One of the topics that came up today among the inmates was an abiding sense of guilt that comes over some of us with this affliction when something positive happens. The sentiment essentially boils down to the feeling that some of us, myself included, don’t feel like we deserve life’s positive experiences. This can often manifest as a result of survivor’s guilt, guilt of commission (committing certain acts in war vowed as negative), acts of omission (not doing something you thought to be right), or some other impetus. The main ones discussed today were guilt of commission and survivor’s guilt.
For my end, I have a variation of both, but mostly suffer from a sense of guilt by commission. In fact, the guilt I feel about some of the things I have done in war give me a sense that people like me shouldn’t even exist. I was raised to be a compassionate, respectful person who focuses on improving the world’s situation, yet I helped refine and perfect new ways to hunt and kill a great many men. Sure, this can be rationalized and explained, and I’m not arguing here about the logical right or wrong of it, so much as explaining the feeling that I have come to experience as a result of it. Based on this transgression against my inborn values, when something positive happens in my life, I doubt my worthiness to receive it, or I wonder what the catch is going to be, as someone like me shouldn’t be given such a gift without bargain. Another example was relayed by a fellow inmate who explained that one of his children was born around the anniversary of a teammate’s death, causing him to feel conflicted; he wasn’t sure he should be allowed to experience the joy of fatherhood, given that his buddy would never be able to feel anything again. Imagine that sheering pain, if you can. Survivor’s guilt is a very strong sensation when your very existence is tied to the wellbeing of a battle buddy, and you share life’s joys and pains in the most intimate and threatening of settings.
These days, we hear a lot about how service members are heroes. Many veterans would argue against this sentiment, and part of the reason is this very sense of pervasive guilt that affects every waking moment. Imagine, if possible, to feel that your very existence is a sin unto itself, and that state of mind comes from having tried to do the right and honorable thing. Complicated, to be sure.
Though these feelings are shared broadly by myself and my fellow patients, not all of us are afflicted with this overriding sense of guilt. What we do share is that we are all survivors of warfare. In that, we share with the human community that we are alive. The simple fact of being alive means that we have a level of influence and impact on our social environment.
While I am still in treatment, and my recovery from PTSD is still rather nascent, today’s discussion reminded me that we are a mixture of the bad and good, the light and dark. This mixture of positive and negative, beautiful and harsh, is what makes us people. None of the inmates are wholly good or wholly bad, despite our common feelings to the contrary. Consequently, we can have both positive and negative impacts on our environment, filling the world with grace or brutality, and everything in between. What it takes is to not focus on the negatives inside us all the time, allowing that darkness to grow and depression to take hold. It seems to me that a key to recovering from this, and to making the world better, is to accept/admit to the darkness, but water the seeds of positivity, allowing them to take root and spread further within ourselves. In doing so, perhaps we will not abolish everything from ourselves that makes us feel guilty -the past is written in stone- but going forward we can become better examples of the things we appreciate and wish to share. Then we will see a reason to live, a person worthy of existence.