Survivor Guilt and Our Debt to the Dead

One of my current works is progress is an essay to which I have given the working title, “American Survivor Guilt After 9/11.”  In its current version, the first line of that essay is:  “America is deficient in survivor guilt for 9/11.”  To explain and justify such an apparently counter-intuitive assertion, I use remarks from psychiatrist Robet J. Lifton’s discussion of survivor guilt in The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (Simon and Schuster, 1979).  Lifton’s remarks are carefully considered and reflect insights won through his long, entensive, and widely influential work with such trauma survivors as Japanese who lived through the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and American combat veterans of the war in Vietnam.  My goal in the essay is to use the basis provided by Lifton’s analysis, conjoined with Heidegger’s analysis of the inescapable guilt of human existence in Being and Time, to give a positive interpretation of so called survivor guilt.  A crucial step in that enterprise is to argue that all of us who are among the living have a debt to the dead that, in principle, can never be paid–and to explore the implications of that idea.

I hope eventually to make that essay available at this website and/or elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the following entry from my philosophical journal contains the germ of what I am trying to say in that essay in progress.

The entry was occasioned by my rereading a book by Alain Badiou:  St. Paul:  The Foundations of Universalism (translated by Ray Brassier,   University of Chicago Press, 2003).  In the entry I also mention a story by M. Scott Peck, famous author of the best-seller, The Road Less Traveled.  In What Return Can I Make?  The Dimensions of the Christian Experience, with Patricia Kay and Marilyn Von Waldner (Simon and Schuster, 1985), Peck tells how once in a restaraunt in the South he was served grits on the side.  He remarked to the waitress that he had not ordered grits, to which she replied, according to Peck, “You don’t order grits.  They just comes.”  Peck uses that anecdote to say that God’s grace is like grits:  It just comes.  

The entry from my journal is very brief:

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 77, on Paul on grace as gift:  “Dōrean [the Greek word Paul uses] is a powerful word; it means ‘as a pure gift,’ ‘without cause,’ and even ‘in vain.'”

Our debt to the dead is unpayable, precisely because their death is a pure gift to us.  Not something owed us, not our due.  The debt is unpayable because the gift by the (involuntary) receiving of  which (“involuntary,” because it “just comes,” like the grits in M. Scott Peck’s story) we are placed in debt to the dead, is always without  cause, always “in vain.”

All death is always in vain.  That is why we can never pay off our debt to the dead.