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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Spark of Madness

I am stunned by the death of Robin Williams. I am only slightly less stunned by my reaction to his death.

I have known persons who have taken their own lives, and I have known the darkness that descends on those they leave behind. I too have struggled with depression, that pernicious consumer of emotional, physical and spiritual energy. Perhaps only those whose melancholy and despair have moved them to the boundary where life can morph into death by one’s own hand can truly understand the unreasonable weight of the burden of living. Surely we know that there are many in the spheres of our lives who are at, or moving toward, that boundary.

Mr. Williams once said, “You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.” Aye, it is a spark of madness that gives birth to genius, but it is also a spark of madness to give birth to death, when we who are the beneficiaries of the gift of Life and Love overlook and ignore or simply discount the road signs along depression’s path into debilitating darkness when we discern them in others.

It is a task given to our human nature to learn to live with death, but our culture has not aided us in the discharge of that task. In many ways unconscionable, the dominant religious traditions of the West have failed to guide us in the exploration of that boundary. We live with death each day, but we do so in mindless and irresponsible ways.

The statistics on suicide are overwhelming. Since Mr. Williams’s death has put this matter into our minds, it would do us well to learn from SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). Among other things there, we learn that depression is the strongest risk factor for suicide.

The loss of life by self-inflicted death, however, is not the only casualty engendered by suicide. In the aftermath, family and friends—all manner of loved ones—must contend with death and loss and confusion and shame and anger and guilt and a host of other very abnormally normal human reactions. They go on, publically bearing the loss but inwardly feeling, in their own way, the unreasonable weight of the burden of living.

For them, some days are better than others. Morning arrives after a night of fitful sleep, and sometimes the sleep ends long before the light of dawn arises. The fact that some days are better than others also means that some days are worse than others.

The one thing they all have in common--these better or worse days--is that we have to decide to live in them. Sometimes that can be very hard, and it's never easy, especially when an absence of one so loved weighs heavily on our consciousness.

Having grown up in a mortician's family, I can say that death was a way of life for us. I observed the many different types of grief and the ways people expressed and worked through their grieving. But it was not until a member of my own family died that I experienced loss and the reality of grief. For the first time, as a young adult, I needed to work with and through grief and the pain of loss.

Some religious traditions teach that suffering is a very constant aspect of the human condition, and that the alleviation of suffering entails the development of our ability to transcend the circumstances of our suffering. Other religious traditions teach that the causes of suffering lie within ourselves, and that we can lower the threshold of suffering by making different choices.

The darkness that descends in the wake of the loss of a loved one by suicide is one that cannot be justified by simple explanations or the human condition or existential choices. The endurance of this loss is not made easier by casting blame on an all-powerful deity or the mere chance of an ill-informed choice. Rather, this darkness is the place to begin the search for that slim ray of light that signals the presence of a someone or something, a force or an energy that shows itself to be compassionate and caring, especially to those whose suffering seems unmitigated.

A spirituality that makes room for the unanswerable questions is needed. Such spirituality is better equipped to discern the slim ray of light in the lives of others whose vulnerability and pain is transparent and undisguised. If I cannot believe in hope and light and love at this moment, may I depend on you to believe in my place for a while? Or, if your loss is so unendurable as to be inconsolable, may I carry it with you for a while and share your burden?

A spirituality unshared with others is itself a burden too heavy to carry, especially when the sense of loss is so grievous. But in company of others who may or may not know themselves the nature of this particular grief, it is possible to trim the sails of anguished thoughts and scale back the expenditure of deep emotions. With others, one can discover a sense of presence of that one or that energy that is shown to be non-threatening, interested, and caring. With others, it is as though there is a light beginning to shine where before there was only darkness.

Some days are better than others. When I consider the weight of the darkness, I find myself grateful for the little glimmer of light I see in the compassion of others, and I want it to be a sign of healing. My experience in the company of others whose spirituality is open to me and to the transcendent is, invariably, one that sees them as a source of courage and consolation. It is a mystery, this intermingling of our spirits in mutual love and care. And there I find the reason for why some days are better than others.