RonRolheiser,OMI

Suicide and Mental Health 

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As young boy, I longed to be a professional athlete but I had to soon accept the unwelcome fact that I simply wasn’t gifted with an athlete’s body. Speed, strength, coordination, instinct, vision, I got by in ordinary life with what I had been given of these, but I wasn’t physically robust enough to be an athlete.

It took some years to make peace with that, but it took me even longer, well into mid-life, before I came to both acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that, while I wasn’t blessed with an athlete’s body, I had been given a robust mental health, and that this was a mammoth undeserved blessing, more important for life than an athlete’s body. I had often wondered what it would be like to have an athlete’s body, to possess that kind of speed, strength, and grace, but I had never wondered what it must be like not to have a strong, steady, resilient mind, one that knows how to return a lob, split a defense, not be afraid of contact, absorb a hit, and not let the rigors of the game break you.

And that recognition was bought and paid for by some of the most painful moments of my life. As I aged, year after year, I began to see a number of my former classmates, colleagues, trusted mentors, acquaintances of all kinds, and dear friends lose their battle with mental health and sink, slowly or rapidly, into various forms of clinical depression, mental paralysis, mental anguish, dementia of various kinds, dark personality changes, suicide, and, and worst of all, even into murder.

Slowly, painfully, haltingly, I came to know that not everyone has the internal circuits to allow them the sustained capacity for steadiness and buoyancy. I also came to learn that one’s mental health is really parallel to one’s physical health, fragile, and not fully within one’s own control. Moreover just as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, stroke, heart attacks, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis, can cause debilitation and death, so too can mental diseases wreak deadly havoc inside the mind, also causing every kind of debilitation and, not infrequently, death, suicide.

How might one define robust mental health? Robust mental health is not to be confused with intelligence or brilliance. It’s neither. Rather it is steadiness, a capacity to somehow always be anchored, balanced, buoyant, and resilient in the face of all that life throws at you, good and bad. Indeed, sometimes it can be a positive blockage to creativity and brilliance. Some people, it seems, are just too grounded and sane to be brilliant! And brilliant people, gifted artists, poets, musicians, not infrequently struggle to stay solidly grounded. Brilliance and steadiness are frequently very different gifts. Through the years that I have been writing on suicide, I have received many letters, emails, and phone calls, with anguished concerns about understanding mental health.  One letter came for a woman, a brilliant psychoanalyst, somewhat anxious about her own steadiness and that of her family, who wrote: “Everyone in my family is brilliant, but none of us is very steady!” Of course, we all know families where the reverse is true.

In short, we need a better understanding of mental health; perhaps not so much among doctors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals, where there is already a considerable understanding of mental health and where valuable research goes on, but within the culture at large, particularly as this pertains to suicide.

When we see someone suffering from a physical disability or a bodily disease, it’s easy to understand this limitation and be moved to empathy. But this is predicated largely on the fact that we can see, physically see, the disability or the sickness. We may feel frustrated, helpless, and even angry in the face of what we see, but we generally understand. We get it! Nature has dealt this person a particular hand of cards, no one’s to blame!

But that’s not the situation with mental health.  Here the disability or sickness is not so overt or easily understood. This is particularly true where the breakdown of a person’s mental health results in suicide. For centuries, this has been badly misdiagnosed, not least morally and religiously. Today, more and more, we claim to understand, even as we don’t really understand. A deeper, more-intuitive eye is still required. We still don’t really understand mental fragility.

Our physical health can be robust or fragile, the same for our mental health.  In both cases, how strong we are depends a lot upon the hand of cards we were dealt, our genetic endowment and the environment that shaped us. We don’t get to order our bodies and minds from a catalogue, and nature and life don’t always deal the cards evenly.

We need to better understand mental health and mental breakdown.  Psychologically and emotionally, we are not immune to all kinds of cancers, strokes, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. And they too can be terminal, as is the case with suicide.

Angels with Sickles and God’s Fury 

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There’s a haunting text in the Book of Revelation where poetic image, for all its beauty, can be dangerously misleading. The author there writes: “So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great winepress of God’s fury.” A fierce angel cleansing the world! God in a boiling anger! What’s to be understood by that?

Like so many other things in scripture, this is to be taken seriously, but not literally. Clearly the text, as other texts in scripture which speak of God’s jealousy, anger, and vengeance, has something important to teach, but, like those other texts which have God jealous and angry, it can be dangerously misunderstood. What it doesn’t teach is that God gets angry, that God is sometimes furious with us, and that God wreaks havoc on the planet because of sin. What it does teach is that the chickens always come home to roost, that our actions have consequences, that sin wreaks havoc on the planet and on our own souls, driving us to anger, self-hatred, and lack of self-forgiveness, and that this feels as if God is angry and punishing us.

God doesn’t get angry, pure and simple. God is not a creature, another existent among others, a being like us. God’s ways are not our ways. This has been affirmed from Isaiah through 2000 years of Christian tradition. We cannot project our way of being, thinking, and loving unto God. And nowhere is this truer than when we imagine God as getting angry. Mercy, love, and forgiveness are not attributes of God, as they are for us. They constitute God’s nature. God doesn’t get angry like we do.

Scripture and Christian tradition do, of course, speak of God as getting angry, but that, as Christian theology clearly teaches, is anthropomorphism, that is, it is a projection of human thought and feeling into God. In saying things such as God is angry with us or God is punishing us for our sins, we are not, in essence, saying how God feels about us but rather how we, at that moment, feel about God and how we feel about ourselves and our own actions.

For example, when St. Paul tells us that when we sin, we feel “the wrath of God” he is not telling us that God gets angry with us when we sin. Rather we get angry at ourselves when we sin. The concept of God’s wrath is a metaphor, illustrated, for example, by a hangover: If someone is immoderate in his or her use of alcohol, God doesn’t get displeased and give that person a headache.  The wrath issues from the act itself: Excessive alcohol dehydrates the brain, causing a headache. The pain is not from God, though it feels like divine punishment, like God’s fury at our irresponsibility. But this is a projection on our part, anthropomorphism.

We flatter ourselves, and do God no favors, when we say that we offend God and that God gets angry with us. God is not just the ground of our being, our Creator, the Unmoved Mover. God is too a person who loves us individually and passionately, and so it is natural to imagine that God sometimes gets angry, natural to project our own limits unto God. But God’s love and mercy infinitely dwarf our own thoughts and feelings and limited capacities to actualize love in our lives. Imagine, for example, a loving grandparent picking up his or her newborn grandchild: Is there anything which that newborn can do to offend that grandparent? God’s maturity, understanding, and love infinitely dwarf that of any grandparent. How is God to be offended?

Yet, still, isn’t the language of God’s anger a vital part of our tradition, our scriptures, our prayers, our psalms, and our liturgy? They all speak of us as offending God and as God getting angry. Are these simply to be written off? No. They teach an important truth, even as they must be called for what they are, anthropomorphisms. They are meant to challenge the soul the way indigestion challenges the body. God doesn’t punish us for eating the wrong things or for overeating. Our own biology does and, in doing so, it sends us a nasty signal that we’ve been doing something wrong. Metaphorically speaking, indigestion comes at you like a vengeful angel and throws you into the great winepress of biological fury.

God doesn’t hate us when we do something wrong, but we hate ourselves; God doesn’t wreak a vengeance on us when we sin, but we beat ourselves up whenever we do; and God never withholds forgiveness from us, no matter what we’ve done, but we find it very difficult to forgive ourselves for our own transgressions. There is indeed an angelic razor and a winepress of God’s fury, but those are names for the experience of discontent and self-hatred inside of us whenever we are unfaithful, they have nothing to do with God’s nature.

Our Deepest Insecurity 

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Why don’t we live happier lives? Why are we forever caught up in frustrations, tensions, angers, and resentments?

The reasons of course are too many to name. Each day, as Jesus himself tells us, brings problems enough for the day. We’re unhappy for reasons too many to count. And yet it can be helpful to ask ourselves sometimes: Why am I so chronically sitting just outside the gates of happiness?

Our initial answer would probably focus on the tensions in our lives that have to do with tiredness, with our health, with stress in our relationships, stress in our work, and anxieties about security. There’s always something! A second reflection would, I suspect, drag up deeper reasons: unacknowledged disappointment with how our lives have turned out, with what our lives have come down to, and with the many dreams we had which were frustrated.

But a still deeper reflection, I believe, would shine a light on something else, something that lies beyond the ordinary stresses and deeper disappointments in our lives. It would, I submit, reveal an underlying, unacknowledged insecurity which works at perennially turning the positive into the negative, has us habitually cursing rather than blessing, and has us projecting a negativity and bitterness right in the God and religion we believe in. What is this insecurity?

This insecurity is, at root, a feeling that we are not sufficiently welcome in this world, that God and the universe are somehow hostile to us, that we are not unconditionally loved and forgiven.  And, because of this, we harbor a certain paranoia and hostility towards others. Their energy is a threat to the welcome we desire.

Here’s how Thomas Merton diagnoses this. Commenting on the negativity in the politics, churches, and communities of his time, he offers this reason for the bitterness and division: “In the climate which is not that of life and mercy, but of death and condemnation, the personal and collective guilts of men and of groups wrestle with one another in death struggle. Men, tribes, nations, sects, parties set themselves up in forms of existence which are mutual accusations. They thus seek survival and self-affirmation by living demonically, for the demon is the ‘accuser of the brethren.’ A demonic existence is one which insistently diagnoses what it cannot cure, what it has no desire to cure, what it seeks only to bring to full potency in order that it may cause the death of its victim. Yet this is the temptation which besets the sin-ridden dasein [existential situation] of man, for whom a resentful existence implies the need and decision to accuse and to condemn all other existences.”

And, when this is true, Merton submits, “God becomes a tribal totem, a magnification of the self-seeking existent striving to establish its autonomy in its own void. Can such a God be anything but the embodiment of resentments, hatreds, and dreads? It is in the presence of such idols that vindictive and death-dealing orthodoxies flourish. These gods of party and sect, race and nation, are necessarily the gods of war.”  …  And this can only be remedied “when men [people] realize that they are all debtors, and that the debt is unpayable.”

And isn’t all of this so true today? How vicious, demonizing, polarizing, and stalemated are our own political processes, churches, and communities! How resentful we all are! How much we have turned our God in the embodiment of our resentments, hatred, and fears! How much we are selling death-dealing orthodoxies as religion! How much our communities and churches are creating their own tribal gods! We see this, of course, most clearly in the religious terrorists who bomb and kill in the name of God, but no one is exempt. We all struggle to believe in a God who actually loves everyone and who is not just our own tribal deity. Indeed part of the historical reason for present-day religious terrorism has to do with our own, longstanding, paranoia and how we have projected our own resentments, fears, and hatreds into the God we believe in and the religion we practice.

But Merton shares too the secret of how to move beyond this, of how to stop projecting our own resentments and fears into God and into our churches. His answer? Things will change when, at the root of our being, we accept that we are debtors and that the debt is unpayable. Then we will finally accept God’s welcome and love and, accepting our own welcome, we will no longer resent others.  It’s only when we know our own welcome that we can let acceptance, and not judgment, flow out of our lives. And then, and only then, can we let our God be too the God of others.

At the root of our deepest resentment sits an insecurity about our own welcome in the world and with that comes a failure to understand the real nature of God, that is, because we feel threatened, we invariably create a God and religion that protects us against others.