Waldo Canyon: Survivor’s Guilt

Smoke is still curling from the mountains near the north of Colorado Springs. More than 1,200 firefighters are still cutting fire lines and stamping out hot spots. President Barack Obama has come and gone. The Waldo Canyon Fire isn’t going out anytime soon, but it feels as though the worst—at least down here—is over.
Some evacuated residents started returning home yesterday. We weren’t among them: Our neighborhood was close to the hottest action, so I have a feeling we’ll be waiting a bit longer. But at least we know that we have a home to come back to.
So many people don’t.
Nearly 350 homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire, and once residents get into their houses and inspect the damage from smoke and water and who-knows-what, that tally’s bound to go up. We know some families that lost their homes and so much more. These places aren’t just wood and stone and cement: They’re built with memories year by year. Lines on the kitchen wall, tracing childrens’ growth. Paint colors painstakingly picked over months, then lovingly slathered on in an afternoon. An heirloom table. A kitschy souvenir from Florida.
Gone.
I understand the fear that comes with disaster sweeping through your neighborhood, the stress and angst of just not knowing. But to know, and to know the worst … that’s something I can’t comprehend. In the end, I’ve been inconvenienced by the Waldo Canyon Fire, but nothing more. My 36 hours of terror has turned into something more akin to a really bad vacation.
So what can I say to those who lost their homes? What is there to say? How can you make sense of one house being untouched, while one the next street over might be burned to the ground? It seems so unfair.
I expect in the days and weeks to come, we’ll hear some of the fortunate evacuees talk about how God spared their home; how He “heard our prayers” and answered them. And perhaps that’s true. I know lots of folks were praying for my family and our house, and I thank them from the bottom of my soul. I want to believe they helped.
But what about those who prayed just as hard and their houses are gone? Better people than I lost everything in this fire—people just as “deserving” of God’s mercy.
In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent’s driven insane by circumstance. Fire didn’t take his home, but his fiancée and half his face. He was a good man—Gotham City’s White Knight. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. Didn’t deserve it at all. He wonders aloud why he—among all Gotham’s crusaders—was the only one who lost everything.
Some surveying the damage here over the next few days will wonder the same thing.
“The world is cruel,” he tells Batman. “And the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”
But he’s only half right.
The world is cruel: We can’t deny it. The proof isn’t just found in Gotham or in the neighborhoods gutted by fire, but everywhere we look.
But as Batman tells us, morality isn’t found in chance but the choices we make—and we see some wonderful choices being made here. Much of Colorado Springs is rallying around those who have lost everything—offering their homes and help. Affected residents themselves are trying to shake off the sadness and move on. Some even found a silver lining in the ash.
“My house is vaporized,” CJ Moore told The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “I have my dog. I have me and my late husband’s ashes and those are the most important things. I love my neighborhood and I will re-build and so will many of my neighbors. This may be the economic boom the city has been looking for.”
It’ll take others more time to look so boldly ahead, I’m sure. Or, at least, it’d would’ve taken me time to work through the grief.
But I, apparently, don’t have to. Now I have to figure out how I can help those who do.

2 Comments

  1. Great essay, Paul. As a fellow evacuee and former coworker of yours, I couldn't agree with you more. I also have been dealing with survivor's guilt and other emotions you have felt, including waves of anxiety last week.

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