All Alone All Together
It has taken me a while to wake up after the shock of the news of loosing another brilliant star to suicide. I grew up with Nirvana playing loudly on my Sony Walkman and Kurt Cobain’s death has been a 20 year enigma to me about brilliance and popularity’s relationship with despair and suicide. It is too painful to recount the innumerate celebrity lives lost in the 20 years since Cobain wrote ‘Lithium’ (Nevermind 1991) about a man who turns to religion because of suicidal thoughts.
Robin Williams’ death is a hard contrast in my mind. Far from being the apparently moody, raw and wounded talent of Cobain, he was (to me) the lovable, resolved therapist Sean Maguire (Good Will Hunting 1997). I had consumed Williams’ films throughout my turbulent late teenage years and to some level I imagined Christ was something like John Keeting (Dead Poets Society 1989) or Maguire; seeing your brokenness but loving your potential into being. If there were a scene in my imagination it would be Cobain and Williams on a Boston park bench, “It’s your move chief.”
I have ministered to enough grieving families over the years to know that there is nothing to say. I mean, nothing that you can say that adds anything or takes anything away. Words are hollow in the face of the confusion, guilt and despair faced by those left behind through suicide. Every circumstance is different and yet, as I have seen families grieve, these emotions are almost universal, as if they have been left behind to be unpacked like a suitcase in an empty hall.
All Alone But Well Known
Williams has been broadly quoted these last few days, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.” (World’s Greatest Dad). I have been mulling this over in my mind and it is still forming a response within me. I guess all I can think is, ‘I get it’. I get the whole sense of horror, being lauded around the world, being tweeted and selfied but feeling totally unknown. We can only guess how great the chasm between the true and professional self of Williams, or Seymore Hoffman or Winehouse, but we can feel it in ourselves. What could be more confusing than being known but not known, needed but unable to give or loved but only in part?
Our 21st century society carries huge dangers; it hungers after an uncomplicated person. One who is good or bad, talented or foolish, well or ill, mature or childish. It proposes that we can create a self that will be totally acceptable and that once we have sold that lie to enough people we will feel safe. We instead find ourselves all alone, all together. Suicide holds us all responsible for creating a world in which it is prohibitive to say, ‘This is me and I need your help.’
Easy Answers and Finger Pointing
Tragic events like these always cause worthy people to start pointing to mental health charities for answers. The trouble is that all of the pointing distracts people from their responsibility. It lays blame on the victims of suicide who are often parodied as ‘mental’ or ‘addicts’ or ‘weak’. Yes, suicide can be a tragic outworking of mental illness, but mental illness is often a tragic outworking of a lonely and stigmatising culture. More than that, our societies’ continual pillaring of people suffering from mental heath issues only drives up the sense of unacceptability we all feel about our own mental health. It therefore increases the sense in some that suicide could provide a welcome relief from the pain of living.
Perhaps the shock that we feel is wrapped up in the immature aspirations we held to receive the same applause and veneration offered to Williams. Suicide is a cold reality check to our vain hopes that performance or stardom might undo our own sense of isolation in the crowd.
The Church is the antidote to these longings. Yet I see the ‘all alone, all together’ problem more frequently in the packed pews than in the crowded malls. If we are to have any impact on the devastating issue of suicide our mission must be to address the sickening problem of loneliness.
Rest For Souls
Cobain talking about ‘Lithium’ said, “I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives…That's fine. If it's going to save someone.” I think its fine too. But I want to tell Cobain that it isn’t religion that is going to save people from suicide, it is a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
It sounds simple but its not. When a dear friend in my last church committed suicide I realised that we had spent nearly four years together trying to cross the bridge between religion and relationship. Mental health issues, shame, isolation and disappointment all played a part in making that journey super tough. But ultimately I believe she got there, even though it wasn't enough to stop her making a decision to not to live.
The Big Secret
The big secret is that we are all making a choice to live. We all need ‘rest for our souls’; we are so exhausted by our own posturing and the gnawing sense of unacceptability that plagues us. Let’s stop blaming ‘mental health’ for suicide and start blaming culture for mental health. I am tired of being all alone, all together and my sense is that you are too. I am grieved that our creative heroes and heroines are being taken from us by loneliness and despair, but I am also angry that their personal battles are made out to be the sole justification for their loss. As Christian people let’s stop the scapegoating and start modelling welcome, inclusion, acceptance and understanding to society. Let’s work to make the Church the place of ‘soul rest’ that Jesus intended – where our loneliness is undone and our decision to live is an easier one.
Will Van Der Hart, 15/08/2014