I’ve hesitated to write this one. I’ll say that much up front. Anyone who knows me personally knows that my best friend killed himself when we were teenagers. What I experienced that sophomore year in high school has had almost 26 years to mull over and over in my mind and soul. It would take just as many years to say all I have come to understand about suicide and our need to talk more about it with each other. It would take more than this blog or even if I wrote about it every day for the rest of the year, it would still not quite be enough. So I tread carefully and try to offer just one small part of what I have experienced and learned.
A 15-year-old suicide seems something different than a 63-year-old suicide. What I think is so intriguing about a celebrity death of any kind is that these are not people we know personally and the majority of us think we wish we could be that rich, that famous, that talented. How little we really know of their life, their hopes and dreams, their sense of failure and shame.
I didn’t know then what I do now. I certainly wasn’t prepared as a 15-year-old to counsel a suicidal friend appropriately. I certainly didn’t understand the pain he felt. I didn’t have clue one about what to say or do.
The things I would say to my 15 year old self would be fueled by years of searching and struggling to make sense of it all, to discover the pit of despair and how it’s created. What I do know is that no matter who the person is, no matter how successful or outwardly “happy” they may seem, there are similarities to what thoughts fuel their suicidal tendencies.
The error of a suicide is thinking that I don’t matter. That life will go on and be better without me. That nothing will ever change and I will always be miserable and frustrated from the things I desperately want. That I stop having purpose and meaning. That everyone else is happier than me and I will never be that happy, that smart, that talented, that content, that peaceful. I’m too weak. I’m tired of fighting. I’m afraid of how bad things will continue to get, if they can even get any worse. I want to do the one thing I can still do, the one thing I control. It’s the only way.
The patterns of error trace and retrace its steps in your mind, these patterns of thinking wrongly about yourself, until you are stuck in this groove. Like a path that deviates from the main path on a hike in the woods, if it’s travelled enough times, the new path becomes just as clear and many start taking it. But it just leads back to the same place. Or worse.
It is the pattern of thinking that needs to be rerouted. Your brain tends to go in the ways of least resistance. Like water that is spilled out, it will run until it meets something blocking its way and then find a way around it. And when the brain finds an easy way to think about something – a sin ridden way, the worst possible way to think – it will run its course down that road. Your brain will continue down roads of least resistance. For some, it is the road of ease and luxury, just entertaining yourself and finding new things to amuse you. For others, it is the path of hard work and labor, to take control of the things you feel you can control and to achieve success in whatever definition you make success to be. Still others take their easy road by letting shame overwhelm their lives, hiding sometimes in plain sight, going about their day just barely holding on to their curtain around them so no one can see the chaos behind it.
[A brief side note: For some people the brain is overtaxed and just won’t function under command any more. There is a lot of research on brain chemistry and the effects of stress and illness. Some need the extra help, when life throws so much at once and your brain cannot keep up. The argument of mental illness, depression and the Christian perspective of it all can be answered with an all encompassing yes. We need all of the above. Our brains are emotional, mental, spiritual, social and physical and an all encompassing approach to its healthy function is necessary. The brain is a complex and mysterious work and treating it too simplistically is damaging. I’m not a scientist or a doctor. I can only talk about what I know. I can only say that we must manage our thoughts and when we cannot do it on our own, we need the help to do it, both spiritually and chemically.]
Our thoughts are always with us. Our brain creates a kind of soundtrack to our lives that we live by. The tune of our hearts is always loudest when we are alone. What song plays over and over again for you? How easily can you change it?
Our brains must do the work. Our evil and self-contemptuous thoughts are too easily come by. They plague us deep into the night. We are our own worst critics. Some will lash mercilessly against themselves, every act, every thought, every inaction they have ever made. It will create a groove in their minds, a sadistic rhythm to their brain patterns. While others will go the route of blaming others. Well, yes, I did that but only because that person did those things. And the hours will tick away with an incriminating list of guilt for everyone else in your life, a narcissistic attempt to clean yourself, wash your hands, and ease your guilty conscience.
Our brains must do the work. These paths of guilt and shame, whatever twists and turns they take, are dead ends all. They promise us some kind of relief from cowering under our fears and replaying failures over and over. They lead us down a rabbit hole of introspection and self-pity, only to dump us off into a deep, wide pool. We can only tread water for so long.
Our brains must do the work. There is another way. There is another path. It is narrow and steep. It is hard work. It will take disciplined legs, strong thoughts, listening intently for a still small voice. A voice that cries out to us but gets frequently drowned out by the loud long clangs of our self telling us vicious lies and screaming shame and doubt. We have to do the work of concentrating on that gentle voice. It can get so hard to hear. It’s calling out. Don’t believe those lies. Don’t eat of that tree. I provided you another way. Take it. Please take it.
What is the work?
I wish I knew what Robin Williams believed about life and death. A pastor friend of Rob’s said that Williams had been attending his church. He said this awhile ago and I thought how fun it would be to serve Robin Williams communion. I prayed for him then. Just a short prayer that God would be real to him, that he would find his peace in Jesus. I’ve read the blogs and the news releases speculating and his family believing that he was truly a Christian. I find hope in that. I want so much to see him one day making us all laugh again. And I want to see Matthew again. I wish I could say all the things to him that I know now. I wish I could tell him of what was to come – there was so much life still. How the twists and turns of my life brought me to Jesus in a way that I never had before, not at 15. Because I heard the stories and I saw the lives of people following Jesus and I knew in my head that there was something to this faith. But I had never done the work. Not really. My path was the path of least resistance. It was easy to be “Christian” in my life, in my family and church, in my society and amongst my friends. The water flowed that way and I just floated along with everyone else in my circles.
But my brain didn’t do the work. And that is the work of believing. When real troubles came, when the path of least resistance became something other than playing Christian, my brain took another turn. What if God isn’t real? What if Christianity is some trumped up hoax that has duped people for centuries? What if hope is dead and has been for thousands of years?
Where does hope come from?
Faith is a weird little word. Hope too. They are such huge concepts and seem so hard to grasp at times. It is said that depression is the place where hope wanes. You oscillate between hope and despair, trying to get your brain to engage anticipation of something better just around the bend. Things cannot possibly stay the way they are now, right? Right?
People will always believe in something. Some will choose to believe in themselves, that they harness the ultimate power to take their own controls and forge their own future. Some will choose to invest wholly into other people, community building and harnessing the powers of the collective, like the Borg but nicer and less metal. Still others find their faith rests on their kin, family, nothing thicker than blood, and do everything they can to instill pride and vicious loyalty to the end. There are other beliefs, country/nationalism, capitalism and the American spirit of achievement and business acuity.
I’ll let you in on a secret. These things all fail. They will fail you if they haven’t already. The economy will drop out. The family will rebel or move away. The community will be rife with gossip and envy. When our hope is built on these things, when we work hard and labor to make these things our purpose and happiness in life, we will find that dead end, ever deepening and widening pool. Even for those who have what seems like everything, the successful celebrity, the up and coming teenager with all of life ahead of him, nothing on this earth is ever enough. None of these things silence the suffering, the voices that scream at us in the dark of night. The pain squeezes hope’s vocal cords until they snap and cease to function.
Something has to give. A pattern has to change. A new path has to be tread. Where do we find it? Where does the hope come from?
He had just walked on the water. He had just fed 5000 people with a child’s lunch box. He had just told them of a new path, a new food that endures and strengthens us for the life journey. And they asked him, what work should we do? What is the work for our lives? What do we have to do for the rest of our days, every day, day in and out, against all odds and when it is far from easy? How do we make it through the hard, dark pits and get beyond the places our minds take us? How do we find out if we have life eternal? How do we really know it’s you and only you who can save us?
“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Easy peasy. Until you try it. You will find the work it takes. You will understand that your brain doesn’t function that way. Your brain goes another route on its own. You will find that you need to beat your brain back onto the right path. You will find that in your darkest night belief is the hardest thing to cling to, but you must do it. Do the work. Force your soul. Cry out to Jesus. I believe, help my unbelief.
Anyone who says that being a Christian is for the weak minded and faith is a crutch clearly has not spent much time really being one. Faith is sometimes the hardest path to tread. Sometimes my brain takes every possible path except faith, and it feels so much easier, even providing relief in so many ways. I spent years running away from Jesus. I spent so much time chasing every happiness this life could possibly scrounge up. Was it fun? Yes. Did I have some good times? Of course. Was it easier to live than it is now? UNdoubtedly. I made it up as I went. What could be easier than that? There are perfectly happy, contented atheists. There are good, strong lovely people who want absolutely nothing to do with God or Jesus and this salvation method of living. There are those who have considered it and concluded it wasn’t for them, it wasn’t sensible and didn’t register logically or even emotionally. Christianity seemed less than sound, an invalid theory proven wrong over time, history and personal experience. I get that. Faith seems weak. Believing in this mysticism is not much less than believing in a giant elf who makes toys and delivers them all one night in the winter to all the children of the world. You can believe it if you want. It defies logic. But it’s cute.
I was there. I was skeptical. I came to despise most christians and churches. I didn’t think that faith made life better. It really didn’t. So I went about my life in other ways. Some paths were quite nice actually. Others more turbulent. Until nothing made sense any more. Nothing made me happy. Nothing gave me meaning or hope.
But there was a night, not just one night, but this one sticks out. I sat on the side of the busy highway in my car with one hand on the door handle waiting for a speeding truck to come down the hill. I had lost hope. My life was a mess and I didn’t see it changing any time soon. I thought, how easy would it be for me to get out of my car at just the right time. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about my family and the devastation they would feel. It wasn’t that I was being so selfish to think that everyone would just deal. There was a part of me that hoped that my life and death would tell a tale worth telling, even if it’s the cautionary kind.
What gave me hope? What kept me inside the car? It wasn’t much, but it was everything. It was this whisper of a voice that said, this will change. It was something that peered into the future and said I can see one. I can’t tell you what it looks like specifically, but I know it’s there. You have to hold on. You have to believe.
I didn’t know it then. Jesus was the last thing on my mind then. Or maybe, I know better now to say that Jesus was in that car, it was his voice, and he said I’m not done with you yet. He took my thoughts and changed the course of my patterns. He rerouted my paths and gave me a new trail to follow.
It’s in those moments that my mind is trying to retrace old paths, pushing me to get back into a groove I so desperately need to forsake. It’s too easy to let your mind go that way. Help me wrangle in my restless thoughts and chaotic heart. Help me do the work of believing. For all my days.
It sounds ludicrous to the skeptical. It sounds insane to the self-aggrandizing, the ones who think they can get it all under their control. It sounds too good to be true to the cynic. It sounds impossibly mythological to the realist. It sounds crazy enough that it just might work to the one who has found no other path. Every path has been hard, my friend, I know. Every path has been full of sorrow, fear, and doubt. You’ve been down that road, Neo. You know that road. You know where it ends. And that’s not where you want to go.
There is a hard road. And then there is a hard road filled with hope. Filled with provisions and mystery. The road cheers us on and gives us a rhythm to follow, a purpose and a joy. And a love you have never felt before and will never know from any where else. All we have to do is believe. This is the work of the Christian. Not doing a better job, not following rules better, not behaving correctly, not aspiring to be a super human. The work that is ours is to believe. Out of that work comes the strength to do the other things. Out of the work of believing that Jesus is who he said he is, that he has and is providing all we need, that his death is the payment and his life is the way, we are given in exchange for our belief – our only work – the strength to face this hard life. Our hardest trials. Our deepest suffering. Our cruel twists and turns. Our work is to believe in the face of these that He is the one God sent to us. Nothing else makes sense to me. No other road has such clarity and view. I know that choosing this road is at times a very bitter pill to swallow. I struggle to do the work of believing many hours. The struggle is real and impossible to win, we pray for the grace to do the work. Because at the end of the hardest times, we have finally understood that we cannot live. This life is too hard. The path is too steep.
It will occur to you at the worst times, how very weak you are. It will be at our worst moments when we are so deep and have no strength to tread water a moment longer. And it’s there that you will give up. The difference between roads is what you give up to. The difference between the hard road and the hopeful road is not in strength or weakness, at least not how we tend to think of it. The difference is not being a selfish person or a sacrificial person. We want it to be. We want it to be about pulling ourselves together and facing the hard parts of life through our brute strength and personal fortitude. And we want to blame and shame the people who chose not to bare it any longer, who seemed to choose the weak road.
But there’s another way. It’s an exchange of one road to the other. It’s in giving up one road and giving in to the way, the only way. And in exchange for our weakness, He gives strength. In exchange for our failures, He gives us a new name, a new identity, a new purpose. When we give Him our shame and despair, He washes them out and gives us peace and creates beauty from the ashes we have made of our lives. He uses our wounds and emblazons a kind of tattoo, a mark of ownership, a medal of honor if you will, to remind us that we have been bought with a price, we have been purchased with the ultimate wound, the nails and thorns of our Saving Grace.
God give us the grace to do the work. Give us enough grace for today to believe.
Blessings to all who read this.