Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah, Free for CAPC Members
Paradoxology provides an apologetic for uncertainty and a defense of discomfort.
Each week in “Walking with the Dead,” David Dunham reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Survival is a bloody game. Rick said it best several episodes back: “We’ve all done the worst kind of things just to stay alive.” But every effort at survival amplifies the guilt of the survivors. It’s not enough simply to survive, as Eugene says, you have to live with yourself. It’s this survivor’s guilt that makes these characters so good.
The balance isn’t easy. After all, you don’t have to worry about “living with yourself” if you don’t actually live. Survival is extremely important, and many of our characters are driven pragmatists. Daryl is already adapting to a new group. Carol sees murder as the best possible means to end the spread of a virus. Sasha thinks they need to stop pursuing Glen so that they can focus on living. But this pragmatism carries with it immense insecurity. A guilty conscience can make survival nearly unbearable.
This realization is what drives Eugene to circle back for Glen and Tara. Rosita is furious about his manipulation and misdirection. But the decision to go back was a no brainer for him, “After I save the world, I still have to be able to live with myself.” It’s significant that saving the world won’t erase the memory of two people he left behind. Though he may help many others these two will haunt him if he doesn’t go back to make sure they are safe. The same idea seems to drive Tara.
Tara is clearly trying to absolve herself of past sins. Having been party to the second prison invasion, and having walked alongside the man who decapitated Herschel she has massive regret. In an effort to assuage her conscience she will follow Glen wherever he decides to go, even into a “long dark tunnel full of reanimated corpses.” She can’t let him go alone; she has to help him. Even when the others bail, Tara won’t. And Glen, for his part, won’t leave Tara behind when the pressure is on. With walkers crowding in and Tara’s foot under a rock, Glen refuses to leave her to die.
Survivor’s guilt is the name we give to those subjective feelings of shame for being alive when others are not. It’s that self-condemnation that lingers when one realizes that they live on while their friends have died. It’s generally applied in scenarios where the guilt is illogical. That is to say, we use the term to refer to those who are in fact not guilty at all. They could not have saved or rescued those who died. Certainly the survivors of the zombie apocalypse cannot save everyone they run across. They have lost many friends in the wake of the dystopia. As human beings we often take responsibility for things that are far beyond our control. We take responsibility for that which no one would reasonably hold us responsible for. There is, however, an inner moral logic which makes such feelings of guilt understandable and important.
Back in 2011, Nancy Sherman wrote an intriguing piece on survivor’s guilt, particularly focusing on soldiers returning from war. She explores the moral logic behind such guilt by appealing to the character of the survivor. She notes that “Part of the reasonableness of survivor guilt (and in a sense, its ‘fittingness’) is that it tracks moral significance that is broader than moral action” (“The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt”). She notes that good character isn’t merely about what one does but about what one feels. Again she writes:
Who I am, in terms of my character and relationships, and not just, what I do, morally matters. Of course, character is expressed in action, and when we don’t “walk the walk,” we are lacking; but it is also expressed in emotions and attitudes. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, insists on the point: “virtue is concerned with emotions and actions;” to have good character is to “hit the mean” with respect to both. Moreover, many of the feelings that express character are not about what one has done or should have done, but rather about what one cares deeply about.
In other words, good character is not just about being able to rescue others, but regretting our inability to save them. Survivor’s guilt is part of how we are able to live with ourselves.
It works out for Eugene and for Tara and Glen. In fact it works out beautifully for Glen as he and Maggie are finally reunited. It doesn’t always work out for them, however. It hasn’t always worked out like that for Rick. It didn’t work out that way as it related to Andrea, Sophia, T-Dog, Lori, or Lizzy. There’s plenty of guilt, both objective and subjective, to go around. Part of being able to live with themselves means that these characters have to feel that guilt.
It’s important, of course, that the guilt itself is not real. Glen could not have saved Tara in the tunnel. If the others had not shown up either he would have died or he would have had to leave her to die. He couldn’t have saved her. He had no ammo left and he couldn’t move the rock. It wasn’t his fault. Objectively he was absolved of any blame, and yet the sense of obligation was very present upon him in that moment. The guilt, subjective though it was, would have been real to him.
What a messed up world. Even the stuff we can’t change we feel responsibility and guilt for. It’s just such feelings, however, that make these characters good. It’s what allows them to live with themselves, and allows us as viewers to continue to live with them too.
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