With the recent suicides of two very famous, very public figures, I’ve been asked more than once, how I make sense of what they did.
As a disclaimer, I tell them that what they are about to hear is an example of what I have noticed that everyone who ventures an opinion about situations like this does. I am simply projecting my “truth” and beliefs onto the situation.
No one ever knows why for sure (except perhaps the individual who took their life, and even then, they might not have known or been able to explain why they chose to do it). I know about this. There was a point in time in my life where I was extremely suicidal, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Looking back, I clearly was, but I was so lost in the situation I couldn’t see clearly what was happening.
Speculating about why a person would do something like this reminds me of a fellow coach/mentor of mine, Jerry Johnson, who told me as I was starting my basketball coaching career, “Everyone is going to have an opinion about what you should and shouldn’t be doing as a coach. Just remember, opinions are like noses (he actually used another part of the body to make his point), everyone has one, and for the most part, they all smell”.
I believe he was suggesting that the best I could ever hope to do was to learn as much as I could, ask for advice from those I trusted and make a decision. I think he was also suggesting that other people would be quick to give their opinion and that I be willing to listen to them and then do what I thought was best.
It’s important to remember that though an individual might appear to us to be the complete and total master of their own fate and that they have all the trappings that we might associate with success, they may feel just as trapped, helpless, hopeless, powerless and isolated as anyone else.
There is a pretty strong sense in our culture that if we are just powerful enough, rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, look good enough and accomplish enough, that we will have reached a place of peace and satisfaction and be inoculated from feelings of depression, hopelessness and despair. The message is if we have all this and it’s still not enough, we simply need to try harder to get more, or accept that is just how life is. Obviously, in these two cases, that didn’t work.
What’s my opinion about why these things happen? I believe, that to a certain degree we are at war with ourselves. Being human, I believe, involves three aspects of ourselves. I use the metaphor of a tree to explain what I mean. When you look at a tree, you see it’s trunk and its canopy. Typically we don’t and can’t see its roots.
I equate the trunk of the tree to the aspect of ourselves that represents what we do. Our external identity. Who I want you to believe I am. Who you believe I am. Who my friends are. The initials after my name. The home I live in and the car that I drive. How I make a living, how much money I make, what I own, where my children graduated from, how many grandchildren I have, the community that I live in, how many “toys” I have, where I travel to, who I know, etc. My image. The image that I both construct and that you create about who I am. The problem is, it isn’t actually who I am. It is who I appear to be. I know that there is another “me” that you don’t know about, and if you did, I believe that it would negatively impact your image of me, so I do everything I can to keep you from seeing it.
What we knew of the two people who recently ended their lives, was this part of who they were. Their tree trunk. Although some would say that they were people who “won” at getting and having it all, it obviously wasn’t enough. It never is. For any of us. Some people, when they reach this conclusion just double down on the above, believing if they just got a little richer, more famous, more powerful THEN they would “get there”. Others just give up and quit life.
Still others realize that what money, fame and power can give them will never be enough and they look elsewhere. Where they look is up. Which in my metaphor represents the canopy of the tree. Some call it the spiritual/religious, aspect of life.
This “canopy” of the tree answers questions and meets needs that the trunk of the tree can’t offer. It attempts to answer the basic questions of “How am I connected to everyone and everything else?” “What’s death all about?” “What’s life all about?” “How did all this come to be?” And we will keep looking until we can find a philosophy or set of beliefs that work for us.
These specific answers can never be empirically tested and proven beyond a doubt and universally accepted by all people, and yet we, as a society, often destroy and kill other human beings who don’t share our beliefs about these things. Our beliefs offer us some relief from the nagging question of “What is this life thing all about?” We are often encouraged to “turn it over to a power greater than ourselves”, to “just have faith”, to just “trust the process”.
I’ve no clue if the two people who took their lives had a developed sense of what I call a spiritual connection. Even if they did, in my opinion, it’s never enough.
What I find missing in our culture would be (using my metaphor) focusing on the roots of the tree. What I call our soul. It is the “Who am I, really?” part of ourselves. Very different from the “What do I do, who do I appear to be?” part. Very different than the “Who are we as human beings?” part.
In my experience, we are mostly at war with this part of ourselves. We have been taught to disown and disavow. We are taught, encouraged, told, instructed to repress, depress, avoid, and in other ways try to manage and hide this part. We end up hating those parts of ourselves. We are at war with our own (and other’s) sadness, depression, anxiety, fears, feelings of hopelessness, jealousy, etc.
Problem is, that no matter what we do, these things do not go away. We may try to medicate them, dull them, deny them and get rid of them by projecting them on to other people. It’s all still a part of who we are. Who we really are. Unless, until, and to the degree that we make peace with those parts of ourselves, we are at war with ourselves. The repression and denial and attempts to control these things keep these roots from going deep. Then, when the storms of what it means to be fully human roar in, like a palm tree in a hurricane, we become uprooted, regardless of how beautiful the trunk and how full the canopy, because our roots are only inches deep, rather than going deeply into the ground.
These parts tend to manifest themselves when we are alone. When we get quiet. Which is why so many of us so seldom allow quietness to be a part of our lives. These kinds of thoughts and feelings come roaring in, unexpectedly, uninvited. A few years ago, in a car filled with family, during a quiet moment out of my mouth flew the words, “I hate my life”. That’s the soul speaking. That was my soul speaking.
If you would have been looking at it from the outside, you would have said I had it all. But truth was, I was dying on the inside. Unless we have been taught how to welcome those kinds of thoughts and voices and find out what is going on; unless we learn to listen to them without judgment; unless we find out what they are trying to tell us about our lives, we can easily get overwhelmed.
If what we normally do to repress these things don’t work to “control” and quiet these things (alcohol, money, drugs, food, sex, money, a new car, a new house, a new job, etc.) there is only one thing left and that is to end the experience of this thing we call human life. My opinion as to why these two deaths occurred, is exactly that.
I’m grateful I found people and places who can hear and carry me through these places. They encourage me to turn towards these things, those “voices” rather than look or focus away. As a part of my work, I get to help others do the same.
Being at war with who we are is not the answer. Making peace with what it means to be human, everything that it means to be human, is the answer. To do that, we need help to undo what we have learned about ourselves.
Making peace with ourselves is not a new concept. It is a radical expression of self-love. A radical acceptance of self. A gentleman 2,500 years ago suggested the same approach.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest-house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Welcome difficulty. Learn the true alchemy True Human
Beings know: the moment you accept what troubles
you’ve been given, the door opens. Welcome difficulty as a familiar
comrade. Joke with torment brought by the Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover,
and then are taken off. That undressing,
and the beautiful naked body underneath,
is the sweetness that comes
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
(From “Say I Am You? Poems of Rumi,”
translation by John Moyne and Coleman Barks)
What’s your take?