The Guilt Trip

Remorse and redemption: The different types of guilt, how to deal if you're particularly guilt-prone, and how to move on when you've done something wrong.

That Terrible Day

A matter of fate

Over the years since the horror of 9/11, I’ve psychiatrically evaluated more than three hundred survivors of that horrific crime. These people were at work in the Twin Towers when the planes struck. Therefore, they filed Workers Compensation cases for their injuries.

There are many stories of bravery, heroism and of sheer horror. But I was struck by something I saw in many of these people: an abiding sense of guilt for having survived that day.

One man told a poignant story. 

James had been working on a high floor of the North Tower for about ten years. During those years, he rode the elevator each morning at about the same time.  He and another man who worked in a different office on that floor shared the elevator ride most mornings. They developed a sort of elevator camaraderie, exchanging pleasantries and talking about a shared passion, the local baseball teams. They never even learned each other’s names, but the brief conversations continued for years. James liked this man and looked forward to their morning exchange before the hectic pace of work began each day.

On the morning or September 11th, 2001, they rode in the elevator, as usual. And as usual, they discussed baseball statistics and team standings. Getting out on their shared floor, they bid their farewells, and walked to their respective workplaces. James turned left, heading for his office, while his elevator-friend turned right. Moments later the plane struck.

James was slammed to the floor by the impact. When he gathered his senses, people were pouring from many offices. Smoke billowed everywhere. He looked down the corridor, and saw flames and smoke, and smelled jet fuel, burning metal and debris. Amid the intolerable heat, he knew instantly that the right side of the building was gone. His elevator mate had been incinerated.

He made his way down the stairwell among a panic-stricken crowd clogging the passageway. Some people cried, others whimpered, some yelled, and the stairwell filled progressively as the crowd inched down to the lower floors. The trip was agonizingly slow, and seemed to take hours. Some people fell; others lifted them and half-carried them downward. By the twentieth floor, James saw a line of firemen stomping up the stairs; he later learned they all died.

He endured the horror of that day, escaped from the burning building, and over the course of twelve hours, managed to wend his way home to New Jersey. He couldn’t tolerate looking at television and the broadcasts of the collapse of both buildings and the news of the horrific deaths of more than 3,000 people. Eventually, he moved farther away from New York City. 

And he thought about his elevator friend—whose name he’d never learned. He felt a powerful surge of guilt for having survived while this fellow died not more than 75 feet away from where he’d been when the plane struck.

“It was a matter of fate,” James said. “I went left and he went right. And he died right there, while I lived. Only the year before it happened, management was thinking of moving our office to the other side of the building…where the poor guy died. It just goes to show you…”

“It goes to show what…?”

“It’s all fate. You never know what’s going to happen in your life. You have very little control.”

The Guilt Trip