Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Suicide, Faith, and Purpose

Every now and then, I'll follow up on an old 'net conversation, one that I've had a while back and that was either particularly pointed or interesting.

A few months back, I'd checked in on an unfortunate exchange I'd had with a pastor who had decided that he was a new atheist.  It had genuinely baffled me, and I'd found myself wondering just how you could integrate being 1) a pastor and 2) believing that pretty much everything Jesus said was radically wrong.  It seemed odd.   The conversation, needless to say, did not go well.  I ended up walking from it.  It wasn't going anywhere, and I was perilously close to becoming a concern-troll.

I did remember the conversation, though, and tried to find it.  To my surprise, the blog...well trafficked, it was, unlike this one...was gone.  No trace of it.  I dug deeper, and what I found was another blog.  This was the new one, written by the pastor as a sustained part of the grieving process for his twenty-something son, who had taken his own life.  

It was raw and anguished, and as a father, it was impossible not to feel the pain of it.   On the one hand, it is unimaginable.  On the other, I have a good imagination.  Even the smallest taste of that darkness burns the mind.

I read through all of the entries, some several times.  There was nothing really I could say, as the faith that has sustained me in times of loss...of friends, of hopes...is not something I could share with him.  All I have to offer is my compassion.  It's a terrible thing.  Period.  It requires nothing other than the acknowledgement that it is terrible.

I'd been sharing that story with a friend whose brother had committed suicide over the weekend, and that afternoon came the news of another pastor having a child take their life.  It was the son of Rick Warren, he of megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame.  His boy struggled with depression, and in a moment of intense anguish, he took his own life.

The irony is agonizing.  Here, a pastor whose entire ministry has been about articulating faith as that which gives purpose to existence...and his own child was unable to find that sense of purpose.   Clinical depression is such an implacable creature, and we pastors are not given the gift of forcibly imbuing purpose into a soul.  While I'm not on the same theological page as Rick Warren, that means nothing.  What matters is the pain he and his family feel at the loss of a loved one, period.  Shared sorrow and compassion are the only valid human responses.

As I reflected on those darkly harmonizing experiences, I found myself ruminating on how my own faith plays out against this terrible aspect of the human condition.

There are many reasons suicide is so wrenching.  It is wrenching because it assumes that we are not connected to one another, fundamentally, materially, actually and spiritually.   My own sons, and my wife, and my friends, they are a part of me.  Their reality shapes the arc of my existence.  The tragic untruth of depression is that it blocks us from seeing the deep, flesh-written love that others feel for us.

We cannot sense it.  We become numb to our interconnection.  I have known this state of being myself.  It is a terrible place.

The choice to commit suicide is also tragic because it presumes that there is no possible good future.  This is always not so.  There is, in almost every condition of human life, the potential for a  joyous path.  Only very rarely is the end so inevitable that we must choose the noble fall over the flames.

But we have trouble seeing that potential, being such limited creatures.  Those limitations are exacerbated by situational and clinical depression.  In either form, this blinds our imaginations to the possibility that pain will not be the only state of our being.  It closes us off from the moments of joy and reconciliation that could be written into us.

This is not said to judge tormented souls.  That is not our job, not ever.  But it is useful to hold in ourselves, for those moments in life when our own agonies seem unbearable.

So very often, that seemingly inescapable sorrow arises because we have lost the narrative of ourself.  We no longer know the story to tell.  Our career aspirations lie in ruins.  Our reputation is destroyed.  The relationship that we thought completed us is shattered.  Our future is nothingness, and meaningless, and as we lie there in the dark and our thoughts taste like battery acid, death seems a sweet release.

Again, this is not necessary.  It does not have to be.  But we need to be able...and some, Lord have mercy, are not...to listen for that new story that we ourselves do not yet know.

These things we need to hold, and hold fast.