Completely Subjective: Ron Padgett’s “Survivor Guilt”

So here we are again. It’s late and you feel like you’re dying. Everything you’ve ever done that mildly upset someone crawls out of the hole it hides in when you have the energy to fight it and sinks its fangs into your unsuspecting conscience. Ron Padgett’s “Survivor Guilt” ecompasses this feeling beautifully. Still young and new to life, I’ve yet to outlive anyone I was ever really close with, but it still spoke to me. The first few lines, “It’s very easy to get, / Just keep living and you’ll find yourself / getting more and more of it.” struck me. The amount of resignation crammed into this opening breaks my heart. The simple world choice and repetition of the verb “to get” really drive home the feeling of exhaustion. Immediately, I feel like I’ve been there. Too tired to think, wishing you were too tired to feel, but that soul-weary exhaustion is all you can feel and it’s terrible. You’re sitting there wishing you could come up with a better adjective than “terrible” but all you really want to do is curl up on the floor and blast music until your brain stops working. 

The rambling tone, jumping from global warming to the sousaphone, and the casual transition words like “I mean” carelessly tossed around the poem beautifully illustrate how the mind wanders and rambles and backtracks and gets lost within itself so easily when confronted with strong emotions. It’s a journey. The mind is wandering its way through the twisting pathways of memory and morality and struggling with itself. But struggle is what prevents you from “forget[ting] you’re human.” It’s like the stages of grief. A painful process, but the promise of acceptance lingers invisibly at the end of the road. This is the trial of the hero’s journey. 

What spoke to me the most was the ending, though. The final two lines, “Whoever it was who felt guilty last night, / to hell with him. That was then.” embody the strength of the human spirit. The fact that we can wake up and shrug off very real pain and guilt and loss and sadness and live our lives is a testament to us as a species. We persevere. Yes, we fall. We stumble and we lay on the floor and we cry and we blame ourselves and we shut ourselves away in a little corner where we can’t even decide if we want to be found or not, but, after we’re done, we stand up and we shake it all off. That was then. This is now. The distance that “whoever it was” places between the narrator and his past self and the careless tone of “to hell with him” illustrate a leaving behind of the past, almost a levity towards it. We’re waking up, looking in the mirror, and deciding to keep moving forward. We know the darkness will come. We may face it head on or shy from it, but we always weather the storm. We always wake up to a new dawn, clearing skies, golden rays of sunlight breaking over the horizon, and a clean slate. It’s a new day. This day can be anything I make it. Let’s make it great.

Survivor guilt, the phenomenon, not the poem, can haunt people for their entire lives, and even lead to suicide. Survivor Guilt, the poem, not the phenomenon, is a testament to the power of the human will. Padgett paints a stark picture of the pain of Survivor Guilt but ends on an uplifting note. That was then, this is now. Yes, the guilt stays locked away somewhere, but we can smile, we can help others, and we can move on. At the end of the day, that’s what humans do. 

We survive. 

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