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The past few days have been hard at the state, national and international level.
Hurricane Harvey left so much devastation in Texas and Louisiana. Disheartening immigration news made headlines: the terror of undocumented immigrants who were facing flooding due to Harvey, yet they felt that they could not ask for help or evacuate for fear of becoming visible and subject to deportation; the fast approaching implementation of Texas law SB4 that would have given “local law enforcement the authority to ask about a person’s immigration status during routine interactions such as a traffic stop” and that “required local officials to comply with requests from federal immigration authorities to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.” If officials refused to cooperate, they could lose their jobs. Thank God a federal judge temporarily blocked this law. At the national level, DACA recipients or “Dreamers,” are facing an uncertain and risky future under President Trump’s administration.
As if this was not enough, in the international scene, flooding in South Asia left much devastation and killed hundreds of persons in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
As I prepared my lectures for last week, I could not stop thinking about all these events. Assuming that many of my students were concerned with them, too, I decided to start my classes by asking if anyone had family members or friends who were in Hurricane Harvey’s most affected areas. After several hands went up, I proceeded to pray for these students, their loved ones, and the situation in Texas, the United States and the world.
After I finished praying, I explained that these had been very strange days for me. I told them that I was certainly glad that Harvey stopped and turned around before hitting the San Antonio city limits, but that I had a sense of embarrassment and discomfort every time that I said, “Thank God, Harvey did not reach San Antonio.”
I continued by sharing, “I know that people in San Antonio had asked for prayers for protection, certainly I did, and many of my family members and friends assured me that they were praying for us. But I am sure good Christians in Rockport, Corpus Christi and Houston were praying for the same thing. Yet, we were spared, and they were not. Does this make us better than them, or more favored by God? Certainly, not! We are not better! What happened? Why did it happen? As a theologian I know that we are stranding before the mystery of God. … Of course, I am grateful that we were spared, but at the same time I feel very uncomfortable.”
Later, I discussed this experience with an esteemed colleague, Professor Craig Bird. I explained to him how these feelings were something that I could not describe accurately, much less give a name to. Compassionately, he told me, “You have survival’s guilt.” The term sounded right. I wrote it down, and like a good scholar, went to research it.
“Survivor guilt can be an immediate response to a tragedy.” It is feeling “guilty for living.” Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley describe survivor’s guilt as “a sense of deep guilt that comes when one survives something,” such as war, natural disasters, car accidents, violent actions, or life-threatening sicknesses.
In my case, I think I was experiencing double survivor’s guilt. On the one hand, I experienced the guilt of surviving Hurricane Harvey, and on the other, the guilt of surviving harsh immigration laws. While it is true that I am an immigrant who arrived to United States as an international student, I have never experienced the anguish of being an undocumented immigrant or refugee.
Yes, I feel blessed that I have not gone through these experiences, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable. In fact, I was so uncomfortable that I had already prepared a “safer” topic for this column. Yet, I had to follow the advice that I often give to my students: “If it is uncomfortable, do not run away, keep exploring it.” And I am glad I did!
As I began to understand survivor’s guilt, I wondered how many more people were experiencing it. Furthermore, I assume that many people who live in the most affected areas of Hurricane Harvey but did not experience extreme damage are going to feel this guilt, too.
Since guilt is debilitating, disempowering and paralyzing, it is important that people who are experiencing this survivor’s guilt can process it appropriately for their own sake, but also for the sake of their communities.
As a way of dealing with this guilt, Williams and Haley suggests that it is important to:
- acknowledge the feelings of guilt
- recognize that other people are going through the same feelings
- learn that feelings of gratitude and grief can co-exist together
- let go of the questioning (why?)
- embrace life
- learn more about the topic
- do something constructive with these feelings, such as helping others
- ask for professional help if needed
Finally, Williams and Haley stress that while survivor’s guilt may be an indicator of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a person can experience survivor’s guilt without this diagnosis.
For Christians, spiritual disciplines that lead to developing and strengthening faith are also important elements in this process of healing. Let’s remember that Jesus’ ministry was holistic, and that he cares for all of the areas of our lives.
Communities in Texas and other places are being hit hard, either by natural disasters or by political and social events that demand action. While it is true that guilt can be paralyzing, it is also true that processed feelings can become a source of strength and empowerment that can transform the life of a person, and in turn transform, in God’s name, families, churches and communities.
May God help us to deal with all of our feelings, emotions and loses. Guilt may be paralyzing, but given the circumstances, we cannot afford to be paralyzed. As Jesus’ feet and hands, we need to be present in the best possible way in both the disaster areas and the political scene. Our sisters and brothers need us. There is no time or energy to waste.