Surviving the Guilt, Reclaiming the Gift

Sometimes, we don’t have a choice about whom we entertain.

I don’t remember making a call and I surely didn’t send out invitations, but suddenly a new problem has come to visit.    Sitting cross-legged at the corner of my mind, riffling through my thoughts like so much junk mail and looking for all the world like a bored ingénue who’s misplaced her nail file, my problem doesn’t seem inclined to leave.  So, it’s time to set aside the social niceties, and cope with this uninvited guest.

My problem is a sudden inability to write.  Since Hurricane Ike, I’ve produced a few blogs,  including one or two that pleased me very much. But the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words simply has stopped. Ideas continue to pile up in my head, notes get jotted and beautiful, fragile phrases flit through my mind like clouds of rare verbal butterflies, but none of them lands on my paper.

The experience is passing strange.

For someone whose home experienced the eye of a hurricane, I’m unbelievably blessed.  My house is secure, and my business will survive.  While I’m getting things back on an even keel, my mother not only is being cared for, she’s rather enjoying herself on an extended midwestern “vacation”.   The stray kitty I worried over survived the storm perfectly well with some help from the neighbors, and the camphor tree I planted and love lost hardly a leaf.

My possessions are intact, including a little antique china collection I fuss over every hurricane season.  I experienced no financial losses because of the storm, apart from evacuation expense,  loss of income and the need to throw out a refrigerator-full of food.  My flowers are blooming and my bills are paid.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, I have no problems.

And that, it seems, is the problem. 

Despite the sheetrock I’ve knocked out, the supplies I’ve furnished and the contributions I’ve made to relief organizations, every time I sit down to write, questions overwhelm my mind.

What could be more selfish than sitting at a desk, writing, while five miles away, ice, water and food are being handed out to victims of a significant disaster?
How  dare I ignore the needs of those who have been displaced?
What justification can there be for spending hours engrossed in reading and thought,  while others struggle to find a shower or a job?
What possible good can come of an essay, a blog or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seems impossible to fill?

In the end, it was a friend who helped me begin to untie the knots.  Scheduled to be in New York City on  September 11, 2001, he stayed at home because of a cancelled meeting.  As he puts it, “I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, and felt consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.”

In its simplest form, survivor’s guilt is this sense of isolation, numbness and helplessness experienced by people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others.  The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are an extreme example, but train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions or natural disasters can trigger the same reaction.  The arbitrary nature of tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt.  A house survives, a neighbor’s does not.  A neighbor survives, while another does not.  There are an infinite number of questions, and no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same solutions are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome.

     ~ Talk about the event
     ~ Nurture a sense of safety and stability
     ~ Return to routines as soon as possible
     ~ Challenge irrational thoughts
     ~ Focus on personal strengths 
     ~ Take action in whatever way possible

And it is precisely there, in that final bit of advice, that I found myself confronted by the awful, accusatory phrase that has become such a part of our culturally received wisdom – Actions speak louder than words.

In the face of disaster, the aphorism’s truth appears self-evident.  Words won’t patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors have no power to produce ice or water, and cooking up beautifully flavored paragraphs won’t transform a single MRE into a decent meal.  Similies don’t scrape sand off the roads, and chapters can’t contain the chaos of utterly destroyed communities.

Caught in the web of my own thoughts, exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I finally turned to the Write on Wednesday page, expecting nothing more than another apparently insurmountable challenge.  Instead, I discovered Becca had provided a nearly perfect counterpoint to “actions speak louder than words” in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Once I recovered from my shock, I began to think, more clearly than I had for days.   Asking myself, “What can words do?”, I discovered a lengthy list.  Words can console and hearten, strengthen a spirit, clarify  vision and enliven hope. When necessary, words can  challenge and confront, describing the truth of present realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience or soothe a heart.  Words can create community in midst of chaos.   Most importantly, words humanize – breaking down barriers between lucky and unlucky, victim and survivor.

A powerful plea for the importance of words came from a true storm survivor, a  fellow living in his truck and tent on a beach in Galveston.  Like so many others who have chosen that way of coping, he has his reasons.  When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

“Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think.   If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”


So it is.  We may be convinced otherwise by our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs and our health – but we are each of us sojourners, strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of our youth and power and pride as surely as a hurricane strips a community of  structures and possessions.

When that time comes,  we need words.   We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past.   We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is  frivolous – rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers,  playwrights and poets know a deeper truth.  Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words.   Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles.   When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change.  They are a wellspring of life.  To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human.  And when the darkness is complete, when the moon has set and the stars gone out, when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers and its wordsmiths -telling  stories for those whose own words have been washed away by life.


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5 thoughts on “Surviving the Guilt, Reclaiming the Gift

  1. Wow! You write so well. The words just flow and it all reads so beautifully.

    I am still recovering from clinical depression and I felt a strong urge to respond with some thoughts about writing but in the end I couldn’t as I felt they were negative and your post was so inspirational that I didn’t want to spoil it.

    Thank you for writing.

    Good morning to you!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your kind remarks. One of the words that caught me in your post is “recovering”. It indicates so clearly that recovery is a process, no matter what sort of hurricane we’re speaking of. I think, too, that struggling against the negative is one of the most important things we can do. Even in the worst of circumstances there is good that can be acknowledged – it’s one of the beauties of life.

    Best wishes to you,


  2. Here, my friend, you have written yourself to the truth, and it is a powerful one. Writing does change things; it bears witness. It is action. Amen to that.

    Some of us have been gifted with words, and to honor that gift, we must use them. Some have been gifted with carpentry skill; some with physical strength; some with financial resources. Writers, we have been gifted with words and with sight – and I firmly believe that when we honor our gift, the world changes around us.

    My prayers and thoughts are with you as you must bear witness to much pain. But please do so if you can, for all of us who are not there to see this devastation. We need reminders – some of us with other gifts may read your words and help make the physical changes you witness. Without you, many of us wouldn’t know.

    Thank you.

    Good morning, Andi,

    It wasn’t until I went to bed last night that I giggled a bit at the irony of writing about not being able to write. But of course you’re correct – sometimes we have to write ourselves to truth. It’s one of the things that makes this process so intriguing and unpredictable.

    And of course, to honor a gift we first must learn to recognize it as gift. It doesn’t take much deep analysis to see a direct relationship between a hesitancy to write in difficult circumstances and lessons taught early and often: poetry isn’t practical, English majors don’t make money, writing is a delightful hobby but accomplishes little. Sometimes it takes a hurricane to stir things up and leave that kind of debris lying about for inspection!

    Your comments are always insightful and encouraging – thank you!


  3. Linda,

    I find it most appropriate that I ran across your blog today. You’ll know why when you visit my new blog on Wunderground. I have voraciously been reading everything (words) I can about my dad today – they are bringing me comfort, rekindling old memories and soothing my soul.

    There is great comfort in words, sometimes as comforting as a huge bear hug.


    I’m so sorry to hear about your father’s death. You’ve told so many wonderful stories about him, and his creative, vibrant life that I felt I knew him just a bit.

    Since I can’t give you that hug across the miles, I’ll just send words of love and support. Hang on to those boys and let them comfort you.


  4. Linda, you have an amazing gift with words, and each week I’m amazed at the poetry you make out of a simple prompt. This week is certainly no exception!

    You bear beautiful witness to the world around us with all its beauty and pain, its joy and sorrow, and your words make us all think and reflect in new ways.

    Thank you for sharing your insights!


    And the best thing here is that your prompt and the process of working through my response to it seems to have freed me to move on to other things – such as my post for THIS week’s prompt. It’s a little like having the insurance adjuster show up and finally getting the check – then, you can really begin to think about rebuilding!

    As always, many thanks for your comments, and for the work that you do.


  5. Linda,

    I’ve been looking back through your archives. You are a gifted writer. This particular post is so beautifully written.

    My son works in Manhattan and was in the towers the day before they fell. Your words about survivor’s guilt strike a special chord for me. I recall walking through the autumn of 2001 without cheer. The beauty of the season seemed trivial in comparison to the enormous loss. Even though my son was safe, I felt the loss of other mothers.

    Your words are a balm for the spirit. Thank you for sharing them.


    So many people, and so many stories about those dark days. Thank you for sharing part of yours.
    It’s also been good to find, through time, others who understand such feelings. That’s part of the healing process, too.

    I’m grateful for your visit, and your kind words.


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