“Suicide” is a painful word for me. For many people, it is a word that evokes feels of sadness and compassion, wishing that there was something they could have done to help. For others, it is a damnable sin, the epitome of selfishness. However, for me, it is a story of pain. It is a word that haunted the hallways of that corner of mind that I avoided for many years of my life.
My brother took his own life when he was approaching the apogee of his life; he was absolutely brilliant, scoring 35 on the ACT and would have graduated second in his high school class. He had many things going hm. But he did it for reasons I never truly understood, although I have my intuitions and I knew he was a victim of persistent teasing, if not even bullying. I remember the moment that I saw his body; I was the reason we ended up finding him. From that day, my life began to be defined by the pain that caused my brother Evan to take his life.
Prior to this, I myself was the repeated target of teasing during the middle school years, where children can be cruel to each other. Then, in the aftermath, I was treated differently, as if I had a stigma of being Evan’s brother. There was certainly compassion and the cruel words stopped, but I was left in a world where I never knew who cared and who didn’t. Then, late in my high school years, I began to seriously consider it myself, as I was so deeply alone, feeling so distant from everyone. However, life changed as I moved to college and began to start in a new direction of life; I had avoided recapitulating my brother’s narrative. But I could still hear that ghost still howling in the abandoned hallways of my mind, even as I was moving forward. Then, I was the victim of a never-ending, objectifying, isolating, humiliating harassment that pushed me to my emotional and mental limits and forced me to walk into that hallway I never wanted to go down again. I again gave it serious consideration. But, I had parents I loved and while my life had been absolutely shattered into pieces and I was in the throes of the deepest emotional pain I had ever experienced in my life, I moved forward. I was forced to fight that ghost to hope for it to be exorcised from my mind and heart.
I tell you this story to say, I know the reality of suicide, both as one who lost a loved one and the impact it had and as one who contemplated it. As I hear the voices of compassion and judgment in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s and Kate Spade’s suicides. I know the throes of the pain that can cause one to contemplate it and the throes of the pain it causes to one’s family and friends. I can only say this: it is simultaneously an act of selfishness in throwing pain onto others and an act of helplessness where one has little left to manage with. It can be perceived as an act of betrayal and it can be perceived as an act of selflessness.
At the core of the act of suicide is this: feeling the inability to bear the burdens of life anymore. But for the vast, vast majority of people, the burdens of life is not simply about the mere biological life of existence, but a socially embedded reality. While in some occasions, suicide is the result of some deep biological struggle, such as some forms of medical conditions that take its mental toll on a person, more often than not it is the response to one’s social relations. Perhaps one is the victim of bullying; perhaps one has done something they believe to be terrible that other people will reject you for; perhaps one is so self-absorbed that the mere inability to handle disapproval drives one to extreme conclusions. There are a variety of scenarios and circumstances that can lead to it, but for the vast majority, it stems from an actual or perceived separation from any or all significant relationships. And so, the antidote begins to suggest itself from this.
It is tempting to think it is to show people that you care. Many people have reminded us on social media about the importance of reaching out to others. But, a well-intended and truly caring as these attempts are, it doesn’t solve the problem but only delays the problem. The conditions that make suicide a serious consideration is not simply the result of one or two painful events. It is the years of accumulation; there may be salient events that trigger the decision such as a divorce, rape, a foolish decision, etc., but the consideration of suicide in those events stems from the person who has been formed by the events prior to those traumas. It is the years of being ignored or being bullied or setting up unreasonable expectations about oneself and one’s relationship to others and so on that set the scene. So, your kindness in a moment can impact a person’s decisions; never let me diminish the impact something like that can have. But this treatment of the condition rather than prevention.
Suicide is a response to the absence of the giving of grace and truth. It is the absence of grace that colors every interaction with people, that signals they are not that important, that they are hopelessly lost, that they are of little importance. It the absence of truth that sets up unrealistic expectations about oneself and one’s life that leads to the despair when the dreams fall apart. Each interaction of a person’s life impacts a person’s future, and when the interactions are largely devoid of grace and truth, it sets up the conditions for suicide to occur. But the problem is that we are so often oblivious to these subtle relational realities and how they build up over the course of life. It is a culture that overemphasizes the imagination of one’s future in setting up unrealistic dreams, that leads to the diminishment of value of people who will not help you to fulfill those dreams. It is a culture that in response to this social diminishment from others, encourages us to dream even more to compensate, thus tempting us yet again to diminish the real values of others. Since we don’t directly perceive the relationship between the unrelenting pursuit of our dreams and how it impacts who and what we value, we miss the connection between unrelenting ambition and unrelenting graceless and falsehood. To be clear, this isn’t about dreaming about one’s future. It is about how our Western culture through the media dramatically (mal)forms our sense of selves and our relationships to others, that fails to temper enthusiasm with humility and love.
The antidote is becoming people of grace and truth. It is a culture that shifts how we see and value people such that we don’t have to rescue people from their pain, but rather the very way people are encultured prevents its occurrence. But the painful reality of this is that it entails repentance, a repentance that many are unwilling to acquiesce to.
Meanwhile, if you are reading this, and you feel such a deep pain that you would consider taking your life, feel absolutely free to contact me to talk. Even if I barely know you or you are an entire stranger, I want to hear your pain and struggle. On top of having served as a pastor for multiple years, I have been there myself.