Monday, August 17, 2009

"You Didn't Do the Best You Could"

I don't know about you, but I don't find John Yettaw to be a particularly sympathetic figure.  Yettaw is the American who swam, uninvited, across a lake in Burma (Myanmar) to the compound of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi last May.  Both of them were placed on trial by the military government, along with two of Suu Kyi's employees.  All were convicted, and Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest.  Yettaw was sentenced to a total of seven years detention, including four hard labor.  This weekend, Virginia Senator Jim Webb went to Burma and negotiated his release

I say that I don't find Yettaw sympathetic because he single-handedly managed to get a world heroine put in even longer detention -- she's been under some form of arrest for 14 of the last 20 years.  There are those who say he is part of a plot and that the timing was no accident.  Under this theory, he did what he did when he did it specifically to get Suu Kyi into more trouble.  There are those who think he is crazy.  One thing that may point to this is that he testified at his trial that God wanted him to go to Burma because he had a dream that terrorists were going to attack Suu Kyi.  Whether you think he's crazy, stupid or evil, I think we can all agree that he did something that caused a big problem.

On the other hand, one can imagine that being arrested and detained in a country known for human rights abuses and then sentenced to hard labor there could be traumatic.  As such, Yettaw, depending on how he is feeling about the whole thing and what he experienced in prison, is a prime candidate for some crisis intervention.  Would you want to be working with him?  Few would.

But the fact is, we deal with less dramatic situations like this every day.  Sometimes, something goes horribly wrong and it really is somebody's fault, even though they didn't mean to cause damage.  Perhaps the most common instance is traffic accidents -- a driver runs a red light or a stop sign or is speeding, an accident occurs and someone dies.  This is traumatic for the driver, but the blame falls squarely on him or her as well.

Folks just starting out in crisis intervention are very inclined to try to "rescue" the people they work with from their feelings.  When someone says, "it's my fault this happened" or "I could have stopped it" we want to run in and say, "You did the best you could."  This is almost always a huge mistake.  We can rarely know whether someone truly did the best they could, and sometimes, as in Yettaw's case, we truly know they messed up.

The point of crisis intervention isn't to rescue people.  People do not get over the guilt of what they have done by someone telling them not to feel guilty, any more than people stop panicking when we tell them not to panic.  People who have made a mistake with horrible consequences do not need to be told they didn't make a mistake, they need to be helped to live with what happened.  Somehow, some way, they need to make it a part of their "new normal."  I don't know how John Yettaw will frame this experience for himself and learn to live with the havoc he has caused for himself, for Suu Kyi and for Burma, but I do know that under no circumstances should anyone say, "You did the best you could."


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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