RonRolheiser,OMI

Suicide and Melancholy

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We no longer understand melancholy. Today we lump all forms of melancholy together into one indiscriminate bundle and call it “depression”. While a lot of good is being done by psychiatrists, psychologists, and the medical profession in terms of treating depression, something important is being lost at the same time. Melancholy is much more than what we call “depression”. For better and for worse, the ancients saw melancholy as a gift from God.

Prior to modern psychology and psychiatry, melancholy was seen precisely as a gift from the divine. In Greek mythology, it even had its own god, Saturn, and it was seen as a rich but mixed gift. On one hand, it could bring soul-crushing emotions such as unbearable loneliness, paralyzing obsessions, inconsolable grief, cosmic sadness, and suicidal despair; on the other hand, it could also bring depth, genius, creativity, poetic inspiration, compassion, mystical insight, and wisdom.

No more. Today melancholy has even lost its name and has become, in the words of Lyn Cowan, a Jungian analyst, “clinicalized, pathologized, and medicalized” so that what poets, philosophers, blues singers, artists, and mystics have forever drawn on for depth is now seen as a “treatable illness” rather than as a painful part of the soul that doesn’t want treatment but wants instead to be listened to because it intuits the unbearable heaviness of things, namely,  the torment of human finitude, inadequacy and mortality.  For Cowan, modern psychology’s preoccupation with symptoms of depression and its reliance on drugs in treating depression show an “appalling superficiality in the face of real human suffering.” For her, apart from whatever else this might mean, refusing to recognize the depth and meaning of melancholy is demeaning to the sufferer and perpetrates a violence against a soul that is already in torment.

And that is the issue when dealing with suicide. Suicide is normally the result of a soul in torment and in most cases that torment is not the result of a moral failure but of a melancholy which overwhelms a person at a time when he or she is too tender, too weak, too wounded, too stressed, or too biochemically impaired to withstand its pressure. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, who eventually did die by suicide, had written earlier about the melancholic forces that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. Here’s one of his diary entries: “the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, and more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life.’”

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about suicide and that misunderstanding isn’t just psychological, it’s also moral. In short, we generally blame the victim: If your soul is sick, it’s your fault. For the most part that is how people who die by suicide are judged. Even though publicly we have come a long way in recent times in understanding suicide and now claim to be more open and less judgmental morally, the stigma remains. We still have not made the same peace with breakdowns in mental health as we have made with breakdowns in physical health. We don’t have the same psychological and moral anxieties when someone dies of cancer, stroke, or heart attack as we do when someone dies by suicide. Those who die by suicide are, in effect, our new “lepers”.

In former times when there was no solution for leprosy other than isolating the person from everyone else, the victim suffered doubly, once from the disease and then (perhaps even more painfully) from the social isolation and debilitating stigma. He or she was declared “unclean” and had to own that stigma. But the person suffering from leprosy still had the consolation of not being judged psychologically or morally. They were not judged to be “unclean” in those areas. They were pitied.

However, we only feel pity for those whom we haven’t ostracized, psychologically and morally. That’s why we judge rather than pity someone who dies by suicide. For us, death by suicide still renders persons “unclean” in that it puts them outside of what we deem as morally and psychologically acceptable. Their deaths are not spoken of in the same way as other deaths. They are doubly judged, psychologically (If your soul is sick, it’s your own fault) and morally (Your death is a betrayal). To die by suicide is worse than dying of leprosy.

I’m not sure how we can move past this. As Pascal says, the heart has its reasons. So too does the powerful taboo inside us that militates against suicide. There are good reasons why we spontaneously feel the way we do about suicide. But, perhaps a deeper understanding of the complexity of forces that lie inside of what we naively label “depression” might help us understand that, in most cases, suicide may not be judged as a moral or psychological failure, but as a melancholy that has overpowered a suffering soul.

Letting go of False Fear

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Recently in a radio interview, I was asked this question: “If you were on your deathbed, what would you want to leave behind as your parting words?” The question momentarily took me aback. What would I want to leave behind as my last words? Not having time for much reflection, I settled on this. I would want to say: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Don’t be afraid of death. Most of all, don’t be afraid of God!”

I’m a cradle Catholic, born to wonderful parents, catechized by some very dedicated teachers, and I’ve had the privilege of studying theology in some of the best classrooms in the world. Still it took me fifty years to rid myself of a number of crippling religious fears and to realize that God is the one person of whom you need not be afraid. It’s taken me most of my life to believe the words that come from God’s mouth over three hundred times in scripture and are the initial words out of the mouth of Jesus whenever he meets someone for the first time after his resurrection: Do not be afraid!

It has been a fifty-year journey for me to believe that, to trust it. For most of my life I’ve lived in a false fear of God, and of many other things. As a young boy, I had a particular fear of lightning storms which in my young mind demonstrated how fierce and threatening God could be. Thunder and lightning were portents which warned us, religiously, to be fearful. I nursed the same fears about death, wondering where souls went after they died, sometimes looking at a dark horizon after the sun had set and wondering whether people who had died were out there somewhere, haunted in that endless darkness, still suffering for what they’d had not gotten right in life. I knew that God was love, but that love also held a fierce, frightening, exacting justice.

Those fears went partially underground during my teenage years. I made my decision to enter religious life at the age of seventeen and have sometimes wondered whether that decision was made freely and not out of false fear. Looking back on it now however, with fifty years of hindsight, I know that it wasn’t fear that compelled me, but a genuine sense of being called, of knowing from the influence of my parents and the Ursuline nuns who catechized me, that one’s life is not one’s own, that one is called to serve. But religious fear remained unhealthily strong within me.

So, what helped me let go of that? This doesn’t happen in a day or year; it is the cumulative effect of fifty years of bits and pieces conspiring together. It started with my parents’ deaths when I was twenty-two. After watching both my mother and father die, I was no longer afraid of death. It was the first time I wasn’t afraid of a dead body since these bodies were my mother and father of whom I was not afraid. My fears of God eased gradually every time I tried to meet God with my soul naked in prayer and came to realize that your hair doesn’t turn white when you are completely exposed before God; instead you become unafraid. My fears lessened too as I ministered to others and learned what divine compassion should be, as I studied and taught theology, as two cancer diagnoses forced me to contemplate for real my own mortality, and as a number of colleagues, family, and friends modeled how one can live more freely.

Intellectually, a number of persons particularly helped me: John Shea helped me realize that God is not a law to be obeyed, but an infinitely empathic energy that wants us to be happy; Robert Moore helped me to believe that God is still looking on us with delight; Charles Taylor helped me to understand that God wants us to flourish; the bitter anti-religious criticism of atheists like Frederick Nietzsche helped me see where my own concept of God and religion needed a massive purification; and an older brother, a missionary priest, kept unsettling my theology with irreverent questions like, what kind of God would want us to be frightened of him? A lot of bits and pieces conspired together.

What’s the importance of last words? They can mean a lot or a little. My dad’s last words to us were “be careful”, but he was referring to our drive home from the hospital in snow and ice. Last words aren’t always intended to leave a message; they can be focused on saying goodbye or simply be inaudible sighs of pain and exhaustion; but sometimes they can be your legacy.

Given the opportunity to leave family and friends a few last words, I think that after I first tried to say a proper goodbye, I’d say this: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of living or of dying. Especially don’t be afraid of God.

On Not Locking our Doors

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In his book The Secret, Rene Fumoleau has a poem entitled Sins. Fumoleau, who was a missionary priest with the Dene People in Northern Canada, once asked a group of Elders to name what they considered the worst sin of all. Their answer:

            The ten Dene discussed together,

                  And after a while Radisca explained to me:

            “We talked it over, and we all agree:

            The worst sin people can make

                 is to lock their door.”

Perhaps at the time this incident took place and in that particular Dene village, you could still safely leave your door unlocked, but that’s hardly sound advice for most of us who are safe only when we have double locks and electronic security systems securing our doors. Still these Dene Elders are right because at the end of the day, they’re speaking of something deeper than a security bolt on our outside door. What does it really mean to lock your door?

As we know, there are many kinds of doors we lock and unlock to let others in and out. Jean-Paul Sartre, the famed French existentialist, once wrote: Hell is the other person. While this may feel very true emotionally on a given day, it is the antithesis of any religious truth, particularly Christian truth. In all the great religions of the world, in the end being with others is heaven; ending up eternally alone is hell.

That’s a truth built into our very nature. As human persons we are constitutively social; meaning we’re built in such a way that while we’re always individual, private, and idiosyncratic at the same time we’re always social, communitarian, and interdependent. We’re built to be with others and there’s no ultimate meaning or fulfillment to be found alone. Indeed, we need each other simply to survive and remain sane. Still more, we need each other for love and meaning because without these there’s no purpose to us. To end up alone is death of the worst kind.

This needs to be highlighted today because both in society and in our churches too many of us are locking a select number of our doors in ways that are both destructive and genuinely unchristian. What’s our issue?

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam looked at the breakdown of community within our culture and named it with a catchy phrase, Bowling Alone.  For Putnam, our families, neighborhoods, and wider communities are breaking down because of an excessive individualism within the culture. More and more, we’re doing things alone, walking within our own idiosyncratic rhythms rather than within community rhythms. Few would dispute this assessment.  

However, what we’re struggling with today goes further than the individualism Putnam so playfully names. In the excessive individualism Putnam describes, we end up bowling alone but mostly still inside the same bowling alley, separate from each other but not locked out. Our problem goes deeper. Metaphorically, we’re locking each other out of our common bowling alley. What’s meant here?

Beyond an isolating individualism, we’re struggling today in our families, communities, countries, and churches with a demon of a different sort, that is, with doors locked in bitterness. Politically, in many of our countries we’re now so polarized that the various sides are unable to even have a respectful, civil conversation with each other. The other is “hell”.  This is true too inside our families where conversation at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner has to carefully avoid all references to what’s going on in the country and we can only be at the same table with each other if we keep our political views locked away.

Sadly, this is now mirrored in our churches where different visions of theology, ecclesiology, and morality have led to a polarization of such intensity that each theological and ecclesial group now stays behind its own solidly locked door. There’s no openness to what’s other and all real dialogue has been replaced by mutual demonization. This lack of openness is ultimately what the Dene refer to as the worst sin of all, our locked doors. Hell then really is the other person. Sartre must be smiling.

It’s interesting how evil works.  The Gospels give us two separate words for the evil one. Sometimes the evil one is called “the devil” (Diabolos) and sometimes the evil one is called “satan” (Satanas). Both describe the evil power that works against God, goodness, and love within a community. The “Devil” works by dividing us, one from another, breaking down community through jealousy, pride, and false freedom; whereas “Satan” works in the reverse way. Satan unites us in sick ways so as to have us, as groups, demonize each other, carry out crucifixions, and cling to each other feverishly through sick kinds of hysteria and ideologies that make for scapegoating, racism, sexism, and group-hatred of every kind. Either way, whether it’s satan or the devil, we end up behind locked doors where those outside of ourselves are seen as hell.

So it’s true, “the worst sin we can make is to lock our doors.”