Dear Jesus, I Have Survivor Guilt

By Kristeen Bruun

Over the past ten days, I have been working on writing my annual Christmas letter, something I have sent out for at least the past 30 years. In the middle of crafting my message, I received a letter from someone else—one of those letters that makes you cry out to God. In the world of the writer, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. About the only good news was that she felt she could tell me about it.

I held her letter in one hand, and the draft of mine in the other hand, and I wondered, should I even send mine this year? In the year 2020, only someone delusional could write something that expressed no sadness or negativity. I wrote about the pandemic; I wrote about George Floyd and the aftermath; I reflected a bit on the sadness of a politically divided country.

Yet in spite of it all, my life was filled with blessings. My son got engaged to the perfect life partner. I could not imagine a better daughter-in-law. She’s the love of his life, but also the answer to years of my prayers.

Some of my writing was published in an actual, real book, Jesus at the Center of My Messy Life. I’ve been writing all of my life. I’ve gone from job to job churning out newsletters and even a couple of magazine articles, but I had never made it into a book. Remember that old rock song? “Gonna get my picture on the cover, gonna buy five copies for my mother, gonna get my picture on the cover, on the cover of the Rolling Stone!” That’s how I feel! I made a list and checked it twice of people who would be excited to read the book, and then I ordered some from Amazon. Easy Christmas gifts!

Precisely because of Covid, I was challenged to design some online Sunday school classes. While they didn’t go viral, they succeeded quite well. It was a challenge to work in a new milieu, but also exciting to master it.

Finally, when I decided to volunteer for a vaccine trial, I failed the physical. The physician’s assistant discovered a heart irregularity. After a lot of tests and MD appointments, I had an angiogram in which they removed a blockage and placed a stent. I already feel so much better! The increasing lassitude that I thought was old age creeping up on me (and not on little cat feet, either) was caused by my heart’s struggle to work around a blockage. My heart has been repaired and my life looks so much brighter because of it.

To say that my cup is running over is an understatement. “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38). In the midst of a pandemic which has changed or even taken the lives of so many, I am so blessed.

So why do I feel so guilty?

I did a little reading on the subject and found that survivor guilt is considered a common element of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People who have less to start with are more prone to develop survivor guilt because they are accustomed to a worldview in which they have diminished resources. So having more creates cognitive dissonance for them. Given what my childhood was like, that fits.

Survivor guilt tells me that I am not entitled to any of the good things with which I have been showered. Theology agrees. Theology tells me that it’s entirely appropriate that these unearned blessings come to me at the hand of a gracious God.

In contrast, my culture tells me that somehow I deserve what I get, both good things and bad. If I am poor, then I must not have worked hard enough; if I am rich, then it all belongs to me, by right.

But I know better. I know good things don’t belong to me, by right. And therefore, when I receive undeserved good, I sometimes feel guilty.

So how do I deal with personal guilt over not only surviving 2020, but receiving so many good and gracious gifts in this crazy and confused year? I think as long as I can grasp that I did not earn life while others died, then it is okay to accept life as a gift, give glory to God, and move on. In other words, to let go of the guilt.

Spiritually speaking, my goal is to emulate Paul, who learned how to rejoice both in good times and in bad, in riches as well as in poverty (Philippians 4:11-13). As strange as it may sound, I have a harder time with blessings than I do with challenges.

So here comes Christmas, the greatest unearned gift of all…

Jesus, I place before your crib all of the blessings that have cascaded down on me this past year. I’m also giving you my survivor guilt, because only you can transform it into something worthwhile – compassion, maybe? I don’t really know what. But I will accept whatever comes from your Father’s hand.

Let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).

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