Amanda Ripley

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Victimless Guilt

16th Feb 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Why does Capt. Sully seem so bummed out?

“One of the hardest things for me to do was to forgive myself for having not done something better, something…more complete,” he told 60 Minutes. “The first few nights were the worst, when the what-ifs started. The second guessings. Just replaying it—flashbacks. Were we aware of everything we could have been aware of? Did we make the best choices?”

It’s a reminder that trauma is insidious. It can happen with or without death, with or without loss. The brain works by identifying patterns, and it’s an elegant system. If we can make sense of the present based on what has happened in the past, we have a reasonable chance of surviving the future.

But if things happen with no apparent warning or reason, the brain has a problem. It will search for a narrative that makes sense, replaying the inexplicable over and over in a kind of sickening loop. Until it deciphers the logic, it does not feel safe.

So even though no one was killed in this crash, it was still a crash. A commercial airplane still ended up in a river, adjacent to one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. Forever after, the crew will be left to wonder why—to search for a way to prevent the same thing from happening next time.

As many survivors have told me over the years, it is essential to construct a narrative that makes the brain feel safe. This is, I have come to believe, even more important than the narrative being true. (Although it will need to be true enough to be convincing to the brain.)

I think that’s why the death of Beverly Eckert (see below) in the Buffalo crash is also so hard to reconcile. If you lose your husband to an airplane crash, shouldn’t it follow that you will not yourself die in a separate airplane crash?

Each of us needs a convincing narrative—one that contains hope and predictability—or our brains will struggle mightily. This is true for all kinds of survivors, by the way, even criminals. One UK study of recidivism found only one thing separating ex-cons who stayed out of prison and those who went right back. The ones who stayed free were the ones who had created a narrative that made sense of their past—of the crime, of the lost time, of the suffering caused to their families and victims. I realize it’s an imperfect analogy. Victims did nothing wrong, needless to say. But both examples involve recovery from loss, so that’s worth a mention, I figure.

Anyway, this is one reason why, I think, religion is so powerful. It provides a narrative that makes sense, even in the face of contrary evidence. “I survived for a reason. It wasn’t my time.” Telling ourselves these stories—whether they are true or not—is a survival mechanism. Believing the story is another thing…