Survivor’s Guilt in the Wilderness

Wilderness places are brutal. They can kill you. They can kill your travel companions and leave you to carry on.

I live in Boulder, Colorado, where we just survived the Flood of 2013. It was what they called a “1,000-year rainfall,” with about 20 inches of rain over just a few days. The flooding wiped out streets and highways, flooded basements, swept some homes off their foundations, and killed several people in the area. Boulder residents are still recovering from the shock of devastation that killed people, destroyed some properties and left many of us with no visible damage whatsoever.

In the flood, one woman attempted to rescue another who had been badly injured. She dragged the other woman through the waters, but she could not pull her up the crumbling bank to safety. “Let me go,” the injured woman said. She did. The woman who was able to scramble up the bank survived. The other woman did not. 

I recently spoke with one of my friends from high school. We both had traumatic childhoods and lived in foster homes. We speak about once a year. I am always intensely curious to hear how she’s doing: her life is full of drama and pain. In my early 20s, I helped her when her boyfriend beat her up and left her with broken ribs. Later, her husband died, leaving her with an autistic son to raise alone. Now her creepy family still haunts her and expects her to support them financially. She has invasive medical procedures every few months to stay alive. 

Why are some of us saved from the flood waters and some not? Why do some of us never get beyond the traumas of a difficult childhood, and some of us do? Why do those of us who move on feel such profound guilt – at least sometimes – that we made it, and others did not?

I felt ripples from my childhood experience during the flooding in Boulder. I’m okay. I made it. I’m shaken inside, but I and my family are amazingly, miraculously, gratefully okay! I feel the ripples of my childhood experience each time I speak to that friend from high school and see how her past still cripples her. Why did I find some measure of freedom and what I call health – when she did not?

I don’t find that there are many good answers to “why?” I don’t know if it’s even a relevant question, though it’s a compulsive one.

I am devoid of deep philosophical answers in the face of this stuff. I find that I can say a heart-felt “Thank You” to the Universe that I have the life I have. I also find I have a need to let go of any sense of superiority, though it’s hard. My friend may be just fine in her life. Some people whose basements flooded weren’t traumatized in a deep way, though they were inconvenienced. There are mysteries I don’t have the answers to. Someone else’s suffering may be less, though their material loss was great. Some people’s suffering may be profound, though their material losses were relatively small. And I need to get out of my head where I’m obsessed with anyone’s suffering – my own or someone else’s – and live the life in front of me. 

Social media makes this really challenging. I can get sucked into the suffering of the world for hours at a time. I feel guilty to look away from the untimely deaths, the hungry and abused children, the addicts whose flesh melts off their stricken limbs, the melting of our glaciers and the death of our coral reefs…

I have to stop sometimes. I have begun to learn that saying “Thank You,” and letting go of my superiority are the beginning, but that the level at which I can engage and truly make a difference is very, very small – and very, very important. There are only so many people I can hold as they cry. There are only so many people whose eyes I can look into deeply as they speak of their suffering. There is only so much I can hold and process and still live my life. And yet it is essential that I do so, as I am able. 

And, one foot in front of the other, I walk my path. I make my way through wilderness times with very little answer for the difficulties of it. But I feel the breeze on my sweaty face, or the touch of my son’s hand as it slips into my own, or I share a meal with the companions who are still here. I soak it all up because life is short, and the bitterness and the sweetness live side-by-side here.