Monday, June 11, 2018

An Update on "Suicide, Addiction, Shame and Grace"

An Update on an Old Post, A New Grief

In 2014, I wrote a blog post about the suicide of Robin Williams. He suffered from the horrid challenge of deciding what to do in the face of a nightmare diagnosis. Lewy's Body Syndrome is a form of dementia that is swift, traumatic and painful for all involved. From the patient to their family and friends, the "long goodbye" of dementia is rendered brutally short and is immensely painful for all. For Robin Williams, according to reports, his choice was to end his life.

My post about that event is here: "Suicide, Addiction, Shame and Grace"

Four years later, the news is full this week of the report of two more celebrity suicides. Kate Spade, designer in fashion and lifestyle, and Anthony Bourdain, a chef and travel writer/television host, both made the choice to end their lives. The impact has been a powerful one, highlighting a growing increase in the rate of suicides in Western culture and the truth that the decision people make to end their lives is not restricted to advantage, class or celebrity. 

The news is full today of people making sure not only to report on the deaths and the impact of the deaths of these celebrities, but also to ensure that those people absorbing this news are given resources to deal with their deaths and the possible impact of those deaths on their own choices. Exposure to the trauma of suicide, sadly, tends to cause others who struggle with suicidal ideation, or who have perhaps attempted suicide in the past to consider the choice to actually complete suicide in the near future.

Yes, that is often what it is called..."completing" suicide. I struggle with that phraseology, not because it is wrong; but because it is correct. Suicide is first imagined, considered...perhaps even planned. Then, it is completed. It recognizes that most suicides are not impulsive acts. It also allows that the breakdowns that happen in peoples' lives and relationships, and in their ability and capability to deal with the challenges of them, are much more complicated and in the case of those struggling are overwhelming earlier on than we are ready to admit or accept.

For Kate Spade, people around her are offering up that she had struggled with mental illness for years and that she had been self-medicating with alcohol recently. A separation from her husband, and pressure from those close to her to go into rehabilitation and treatment did not help. She worried about the impact of those reports on her brand and on those who depended on her for their livelihood. She tried to shoulder it all on her own. I am sorry if that sounds like a tasteless image for a designer of shoulder bags...but from the accounts of her work shared by others and by the joy/happiness her shoulder bags created for women I know; that similitude is apt. Her mental illness and struggles with depression and addiction were compounded by the pressure she felt to preserve the integrity of her work and public face.

For Anthony Bourdain, he openly and honestly wrote and spoke to his struggles with addiction and depression. Life on the edge was his pursuit, particularly when it came to food and the relationships that arose from cooking and sharing food with others. I remember reading his first book, Kitchen Confidential, when I was preparing for priesthood after having spent the time between college and seminary cooking for a living. He was able to offer up a candid, sympathetic and powerful account of how the stress and intensity of cooking for others could be both a creative outlet and a deeply isolating experience.

Suicide offers a chimeric release to the burdens people carry when it comes to addiction, depression and lack of hope. Perhaps that is why people who feel like they live at the end of their respective ropes find it an attractive, or at least viable, resolution.

The greater scourge of suicide in our culture is that it is communicable. When one human being chooses to end their life, that outlet is seen and observed by others who are struggling and (particularly in today's information age) becomes normalized. What was once unconsidered becomes an accepted consideration. What was once a hidden fantasy becomes an image that dances before our eyes, inhabits our thoughts and populates our dreams.

Suicide is an attempt to end the self. One who chooses suicide says to the world that they would prefer to NOT BE, rather than to be at all. I struggle with that choice, because while I have suffered from depression (albeit to a lighter degree than most) that required medication, I have not found myself arriving at the point where not being was better than the alternative of turning back to life and hope, even when I felt both to be most distant.

Suicide is not an escape, because the pain and struggle is not ended. It is only passed on, like a debt accrued that cannot be ignored as the interest piles up. My heart breaks for the reality of a life that has accumulated so much pain that "out" is better than "in."

It's hard to choose "in" when the tides of our emotional, mental and spiritual lives overwhelm.

"In," though, is the one place where we all might find healing. If we can support each other "in" relationship; then we might overcome silent suffering. If we can love each other when we are "in" pain; then perhaps we can also be midwife to each other as we birth healing. If we can persist with each other "in" faith; then perhaps we can engender hope. "In" the end, though, none of these things can be fostered if we remain "out" of touch, "out" of connection...."out" of hope.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pentecost: Taking the Word....Out


This past week, we laid my grandmother to rest. Gathering in the small town she and her husband served for decades as undertakers with family, her friends and neighbors, was a lesson in a life well-lived. She passed at 99 years of age, just a half year short of a century. Doris was a remarkable woman. Living as the wife of a funeral director, she took her remarkable intellect and great intelligence and put it to work. Her business acumen was only exceeded by her personal integrity and ethic of good manners and honorable mien. If my grandfather was the rudder for the sailing vessel that was their life, she was the keel, the mast, the beam. 

Though she was not a world traveler, and her personal adventures did not range very far from hearth and home, she was perhaps one of the greatest apostles I believe I have ever met. 

When the Holy Spirit arrived and rested on the members of the Church, the promised gift of Jesus that would inspire those assembled to disperse throughout the world in order to carry the Gospel to all nations, the apostles were born to a new life in ministry. We tend to think of an apostle as a sort of intrepid adventurer, someone who ventures out into the world, a trailblazer. We imagine them as people who are bold and willing to venture beyond the horizon.

Why does the willingness to risk fall so easily to that ideal of the adventurer? Why does the apostle of faith so often wind up depicted as the wide-ranging voyager?

The stories people had to offer about Doris testified not to an apostle of wide-ranging journeys, but rather to a woman who was able to live a life of testimony to a faith in Christ that was soaked in Holy Spirit and bathed in grace. One story, one testimony after another came to us of people remarking how she was there for them when times were tough. They spoke of her generosity. They spoke of her faith. They spoke of the high personal, moral integrity that not only kept her feet on the ground, but also served time and again to ground others. 

She was an apostle-in-place. 

My prayer is that this Pentecost offers you the inspiration you need to be as far-ranging....or as close to you feel fit, but that you also are able-as Doris was-to find your place in the Spirit's manifestation. May the Church live through you, and the Holy Spirit burn brightly from your heart as it touches others.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Easter: Whoever has the Son, has Life...

Human Testimony and God's Testimony

In this life, I have borne witness to many folks offering testimony. their testimonies have ranged from recounting experiences that have been of moments of exquisite blessing, and experiences of profound trauma, with most falling somewhere in the middle of that broad spectrum. Human beings are people of story, and so being able to bear witness and to find a place and time to be able to tell our stories is an invaluable part of our being aware of ourselves and our place in the universe. It also tends to define how we relate to others, by providing others a lens by which to see how we see and perceive the world.

Testimony can tender sympathy. It can foster empathy. It can inspire commitment. It can provoke renewal.

Testimony can also condemn. It can convict. It can prejudice. It can defame and even destroy.

Testimony is often a prelude to a choice being made. It is also a prelude to judgment.

With that, testimony becomes a powerful tool, and like all tools it is morally neutral until it is applied to use.

A hammer can build a home. It can also break a bone. The "good" or "bad" of the result is found in its application. I have seen testimony offered in Churches do much to build up the Body of Christ. I have also seen testimony offered in Churches do much to attempt to rend it asunder. Remember, it was testimony that condemned Jesus to death. It was also testimony that bore effective witness to his resurrection. It was testimony that allowed fear to dominate people's minds when Caiaphas convinced people it was better for one man to die than for the nation to suffer. It was also testimony that gave Peter the opportunity to witness that the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus was not just for the followers of Judaism and their proselytes, it was for all the nations and for all time.

When we hear about testimony on Sunday, we too often think of it in one or two dimensions, when really it operates on many more: our faith-filled words and witness bear impact here, and now....but they also give credit to the there and then of the moment we came to believe. Our testimony also lives on and travels, as people incorporate our stories, our witness of the Christ into their own. 

What we have received, we also pass on. The Christ we know was introduced to us, and as we bear witness to Him, others then receive that testimony and carry it on. That is the grace and glory of human testimony when it bears witness to God. When it bears witness to God in Christ, then we not only make a gift of the Christ to another while enriching their walk with God, our own walk is affirmed and confirmed in grace.

That being said, there is a risk to human testimony. We lack the eternity of God, the absolute wonder of the Almighty to see from one end of time and space to another. We are limited by time and space to our mortal experience, and thus distortion or even disruption can render our testimony broken. Even worse, our own testimony might become so distorted as to become fallen, lost. We might fail to offer clarity and closeness to Christ when we speak, because we ourselves have become lost in the trauma, desire or distortion.

As we approach the end of Eastertide, the completion of the great 50 days, the scripture we hear in Church on Sundays, and the progression of feasts as we move from Easter to Ascension and begin to anticipate the Vigil of Pentecost, take that tenuousness of human testimony into account. God clearly intends to rely on the Church and its members in apostolic succession to carry the testimony of God in Christ to the ends of the earth until the end of time. God in Christ also does all that is possible to ensure we are not left comfortless, and that we are both supported and held to account for our testimony. The election of Matthias to fill the gap left by Judas' exit from the fellowship of the 12 is more than just making sure the team roster is up to snuff. It is also early evidence that the Spirit is moving in the midst of community. The ongoing witness that Christ continues to intercede for us in the presence of God as the Holy Spirit descends reminds us that we are not alone. It also reminds us that we are always answering the call to express, refine and check our testimony. 

Are we being faithful to God in our testimony? Are we building up the Church with our testimony? Are we agents of healing, reconciliation and hope for a world and for people who yearn and ache for them?

Here is your moment. Review and check your testimony. Are you ready to offer it up? If not, then what is holding you back? Better can your Church, your fellow witnesses support and affirm your calling to be ready to offer testimony, your testimony, in the light of God's love for the world through the person of Jesus the Christ?