Tag Archives: suicide

Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality

Appropriate a “worldview” to have an impostor’s point of view.

Or, develop a point of view that allows for the broadest range of possibilities.

I think I’m onto something with the second option.

Creative Nonfiction and Inconclusiveness

In MFA programs, some writers of creative nonfiction attempt to tell personal stories about traumas and crises.

Even the best memoirs can fail to answer fundamental questions about those personal stories.

But I wholeheartedly support those attempts.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” said playwright William Nicholson (who placed those words in C.S. Lewis’s mouth in Shadowlands, a fictitious account of the Narnia creator’s life).

Someone out there needs to hear he or she is not the only one who has been through a particular situation, or even just a particular feeling.

Written works, if not abandoned, have conclusions — but creative nonfiction is not always conclusive. That might seem self-contradictory for a genre of writing identified by its focus on the factual.

But it’s not self-contradictory.

A certain species of written work sets out to pursue the answer to questions, often unanswerable questions, like the question one of my friends pursued in her creative nonfiction thesis for her MFA: why did her grandfather jump to his death? Why did he commit suicide?

An ultimate, conclusive answer is not possible. But the meditation and speculation on the man’s heartbreaking act might just help bring about some emotional closure.

More importantly, the writer needs to wrestle with the emotion and experience that’s haunting her. For the writer, the wrestling and expressing have to happen. She pursues the question by telling her story.

And sometimes, people have to tell their stories again and again and again because they can’t quite make sense of what has happened.

Some of them are not writers, who at least have a creative outlet for their turmoil. That means non-writers tell their stories again and again and again to anyone who will listen. Their social circles tend to shrink. Their need for answers tends to expand.

Montaigne & Friends

A lack of conclusiveness in some nonfiction is hardly a postmodernist head trip or a morally relativistic innovation. The French writer Montaigne, who lived 1533-1592, was the granddaddy of the contemporary essay, and in his native tongue, essai essentially means to try.

Essays, in other words, were born as tries, as written attempts to grasp an issue, topic, emotion, or experience.

As I’ve been reading through Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding biography of Montaigne, and as I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays in English translation, I’ve noticed an essayist’s mind roams and meanders and circumambulates.

An essay, in the literary tradition of Montaigne, is more like a tour through the layers and associations of the essayist’s mind than a definitive exposition of a given subject. (Alan Lightman deserves credit for this line of thinking; see his intro to Best American Essays 2000.)

The person’s interaction with the subject matter — that’s the point of the essay. Like I told a creative writing class recently, the relationship between the writer and “the subject” is the real subject of the essay.

And sometimes, people just don’t know what to think.

Essays are great places for saying, directly and indirectly, “Well, it seems like… but then, on the other hand…”

The essayist sets out to make a try, an attempt, at understanding something, and the reader ought to be as interested in the person writing about the subject matter as the subject matter itself. (Lightman again.)

Inconsistencies are welcome. Backtracking is cool. Indecisiveness is not par for the course; it is the course. Back-pedaling is to be expected.

That might seem like a horrible mode for the life of one’s mind, but for Montaigne, in a time of political ferment and religious wars among Jesus’s self-identified favorite children, withholding judgment (as Bakewell notes) and weighing all options and even leaving things unresolved seemed less like being squishy and more like being sane.

Kind of like in our time.

Neil Peart put it this way in a song that might have fit some of Montaigne’s moods: “Everyone knows everything / And no one’s ever wrong / Until later.”

Look—making oneself the sole authority is much, much different from insisting that others take responsibility for the violent results of their opinions and their allegiances. Accusations of individualistic rationalism and solipsism originate from the person covering-up a multitude of sins.

Arranging the Facts for Someone Else’s Conclusiveness

Sometimes the best thing a person can do, as Soren Kierkegaard once said (not in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but if memory serves, in either Judge for Yourself or For Self-Examination), is to arrange the facts and leave the room so another person may arrive at his own conclusion. The arrangement might be motivated by an agenda. But to merely arrange the facts and leave—that might look inconclusive, and it might be inconclusive.

That probably doesn’t matter. In such a mode, the essayist’s righteousness is probably not the issue. The essayist seems to be operating in a self-deprecating mode: Sure, I’m a clown, but I’m dancing around this issue because it seems kind of important.

Of course, the inconclusive essayist—or dilettante blogger (guilty!)—risks as much by being inconclusive as he does by being confessional.

The better part of anyone’s social life depends upon agreement, unity, and mutuality. That seems both normal and tribal. But if the essayist wants to state an honest appreciation for a not-so-socially-acceptable perspective, the social circle might be less than accommodating to a departure from received doctrine.

So what? The essayist will just have to decide what’s more important—pursuing that uncertainty, that question, in a public fashion, or maintaining social respectability within the given framework.

I suspect no one would have appreciated such trade-offs quite like Montaigne.

On ‘Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide’ from The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is one of the most interesting guys out there. In this long and worthwhile post, he talks about a time of depression and suicidal ideation.

I’m linking to and excerpting the post not merely as a public service announcement, although that aspect is certainly critical.

Ferriss’s post fits with the overall purpose of my blog. Unfortunately, the research is consistent and clear: for many who have suffered religious authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, or cult dynamics, suicide can be a real, substantial temptation.

Ferriss doesn’t seem to be a religious man in any traditional sense of the word, but he makes an interesting observation:

I personally believe that consciousness persists after physical death, and it dawned on me that I literally had zero evidence that my death would improve things. It’s a terrible bet. At least here, in this life, we have known variables we can tweak and change. The unknown void could be Dante’s Inferno or far worse. When we just “want the pain to stop,” it’s easy to forget this. You simply don’t know what’s behind door #3.  — via Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Read the entire post: Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss.

Some Christian beliefs make matters worse, insisting that God ordains each sin (and suicide is considered a sin).

However logically and systematically consistent some theological thinkers might be, the idea of God ordaining horrible things is abhorrent.

At very least we could acknowledge that an impassible God becoming incarnate to die in place of his creatures is anything but logical. Perhaps loving, but not logical.

Here one of G.K. Chesterton’s quotes pops into mind: “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Maybe some theological thinkers have been orthodox and mad.

Logical and insane.

Logic and analysis are good. Problems come along when a mind becomes so focused on and so obsessed with the parts that it can no longer see the connections and the wholes. No one can live while seeing only fragments and pieces.

Which reminds me of a thought that, I think, came from C.S. Lewis: for the modernistic scientist, a real bird is a bird opened on the dissection table, pinned down and pulled apart. In an earlier time, a real bird was a bird on the wing, with its song.

Everyone knows the bird has guts. But even in a natural order sparked by a blind watchmaker, who would think the bird exists merely in relation to the functioning of its internal organs? The bird exists in relation to the rest of the natural order — bugs, fish, soil, water, and trees, as well as humans and human culture. We appreciate these relationships — they’ve been there as long as we can remember, as far back as we can see in art and literature.

Endless dissection is useful, even helpful, but discoveries made through analysis are never for themselves, but for better understandings of wholes.

Over-analysis of a single situation leads into a singular focus, a mental microscope on a single cell, with no context for its wider circumstances, its situations and connections. The suicidal person might feel like this one bad circumstance is all there is. But there is so much more.

So for some scientists and some theologians, reasoning has been a force for good, for making connections and seeing wholes, for continuing to live in spite of extraordinary difficulties.

They use reasoning to see the connections and the wholes — in other words, the meaningfulness of everything that exists.

Also see:

Walker Percy’s passage on “the ex-suicide” from his book Lost in the Cosmos.

Abandoning All Hope.

This is an outstanding analysis of the fundamentalist subculture in which the late Isaac Hunter lived — both peculiarities of the fundamentalist subculture and the subculture’s unwillingness to encourage people to get help for mental illnesses.

Roll to Disbelieve

One of the greatest of all the benefits of Christianity is supposed to be hope. So why do so many Christians seem to lack it?

Today we’re going to look at the very sad case of a Christian man who lost hope, and we’re going to talk about some things that lead Christians to lose hope.

Isaac Hunter died this week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a series of astonishing revelations and events in his personal life. I am not happy about this death or about any of the other recent publicized suicides among Christian pastors and their families. I join Mr. Hunter’s family and his community in mourning this absolutely tragic and unthinkable loss. I am not glorifying it in any way or claiming it as a victory for anybody. It is not. This event is in every conceivable way a loss and we should not be rejoicing…

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Heartbreak for another pastor’s son lost to suicide

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides smart suggestions on how to address suicidal comments on social media, and the organization is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.

 

Isaac Hunter, son of Orlando mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, has committed suicide, reported Christianity Today‘s Gleanings blog two days ago.

Isaac Hunter’s suicide happened about 8 months after Matthew Warren, son of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, committed suicide.

A pastor at Joel Hunter’s church noted, in a blog post, “… Isaac loved Jesus. And we are assured of his continuing relationship with Christ now in heaven (Romans 8:38-39).”

In other suicides that have touched ministries, believers have not been so charitable.

The Gleanings post also referenced a Christian Post article about a pastor’s suicide. Pastor Teddy Parker Jr. killed himself in November.

The article quotes one of the late pastor’s friends, E. Dewey Smith Jr. (also a pastor), who said:

“My friend was sick. He was the most kind, loving, humble, most genuine, loyal person I’ve ever met in my life and he was sick. He had a sickness and that’s it. He had a sickness just like somebody who had cancer and it was a sickness that was beyond his control.”

Smith told Christian Post his friend Parker had manic depression and emotional issues.

Smith also said, “It’s terrible how we blame people. Is it fair to blame a victim for being sick? Is it fair? Is it fair to expect sick people to always be rational? It’s terribly painful for me to watch pundits and people who don’t even know the story to assail and assassinate my friend’s character. I know him. I know his heart. He struggled. He was loving, he was kind” (emphasis added).

However, Christian Post reporter Leonardo Blair wrote, “While many readers have been sharing their condolences for the pastor and his family on CP’s Facebook page, others have damned pastor Parker to hell for taking his life (emphasis added).”

When I looked at the article’s webpage, I noticed a headline in the list of “top stories” on the website: “Many Christians ‘Utterly Unprepared’ to Defend Their Faith, Says Leading Christian Apologist.”

And many Christians are utterly unprepared to make the distinction between a failure of will and an illness of the brain.

I wrote elsewhere about the loss of Matthew Warren, and I’m going to repeat some of what I said before, but this time, with Isaac Hunter in mind.

I’ve had my own battles with clinical depression, and something in Matthew Warren’s story feels non-negotiable and irrevocable. When someone like Matthew Warren has for a father an internationally known pastor with access (as the pastor said in a statement after the suicide) to the best psychological and medical help in the world, I imagine him having God and all of human wisdom on his side. It wasn’t enough….

Today… I’m at a much healthier place, but I’m not going to tell you how I got there. The worst thing I could do would be to talk about how things got better.

That’s because I’m not Matthew Warren. I have no idea what he was feeling, how bad it was, what might have brought it on, what object he might have been looking at when he realized for himself he couldn’t carry on. I just can’t know.

One size fits no one. The worst thing about our culture right now is its plethora of singular answers. So many people claim to have found The Answer or The Secret or The Steps…..

At very least, we should ask, “Jesus is the answer to what?” I’m sure Jesus was an answer for Matthew Warren, an answer for some aspect of him, for some aspect of his life, but Jesus was not the answer he needed when he made his final decision.

I’m inclined to leave you with lyrics from several songs that come to mind. They are all inappropriate. The loss is real and final. There is no remedy. The best we can do is further question the road to suicide.

Pastor Rick Warren speaks about his son’s suicide and the unnecessary stigma attached to mental illness

Pastor Rick Warren on CNN’s Piers Morgan:

“Piers, any other organ in my body can get broken, and there’s no shame, no stigma to it. My liver stops working, my heart stops working, my lungs stop working, well I just say hey I’ve got diabetes –my pancreas or my adrenaline glands or whatever. But if my brain is broken, I’m supposed to feel bad about it, I’m supposed to feel shame. And so a lot of people who should get help don’t.”

Warren also said his son was completely loved and accepted by his family and extended family members: “If love could have kept my child alive, he would have been alive today.”

For those who couldn’t stay

Originally published April 10, 2013, here.

I haven’t been a fan of Rick Warren, pastor and author The Purpose-Driven Life, a book that sold something like a trillion copies.

As a pastor, Rick Warren has influenced hundreds of churches, and in recent years his book has been studied by numerous churches along the Grand Strand.

I once said the book was targeted to the rationalistic, utilitarian branch of evangelicalism, and for those who are already lost due to my word choices, I’ll clarify: I was being snarky – about the book and its fans.

But last Friday’s report of the suicide of Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick Warren, hit me like a gut punch.

It scared me. I’ve had my own battles with clinical depression, and something in Matthew Warren’s story feels non-negotiable and irrevocable. When someone like Matthew Warren has for a father an internationally known pastor with access (as the pastor said in a statement after the suicide) to the best psychological and medical help in the world, I imagine him having God and all of human wisdom on his side. It wasn’t enough.

I recalled feeling a similar sense of despair under very different circumstances: In May 2001, I was vacationing in Black Mountain, N.C., and made a trip to a used-bookstore in nearby Asheville. I found a used hardback copy of writer John Berryman’s collected poems. I had read, somewhere, about Berryman, and he intrigued me. When I returned to the cabin in Black Mountain, I flipped through the biographical pages and saw that Berryman had jumped from a bridge to end his life.

I felt sick. Berryman’s suicide, my choice of his book, and his passing resemblance (in his later years) to one of my grandfathers, all worked together to upset me. In a strange way, I felt met by an omen, a prophecy of something unavoidable. To this day, I’ve read very little of the book. I don’t like what it reminds me of.

Matthew Warren and Berryman both threw at me a stomach ache full of questions – was this depressive state just plain fated? What if my depression worsened? Was suicide just inevitable?

Today I’m in a much healthier place than I was during that trip to Black Mountain 12 years ago, but Matthew Warren’s suicide bothered me because I can’t help wondering if, someday, the “black dog” of depression will return again, bigger and heavier.

I’m at a much healthier place, but I’m not going to tell you how I got there. The worst thing I could do would be to talk about how things got better.

That’s because I’m not Matthew Warren. I have no idea what he was feeling, how bad it was, what might have brought it on, what object he might have been looking at when he realized for himself he couldn’t carry on. I just can’t know.

One size fits no one. The worst thing about our culture right now is its plethora of singular answers. So many people claim to have found The Answer or The Secret or The Steps. Your family member or your neighbor enthusiastically promotes some book or system, and you wonder if they’re really benefitting from this thing or just parroting the propaganda, entranced by skillful marketers.

Perhaps they’ve found what works for them, but I strongly disagree that they have found Theeeee anything.

Many of my friends and acquaintances will be upset with me for saying that. To be on their team, I’m supposed to say “Jesus is the answer!” No doubt, a few of them haven’t, and never will, reflect on the blessings of their own genetic inheritance, their own competencies, their own aptitudes, their own ability to move ahead in careers and communities, their own hard work at (or dumb luck of) having good, supportive families. Then again, I also know that other people who cry “Jesus is the answer” have their own torments, and somehow, are helped by faith. Remember Johnny Cash.

At very least, we should ask, “Jesus is the answer to what?” I’m sure Jesus was an answer for Matthew Warren, an answer for some aspect of him, for some aspect of his life, but Jesus was not the answer he needed when he made his final decision.

I’m inclined to leave you with lyrics from several songs that come to mind. They are all inappropriate. The loss is real and final. There is no remedy. The best we can do is further question the road to suicide.

-Colin Foote Burch

Cornell University’s suicides

Updated 3:49 p.m. Eastern on March 19, 2010, with a new video link at the bottom of this post.

Six suicides at Cornell University during this academic year have prompted a school official to declare a “public health crisis.”

Suicide was already in the news following the suicide of Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse. In response, I posted some anti-suicide thoughts from the late award-winning writer Walker Percy here.

I also found an interesting anti-suicide organization yesterday — oddly enough, while watching a live feed of a Drive-By Truckers’ performance at SXSW and heading over to the band’s Web site. Drive-By Truckers supports Nuci’s Space, an anti-suicide organization in Atlanta that primarily focuses on musicians.

Percy and Nuci’s Space provide some thoughts that, I hope, would help stop someone from making a horrible decision. The best hope, I think, comes from a belief that the Creator and Ultimate Reality himself died to provide persons with a free gift of redemption and grace, and therefore, allows a connection to all that is thoroughly good, true, and beautiful in the universe. As Udo Middelmann, explaining Francis Schaeffer’s formulation, once put it: “It is the grace of God in Christ, which we accept with the empty hands of faith.” Not by thinking the right things, not by doing the right things, but by receiving the right thing, rightly understood.

Richard L. Dowhower, a Lutheran minister, explains hope and acceptance in a way that once helped me, and maybe it could help someone else:

My own theological tradition gives highest priority to the need of the human spirit and being for the experiential knowledge of the person’s own unconditional acceptance by the Holy Other, Almighty God, The Creator of the Universe, The Ground of Being, The Ultimate Reality. To know Yahweh’s chesed, the steadfast love that lasts forever, or the “grace” of the Lord Jesus is to be “known through and through and loved still and all.” It is love with no strings attached. (From “Guidelines for Clergy” in Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, edited by Michael D. Langone)

Click this link to see a video report on the Cornell suicides at Newsy.com.