Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Survivor Guilt

I've been putting off posting about this, because I don't know what I can say to do it justice. But it's so heavily on my mind, I can't just not say something about it at all.

Found in the wreckage.
A week ago yesterday, a terrible storm crossed Arkansas culminating in tornadoes that touched down in several surrounding areas and leveled a neighboring town (as well as a few others). The same storm system also created tornadoes in a couple of the surrounding states.

It's been a long time since I've lived through a tornado warning. In high school, I remember a tornado warning being issued during a rehearsal for our school's spring musical. We all had to line up along a wall within the auditorium with textbooks over our heads. Our parents weren't allowed to come pick us up until after the tornado passed because the school was on lockdown. For the parents, it must've been terrifying. For us teenagers, it was just a thrill. Nothing bad happened nearby that I remember.

In college, I saw a tornado for the first and only time. I was staying at my then boyfriend's house in Searcy, AR, and the whole family plus me was crouching in the hallway. His dad kept going outside to look. I worked up the courage to go look too and in the far distance I saw the funnel cloud reaching from the distant black sky to the horizon. It was terrifying and breath-taking.

But last week was the first time I ever experienced the actual reality of a tornado.

I woke up early that morning to a thunderstorm. The night before, we'd left our canopy out in the back yard, so I quickly woke Scott and said we needed to get it down before it filled with rain. In our pajamas, we ran outside and clumsily fumbled with metal poles while lightning forked through the sky and thunder roared. It was a little frightening.

The forecast predicted tornadoes. I'm not a panicker in these kinds of situations, so I wasn't really all that unhinged. A bit freaked out, yes, but that was it. We spent the day inside, as thunderstorms came and went. It wasn't until late afternoon that I began to sense the seriousness of the coming storm.

An enormous black cloud was approaching outside. I tried to film it with my camera, but my camera's settings kept trying to compensate for the blackness by increasing its light balance. (Apologies for the lack of correct photography lingo.) It was mostly silent outside, and a little greenish, two indicators that this was tornado weather. Never had I seen a cloud like it. It covered the whole sky from my view outside my back door. On one edge, Scott noticed clouds swirling down and back up into the greater cloud. He called me to come look. Little wispy clouds were being sucked up into the black cloud in circular motion. I'd never seen anything like it.

This cloud looks dreary and grey in this picture;
in reality, it was almost completely black.

I started watching the storm chasers online. We don't have access to TV stations, so I couldn't watch the news. Facebook too was popping up with lots of weather updates from friends, including some 'how to stay safe in a tornado' posts. I'd never considered half the things people were suggesting - food for 72 hours, bike helmets, shoes in case you had to walk through rubble. I felt a little paranoid doing it, but I went ahead and cleared out Jaguar's closet, which is the innermost room in our home, with no outside-adjoining walls. I gathered together our personal documents, some water, our shoes and the kids' bike helmets. We put the kids to bed, thinking we'd scoop them up and bring them into the closet lined with pillows should the sirens go off.

I watched the coverage by professional storm chasers until midnight, when the storms had officially passed out of our area. I knew the storms had severely hit Vilonia, a town 18 miles north of us, and Mayflower and Maumelle, about 20 miles west. But I didn't know the full extent of it until the next morning.

Vilonia (and Mayflower) had been destroyed. Over a hundred people had been injured and at that point at least 5 dead. The total rose to 12 (then 15) as the day progressed. Around 40 people were still unaccounted for. Emergency staff were the only ones allowed in the disaster areas and no lay volunteers were being allowed to help at that time.

Someone's home.

Someone's truck.

I don't know what it was about this particular storm that hit me so hard. Was it the proximity? Was it seeing the start of myself, knowing that very cloud and those swirling cycles were the beginning of the tornado that devastated a town so close to us, that could have hit us if we'd just been a little less fortunate?

I still don't know what made it touch me so deeply, but it did. My neighbor and friend is friends with a few of the families who lost everything, and one who lost the family's father/husband. Another friend of mine lost a co-worker. Another friend of a friend lost her two young sons. The stories kept coming in, and they all were far too close to me in some way or another to ignore.

What does one do when they hear these things? What can one do?

All over Facebook people were saying to pray for Arkansas. In the face of such tangible devastation and need, not even to mention grief, the concept of just praying infuriated me. We were already being told of the many, many things that would be needed - supplies, clothes, first aid kits, money. I understood that people believed praying would do something (comfort the victims, I guess), but there were so many things we could actually DO besides pray.

This perhaps is what hit me the hardest.

For all my life, with a few exceptions, when horrible things happened, my response had always been 'pray'. And after praying, I felt I'd left it all in God's hands and he could go on to deal with it for me. After all, what was I able to do? But now, there I was, realizing that prayer is just a practice that helps the person praying feel better, makes them feel like they've done something useful, in times when they are otherwise helpless. I understood the urge to pray - I felt helpless too - but I also realized that praying was the lazy way out. I needed to DO something that actually might make a difference, however small.

It almost felt like I had a life time of doing nothing to make up for.

There wasn't a lot I could actually do; I knew that. I donated what I could and volunteered one day in the tornado-ruined neighborhood when I had childcare. It wasn't much at all, and I still felt the huge weight of how much there was needing done and how little I could do. I still feel that weight, and I still feel that helplessness. We might be able to get on with our lives a week later, but those whose homes were leveled to the ground and those who lost loved ones will never be able to go on exactly as they had before. For the rest of their lives, those who lost their homes and belongings will remember irreplaceable things they lost, and those who lost members of their families will never forget the agony and pain that will remain with them in waves of rawness their entire lives. I wish there were more I could do to reach those needs. Instead, all I can do is just meet practical needs where I possibly can and hope it means something to someone.

I understand through all of this the desire to pray. And having been a Christian for my whole life, I understand the theology behind praying. But as a non-believer now, I just see the irrationality of it and how futile it is. It makes us feel better to pray, it really does, but that's all it does. I've spent plenty of time in prayer - not enough time in action. I just can't sit back and do nothing anymore.

I know that one day, probably soon, I'll realize there is nothing more I can do. I know that I'll live with 'survivor guilt' for being able to move on with my life while knowing many of them haven't even begun to imagine what moving on would even look like. I know that I'll be better prepared for the next storm, with fully equipped 72 hour bags, and I won't wait to get the kids in our designated shelter, now that I recognize how quickly tornadoes can hit - too fast to scoop kids up out of bed and get their shoes on them and get them into a closet. I've learned a lot from this storm about the realities of tornadoes. But I've also learned a lot about the reality of myself. I've spent a lot of time doing nothing when I could have been searching for ways to do at least a little tiny something.


  1. You hit the nail on the head, let us pray...then we need to act on those prayers!

  2. I get what you're saying - I do. But it's also a false dichotomy to set up "those who pray" vs. "those who do". There are an awful lot of believers (of all faiths) who are very active in the doing of things, and who don't use prayer as an excuse to not do things. Historically and currently, people of faith have done much of the doing in both big things (free public education, abolition of slavery, etc), and small (helping out neighbors, volunteering locally).

  3. (Sorry - This is Michaela. I have no idea why it won't let me post from my Google+ account.)

  4. Following on to what Michaela said: I think the primary purpose of prayer is to get our hearts to the place where God wants them to be, so we can then be obedient to do what He wants us to do.

    I hope it is not offensive to you that I should say this. I believe that God is sovereign, in control of all things. I barely believe in free will at all (the term is not in the Bible). There is a story in the Bible about Moses praying for God to change His mind, and it is one of the most confusing points of the Bible for me. I don't think God ever, really changes His mind (I'm not sure why He made it look like He did in Numbers 14). I don't think our prayers change any outcomes much at all. I think they only bring us into line with God's plan, purpose and mindset so that when He acts, we notice. Our prayers primarily change us, how we think, and ultimately how we act and what we do. And when God works in our lives... through a healing, a blessing, a gift... if we prayed for it in advance, we are more apt to recognize that it is from Him and be grateful. Since He knows the past, present and future simultaneously, and since He directs our hearts like streams of water, He moves us to pray when He knows He has something big planned. If you pray and get what you asked for, the most encouraging thing about it is that it shows that your heart was where God wanted it to be when you asked.

    Maybe this is all garbled. I know what I mean, but I'm not sure I'm saying it. I think it could sound as though I'm saying that prayer doesn't matter because God will do His will, regardless. He will do His will, regardless, but prayer is for us, to shape us and mold us and grow us in learning to relate to the Creator of the Universe who is utterly unlike us, but who invites us to come to Him and interact with Him.

    Sorry. I'll stop now.

  5. Thanks for all your comments. Of course you all have good points.

    Michaela, I didn't really mean to set up a false dichotomy, because I certainly recognize that people do both. I was more upset at first by the lack of 'action' posts of Facebook and overwhelmed by the number of 'pray' posts. EVERYONE was saying to pray; no one (it seemed) was saying to do anything else. Then, I was simply admitting my own regret at how often that praying-only person was me. I recognize there are MANY who do both. There are also MANY who only pray. (And many who do neither.) (And many who don't pray but act.) (Etc.)

    Ruth, I understand you perfectly. That is precisely what I used to believe, so what you're saying is far from foreign. And I think in a way, I was saying that too, in a less God-centered way. Praying only makes the pray-er feel better. It benefits him/her alone. If you include God, then you can add that it brings us into alignment with his will. But for me, in this particular situation especially, I find it even more difficult to understand how one prays here: "God, who made this tornado happen and did not spare those who died; God, who directed this tornado and by your will allowed those people to die [or depending on your theology, predestined those people to die], please make the survivors feel comforted. By you. Who did this to them. Amen." Obviously I KNOW it's not as simple as that, I KNOW that there are all kinds of reasons people can use to explain this situation (and I know those reasons, I'd be amazed if someone threw me a new one), but I don't see it as rational anymore. Or helpful. This is obviously going far beyond what I discussed in the post, which was more about acting rather than (simply) praying. But I find it hard (now) to see how one even prays in such a situation. I am glad most of these people who lost loved ones and homes have faith in God which is helping them through this indescribably difficult time. I really am. But they also have physical, tangible needs which need met that can't be met through prayer alone. Unless God himself is going to donate clothes and supplies from heaven, we as humans have the responsibility of meeting those practical needs for each other.

    (Again, I went far off on a tangent which wasn't even what you were saying, Ruth. I also didn't really engage much in your comment, sorry. I guess I meant to say, I understand precisely what you were saying!)

  6. In parts:


    I understand where you are coming from. If you have completely lost faith and have no hope of an afterlife, it would be utterly futile. The whole point, and the only thing that comforts me when life is uncomfortable, unfair and even unbearable is the idea that we are strangers and aliens here and our true home is yet to come in the next life.

    When my life is has been at its worst (and granted, I haven't gone through much compared to probably most people, but still, they are my own personal struggles and I have struggled with them), when my life has been at its worst, the best comfort I have found is to sing the old spiritual song to myself over and over: "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world anymore. Oh, Lord, you know I have no friend like you. If heaven's not my home, O Lord, what will I do? The angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world anymore." I actually love that song. It really does cheer me up. I think of the slaves who wrote it, and the hard lives they suffered, and how the hope of glory sustained them, and I just feel better knowing that we all have something wonderful to look forward to.

    I think suffering and trials are part of this life first (of course) because we live in a fallen world in need of redemption, and second because if we found utopia here, we'd never have any appetite to seek God. When a disaster like those tornadoes hits, it's a microcosm of the end that we read about in Revelation. People come to their end, and some (lucky ones) get to go to heaven and some (I guess) get sent off for their eternal punishment, and some get left behind to work through what they've seen and think about what they will do next in response.

  7. God is not particularly concerned about how "comfortable" we are in this world... he is concerned about getting us ready for the next world (the real one, as I see it, the one that is not a shadow of things to come). I constantly evaluate things in terms of how much I like them, and how comfortable (ie pain-free) I am, but God is slowly helping me to understand that this is wrong, and a failure to have faith in who he is. Of course, I am much more selfish than you are, and much more concerned about my own comfort as opposed to the comfort of other people, which I know I should care about, and I do not mean to be uncaring, but I do not have the same visceral reaction to strangers' problems that I have to my own. I suppose this is just because I have the option of choosing not to think about the suffering of someone else, but my own suffering is inescapable.

    I can send some money or some blankets or whatever, but at the end of the day, the thing that will truly help these people, more than a bandaid over a miserable trial on a fallen earth, is a sure hope for something good to look forward to. And that is something we can only pray for them, we can't "do" anything. We can give and go and work and all that, but in the end, the true comfort comes from a hope for something that far outweighs our earthly troubles. I think we should definitely reach out and do what we can (1 John 3:17-18 commands it -- "If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.")

    2 Corinthians 4 has been a help to me in pondering these things (especially verses 7-18). Corrie Ten Boom had that chapter of the Bible torn out and hidden in her shoe throughout her concentration camp experience. The theme is "do not lose heart."

  8. But that is neither here nor there if you don't believe. I'm just saying that I, in return, understand that it is completely sensible that you see prayer as futile because you no longer believe in an afterlife (or God).

    I don't think prayer "makes me feel better." I think it gives God an opportunity to work on my consciousness and slowly form me into a being more aligned to his way of seeing and doing things, to really change me, in the most authentic way, in preparation for heaven. But if there is no heaven, then absolutely there'd be no point.

    "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." 1 Cor. 15:16-19

    I'm sorry. This probably doesn't even make any sense. I just think it's valuable to figure out where one has common ground with someone else, and where one does not, and how that affects interactions. I thought it was silly when they used to teach us to witness to people and prove things to them with Bible verses, when the people we were supposedly witnessing to had no regard for the Bible and did not believe that it was true. Why would you engage them with Romans 3:23? It makes no sense.

    I think even in the abortion debate, if you don't believe that there is a sovereign God--whose right it is alone to determine who lives and who dies--then why would you NOT abort babies who would be born to lives of profoundly bad health or poverty, crime and abuse? It makes perfect, logical sense from an atheist point of view.

    So the issue isn't really about prayer, or abortion, or anything else. It all just comes down to whether or not there is a God, and how each person chooses to respond to that question. Don't you think?

    And if there is no God, really, then what is the point of anything? The world is a huge, random, scary, hostile place, full of disease, disaster and discrimination, and if there is nothing better to hope for... well, why anything? Are a few random and unpredictable moments of fun, happiness or beauty enough to live a life for?

    Maybe for you. Probably not for me.

  9. I really, really hope you don't hate me for saying these things, because I think you are one of the most interesting people I know.

    And. I get annoyed no end when people post a problem on Facebook and then a hundred people comment: "praying." That possibly annoys me as much as it annoys you, but perhaps for different reasons.

  10. Hey Ruth, I only just saw that you'd replied again. I'm absolutely not annoyed by your comments, I appreciate them!

    After everything you said, maybe it all boils down to this:
    If there IS a God (or rather, if the Biblical God is the true God), then prayer is good and works, but it is not enough. The Bible also calls us to meet the practical needs - feed the hungry, clothe the poor. So if the Bible is true, it's still not enough to JUST pray.

    If there is NOT a God, then this is the only life we have. While you call it huge, random, scary and hostile, I see it is as only that way if we make it that way. If this is the only chance at life we have, then we certainly MUST help others to make their lives and ours as fulfilling as possible.

    Either way, prayer is not enough. Either way, we must ACT to meet people's needs. Prayer can't hurt no matter what, but not acting CAN hurt no matter what.

    Thanks so much for your interaction, Ruth, I really love it. :) Glad to have an internet friend as thoughtful and eloquent as you. :)


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