News of most suicides never makes it beyond the local press. With a celebrity, as in the cases of fashion designer Kate Spade, and world-renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, their stories instantly become world news. In such instances, my heart goes out to the families whose shock and grief over their own loss is compounded by a public anxiously seeking answers to the very difficult question: Why?
Inconsolable emotions also arise when people are the victims of accidents or murder, lives cut short for reasons beyond their control. Suicide is different because it’s a conscious choice. We assume their success should somehow insulate them from the cares of the average person, so we grapple with the question of why anyone who has accomplished their dream of fame and fortune would want to end his or her life. Of course we don’t limit our confusion to celebrities. Most of us have probably known or have learned of people who appeared to have much to live for, but for reasons known only to them, committed suicide.
Over the last four decades I’ve conducted hundreds of memorial services with a few involving suicide. These are never easy for those left behind. There are so many questions. Family members are devastated, confused, angry, defensive, embarrassed, often interpreting the act of their loved one as a failure on their part. Why didn’t I see this coming? Could I have done something to stop them? Did I play some part in their choice? How could I have missed the signals that now seem so obvious?
The truth is, unless the suicide is a flagrant act of revenge or the culmination of a very long battle with addiction or obvious depression, they probably went to great lengths to shield loved ones from their closely guarded secret. They may have felt that bringing it out in the open would evoke disappointment from those who considered them a pillar of strength and self-confidence. They may have been great cheerleaders for others while they themselves were drowning in quiet despair. Maybe they felt they were beyond the help of therapy, support groups, or mood-enhancing drugs, or that the positive reinforcement these things may have provided would do little more than prolong their suffering.
Still, intervention is worth the effort, and I encourage anyone contemplating suicide to seek help. It doesn’t always take much to make a huge difference. In one case, my simple acknowledgment that a woman was considering taking her life was enough to turn her around. That someone finally noticed the extent of her pain was all it took to lift her from the thought of suicide. Once her dark secret was exposed, she could release it and go on to live a fulfilling life, which she did.
In another case, I wasn’t even aware that I had “interrupted” a planned suicide until I received this touching letter:
“I had no knowledge of the Unity church prior to one and one half years ago. Then one Sunday, I turned on the radio. I had reached a new low – filled with despair. I had just written a note to my family explaining why I had to take my life. As I was counting out the pills I was going to swallow, I heard Rev. Bottorff speaking (I really heard him). His voice and message was filled with so much love and hope the intense pain I was experiencing seemed to dissipate. I had not been in a church for 20 years and had totally given up on the idea of a God – until that Sunday when your service was broadcast. I can’t even tell you why I had the radio on at that time. I never had before. But I know that Rev. Bottorff saved my life and since that initial message I have missed only 2 or 3 broadcasts. There have been many times during this past year I have been sustained only by the assurance that I would hear your words again on Sunday. ‘Wait till Sunday’ has been my personal battle cry. So I thank you with much gratitude for reaching out to me – and many others, I’m sure – with love and greater hope for the future.”
Through the years I have sorted through the mainstream Christian beliefs that most of us are born into. Taking one’s own life, I was led to believe, is a sin. I now agree with this, but only in the sense that sin means to fall short, to miss the mark. And what, in this context, is the mark? I’ve come to believe that we made the choice to be here, and we had our reason for making this choice. Have we fulfilled this reason? Have we hit our mark? Or have we become so buried in a shallow obsession of acquiring status, money, friends, accomplishments, houses, careers, and positions of power that we’ve forgotten why we made the choice to come? Are we merely the measure of all we’ve accomplished and accumulated, or are we something more, something we’ve forgotten in our culturally programmed and sanctioned quest to acquire?
At the death of the body, I believe we face a judge. But this judge is not some mighty religious figure holding a ledger filled with every one of our good and bad deeds. The judge is us. Free of the body and all its circumstantial issues, we recall our reason for coming and we weigh this against what we actually did with our life. We’re confronted with this question: Did I do what I came here to do, or did I get sidetracked by the distractions of materialism? If I see that I was sidetracked, I also see that suicide resolves nothing, as it gets me no closer to fulfilling my reason for coming.
Many are plagued with the feeling that something essential to their happiness is missing. The irony here is the thing we’re actually looking for is a conscious connection with our spiritual essence, which I’m comfortable calling the soul. If I want to recall my purpose for coming, then it’s essential that I reconnect with the “me” that made the decision to come in the first place. What am I looking for? What’s missing? I’m missing. My dissatisfaction is not the result of falling short of hitting some religiously imposed mark. I’ve missed my own mark. I’ve mistaken myself for the false sense of self that I’m projecting to the world. Rather than understand myself as a spiritual being having a human experience, I’ve lived my life as a human being seeking a spiritual experience. The problem here is that the spiritual experience, the attempted filling of the void, is thought to be accomplished by first addressing all material needs. When I accumulate enough stuff, I can relax and I’ll be free to be myself. The problem is, it’s never enough. The self I’m trying to be is a bottomless pit that simply cannot be filled with accomplishments.
I’m not advocating material deprivation. I’m talking about refocus. Rather than starting with the question of what you want from life, you take a hard look at the “you” who wants it. Are your pursuits in life designed to satisfy an inadequate self-image, or do you see your hoped-for acquisitions as the means through which you express your natural strength? In other words, are you fulfilling your reason for coming here? Do you know who you really are?
I believe suicide is but one of the many symptoms of a misplaced sense of self and purpose. In truth, we cannot destroy or harm our soul. Nor is our dissatisfaction with the things of this earthly life a signal that we should deprive ourselves of them. Our dissatisfaction is a signal that we have moved away from our true base, that we’re trying to fabricate something that we already are at the deepest level. Our spiritual journey is all about returning to this spiritual center, our true home, from which we have strayed.