Being Saved, yet Drowning in Guilt

Recently a 43 year old man died after being paralyzed while saving the life of a 4 year old child who was drowning.  The man, Michael Patterson, is rightly being claimed as a hero. But people often do not think of the fate of the person he saved. In this case, he saved the life of a 4 year old that I hope will never have clear memories of what happened.  Also a 4 year old does not have the ability to make good decisions, so I hope the young girl will grow up ever thankful to Michael Patterson, but not with a feeling of guilt.



When I was growing up my brothers were very involved in the Boy Scouts. There was a really nice boy my age that lived close by,  in the brown house on the corner.  He was also a Boy Scout. I also had a close girlfriend, her cousins were also involved in Scouts.  Her uncle was a Scout leader.

My older brother came home from a Scout trip, and I remember him being upset, as the neighbor boy had almost drowned. He was saved by my girlfriend’s uncle.  Mr. P, as I will call him, bravely went in to save the boy when he got into difficulties swimming.  However, Mr. P did not make it.  He drowned while saving my neighbor. The boy was old enough to know he’d made a bad decision jumping in to a river where the current was quite strong.   Mr. P left behind many children, all of whom went to school with myself and the boy saved.  We aren’t talking Cub Scouts here, but the older more elite Boy Scouts.

Boy Scouts do dumb things, because they are still boys.  Heck adults do dumb things.  I remember one young man that had just made Eagle Scout who thew and aerosol can into an open fire.  Shrapnel.  People kept saying “…and he just made Eagle Scout!”.  I know he was doubly ashamed as  an Eagle Scout was held to a higher standard that other young boys.

So what happened to the young boy saved from drowning?  He had to go to school with classmates who had lost their father.  Their father that had saved him.  Those children were bewildered, lost and grieving.  The rest of the town was “your dad is a hero”.  They just knew he was gone with all the emotional and financial problems that creates.

Boy Scout

Boy Scout (Photo credit: born1945)

The poor boy saved was then subjected to the need to live up to this sacrifice.  Pressure was put on him from grades to behavior. Much like the Eagle Scout, this  boy had by his normal teenage poor choice behavior  scrutinized to an impossible degree.  He was not allowed to just be an average kid making the mistakes all 12 year olds make.  This continued as he grew older.

When he was about 15, he ran away from home.  He was hot and thirsty and showed up in my backyard,  I let him have a drink from the water hose, and he rested a bit.  It wasn’t that he was a bad teenager, he was in fact a teenager with the burden of “why did I jump in that river to swim?” looming over his every moment.  It was thrown in his face at school, at home, and over and over by his own mind.

Shortly after this, the family moved.  I wished they had done so much earlier. I can only hope that being away from taking classes with children still missing their father, and a community that expected him to be  perfect, allowed him to finally be a normal teenager.

Now, am I advocating that we let people drown? No.  I have to admit to once reading a Shirley Maclaine book where she talks of being on a boat in India, and a child falls off a boat and is allowed to drown.  The explanation is that they want to spare the baby having to grow up with the guilt of being saved and owing her life to the person that saved her.

This is not safe, ever.  But as long as there are teenagers, they will be doing back flips off the rock.  However, when the water level is too low, injuries happen.

This is not safe, ever. But as long as there are teenagers, they will be doing back flips off the rock. However, when the water level is too low, injuries happen.

If you think this is Shirley just being Shirley, after the Tsunami of 2004 I read about a man trapped in his home. He cried out for days, but none of the villagers would save him as it would be horrible to subject him to the burden of being saved.  I thought that the man crying out might want to decide that for himself.

So, what am I hoping?  That any time this happens, think of the person saved.  They might have made a poor decision, they might have to live around grieving relatives that don’t think their loved one’s heroic act was a great choice.  Children especially would rather have an alive non hero father than a dead hero father.  The burden to somehow live a life “worthy” of the sacrifice is too heavy for almost anyone to carry.

Can it work out well? Yes.

When watching “Steel Magnolias” I wondering what ever happened to the baby the Julia Roberts character basically gave her life for.  The mother was a hero as even though she was such a severe diabetic she knew she was risking her life to give birth to her child, she decided to have a baby.  I often thought, “Wow that’s a burden to grow up with.”

By chance, a teenage relative of mine (at the time a teenager) met this baby who was now also a teenager.  The father had remarried happily.  There were other children in the family, including a girl close in age to the boy.  He was proud to say “You know that movie?  I’m the baby!”  He was happy, teasing his sibling sister, and the entire family well adjusted and comfortable with the world knowing their story.  I felt a sense of relief. In this case, everything worked out fine.'s not any safer is you hold hands.  The water level of the lake is what matters.

…it’s not any safer is you hold hands. The water level of the lake is what matters.

I I I I I   People are going to be heroes.  We’re going to make sacrifices, like the young mother that recently did not treat her cancer so her baby could be born healthy.   We’re going to jump in lakes and rivers to save drowning people.  We’re going to rush into fires to save people.

My own grandmother became a nurse to honor her mother, who gave her life to save her children.

My own grandmother became a nurse to honor her mother, who gave her life to save her children.

My own great grandmother gave her life to run into her burning home to save her infant (he was asleep upstairs).  Archie the baby went flying through the window, Eulia my great grandmother died in agony over several days at the hospital in Easton Maryland.  The family still honors her at every family reunion.  She saved all 4 of her children, and everyone in the room knows they owe this woman their life.  (this story deserves a blog post all on its own).


Death certificate of my hero great grandmother, she lasted for days.

I know the children she saved probably would have liked her to have stopped at just 3 children.  The family was split up to various relatives and an orphanage. They missed their mother.  But we’re not a culture that behaves that way.  In the end, it all worked out, with the children staying in touch and the descendants close even today.

I wish I could have said to that young boy saved by Mr.P, “This was his choice.  I imagine if he had just watched you drown, he would have felt guilty the rest of his life.  We make choices.  His choice was his to make, not yours.  Go lead your life without the ghost of this man, and what his life might have been impacting what your life will be.”

However, I was just a little kid.  I hope somewhere, he’s doing well.

Categories: Family

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3 replies

  1. Wow, really thought provoking! Thanks

  2. I seem to remember someone saying guilt is an artificial emotion – that it is imposed by the society instead of arising naturally. That would explain the different reactions in other cultures to similar situations. I do, however, find myself asking how I would feel in the future if I take one action or another; which natural consequence I can live with. In fact, this essay is making me think of someone I am going to meet for the first time this week whose background includes some seemingly unwise decisions. Glad I read this today.

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