only say I relate.
    The city I live in had a mass evacuation last year due to fires.
    All 88,000 of us.
    In the end our house was fine…but I was afraid to be happy because so many were not so lucky.
    It’s traumatic. And normal. And hard. Your city will be changed. That’s heartbreaking.
    I’m praying for you.
    Anne

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