This past week was brutal at work, as Covid’s impact has had dramatic effects on our ability to fulfill our mission statement that we strengthen schools (something hard to do when schools are all over the place with plans and regulations right now). My company is going to be fine, but with so much uncertainty around school climates right now, we didn’t want to keep playing defense or be behind the curve. On Friday, layoffs and furloughs were announced, and I found myself “safe” and on our core team when many others are not anymore or are being asked to wait it out in furlough for a time.
These people are not bad at their jobs, they haven’t done anything wrong, and they’re not terrible humans; the opposite is true in every case. People who’ve been around for a decade longer than I’ve been with our company; people who’ve trained me—when I first started and even more recently for a new position this May; and people who’ve literally given me keys to their apartments and made me feel like I have community and a home in Southern California were impacted by furloughs or layoffs this week.
I was talking with my friend Melissa, always a sage counselor and faithful listener, about the situation, and she said, “It sounds like you’re feeling some survivor’s guilt.” No stranger to my walk through cancer, the aftermath, and my ministry pursuits since then, Melissa has heard me share about this concept as a cancer survivor, and her words struck me deeply. I have been feeling that sense of survivor’s guilt with work this week.
If you haven’t heard of it, survivor’s guilt is a phenomenon experienced by those who’ve gone through trauma—from war veterans to survivors of natural disasters and traumatic events, and it’s something many cancer survivors experience.
Here’s what survivor’s guilt has looked like for me as a cancer survivor: for whatever reason—which I’ll probably never know this side of heaven—I’m alive when so many others are not. I didn’t do anything special or more heroic to make it and others didn’t do anything wrong or less brave.
What I’ve learned through cancer survivorship is that survivor’s guilt can leave you stuck, struggling with the “why” question, and focused on so many things you can’t do anything about. It’s a real and fair phenomenon, but, just as I learned in the early years of my cancer survivorship, if I believe that God is sovereign and good and has a plan—even when I can’t understand it or make sense of what’s happening all around me—then I believe I am called to turn that sense of survivor’s guilt into a posture of stewardship.
Survivor’s guilt says it’s not fair that I survived when others didn’t. That’s true, and I feel that—with cancer and with work now. But if I sit in a posture of survivor’s guilt, I’m stuck mourning that hard reality and it’s hard to move on.
Stewardship says because I’m alive, I now need to do something with my life, make my life count. Stewardship can acknowledge the unfairness of my survival, too—it’s not “fair” or “right” that I’m safe at work when others aren’t, but the reality is that I am safe right now. If I sit in a posture of stewardship, then knowing that—for whatever reason—I’m safe right now, I’m going to steward the heck out of that reality and do everything I can to make the opportunity before me count.
The shift from a posture of survivor’s guilt to stewardship came after a conversation with one of my Wheaton graduate school professors in 2013. Dr. Schultz, my Biblical Interpretations professor, and his wife had students over to their house for dessert and conversation a couple different times, so I signed up to drop by on one cold October night. We started talking, and Dr. Schultz shared that he had gone back and read my blog which I started writing when I was diagnosed with cancer during Wheaton undergrad five years earlier. I was honored but also quickly embarrassed because Dr. Schultz translated Hebrews, Isaiah, and many other books of the Bible for the NIV.
THE ACTUAL NIV, Y’ALL.
I knew there had been human translators and committees, but I never thought about the actual individuals responsible for choosing one word over another and offering up the bound biblical translation all my memory verses had come from all my life.
After I stammered through a response, saying something like, “Oh, wow, that’s so nice and also, you really don’t need to be reading my blog,” Dr. Schultz asked me more about my book which had just come out and how I came to write it. He said something then that has changed my whole perspective on survivorship. He said, “It sounds like you feel a sense of stewardship with your cancer.”
I knew the word “stewardship” as a product of growing up in the church and 18 years of private, Christian education, but I’d always thought of it in terms of stewarding my resources—mostly financial resources, but also my time and talents. I’d never applied the idea to experiences we’ve walked through or the things God has done in our lives. It wasn’t a novel term but rather a novel application of the concept. That moment was profoundly impactful, putting words and clarity around something I’d been feeling for the past five years of cancer survivorship.
Dr. Schultz then shared about how he and his wife lost a daughter due to literal fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in the mid 1980s, and they had experienced that sense of stewardship afterward, wanting to make something of the loss, what they’d learned, and all that God had done in them and shown them through the tragedy.
I’m definitely not doing justice to their story, but I’m so grateful for that night and conversation because it was one of those “lighthouse moments,” shining a path through what had otherwise been a somewhat dark journey through survivorship and survivor’s guilt. What had bordered on feeling guilty at times for the fact that I was alive when so many others weren’t shifted to my feeling a sense of stewardship over the experience.
No longer was it a “for some ‘arbitrary’ reason, I’m alive, so I better do something with my life,” but it became a calling to steward the work God had done and continues to do. If I’m alive, I believe God’s got more in store for me, so I’m going to be a vessel with the time I’ve got, what I often refer to as “bonus time.” People will for sure get tired of hearing me talk about cancer, but I’m stewarding the heck out of what God has done in my life, which means I will keep talking about cancer and the wonders God did and things He’s since taught me until He tells me otherwise or brings me to Him.
Since Friday and the fallout from work, scenes from different movies and stories keep circling my brain as I’m processing all the emotions of this call to a new kind of stewardship in the workplace and with my job. I’ve been thinking of Avengers Endgame because it’s just so perfect anyway, but also because the heroes wade through survivor’s guilt versus stewardship in the first act of the movie. At one point, the character Black Widow says the heroes who survived Thanos’ snap owe it to everyone else who’s not in the room to try and fix things. The song “Seize the Day” from Newsies the Musical also keeps echoing, especially an early lyric where the main characters talk about fighting for their brothers who aren’t there to fight with them. Those feel appropriate as I’m now fired up to fight for our company to return to full strength and fight for those who’ve been laid off or furloughed.
But a scene from the final Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay, Part 2, has been most on that mental loop in my brain. In the scene, Katniss Everdeen starts to list names of people the heroes have lost along the way, people whose lives have been impacted by her quest to take down President Snow. In some cases, Katniss’s actions—borne of good intentions—have directly contributed to their deaths. Her words convey the deep sense of loss she feels as she implicitly wonders what all that loss was for. Peeta Mellark understands her question, answering that all of those deaths remind them that their lives were never theirs to begin with anyway. He adds that if Katniss stops now, the loss of those heroes will have been for nothing. But if she will continue on and finish this thing out, all those deaths and all that loss will mean something.
I realize, in light of cancer and real people losing their jobs this week, a fictional clip of a dystopian young adult series probably feels simultaneously too lighthearted and melodramatic, but I think the reason that scene keeps replaying in my mind’s eye is that it hits on the shift from survivor’s guilt to stewardship. Katniss is overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt in that initial moment in Tigress’s basement, unable to move on and think about next steps. But Peeta challenges and encourages her to steward the fact that she’s alive while others aren’t, making it count and finishing the job ahead of her.
That sounds like a lot of pressure, and it is if you’re a teenage girl trying to topple an authoritarian regime in a dystopian future. In some ways, it could sound like a lot of pressure for anyone feeling survivor’s guilt, thinking stewardship now means they’re responsible to make their lives count and make meaning of others’ loss. But because I know to my core that I am part of a larger Narrative, one in which the God of this universe is sovereign and all-powerful as He writes the story, stewardship doesn’t have to mean a ton of pressure.
Instead, it means living into our calling to steward our lives, our experiences, and our time, money, and talents, too. It means looking at what’s before me, whether it’s fair that I’m still alive or employed or not, and saying, “Okay, Lord, because You have given this to me, I’m going to give my best and do my very best with it.” I’m not responsible for saving anyone or anything because I’m not the Savior, but I serve the God who is, so I’m going to give my best as a vessel, as a steward. The only pressure I really have is the choice to sit in survivor’s guilt or move to stewardship.
If you’re feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt for any circumstance in your life, know that it’s a psychologically recognized phenomenon and fair to be feeling. But I encourage you to think of whatever you’ve been given in terms of stewardship rather than survivor’s guilt.
Let’s not feel pressure to singlehandedly carry the world on our shoulders in response to what we’ve been given—after all, it is for freedom we’ve been set free, healed, employed, and more. But instead let’s recognize with humility that God has—for whatever reason—protected us in some way, and let’s steward the heck out of what He’s given us, done for us, and called us to.
If we sit in survivor’s guilt, the gift of life, continuing employment, and whatever else we’re feeling guilty over can very well be wasted. But if we’ll move from survivor’s guilt to a posture of stewardship, serving as vessels for what God wants to do, we can rest in the fact that nothing—including loss along the way—is wasted in His economy, in the grander Narrative He is telling.