While I haven’t necessarily set out to do so—not consciously, anyway—it seems that, one way or another and more often than not, the underlying themes of both my fiction and non-fiction writing are rooted in certain needs central to the well-being of us all:
- the need to be seen, heard, and understood;
- the need to be respected and accepted without judgement;
- the need to love and be loved for who we are.
Pretty basic stuff.
As you’ve probably noticed, people aren’t always what they seem. We make assumptions and think we know who others are, then find we have a lot to learn—hopefully, anyway, assuming we have a capacity for self-reflection. Misperceptions come easily, and many are quick to judge. Age, race, size, gender, religion, occupation, education level, liberal/conservative, married/single, gay/straight—the labeled lenses through which we view ourselves and others go on and on.
Maybe we try to deny we have our own pet prejudices, but they’re likely there, somewhere, tucked away in embarrassment or shame. Out of ignorance and fear, we needlessly, and often cruelly, separate ourselves and others into groups and categories, types of “we” and “they,” then look the other way. Continue reading
“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A comment on my last post–He made us laugh. He made us cry. He left us asking why.—has prompted me to share the eloquent, wise words above. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote them in one of ten letters exchanged during 1903-1904 with a young student, Franz Xavier Kappus, who had sought his advice, initially about becoming a writer, but ultimately about life. The collected letters, translated into English by Stephen Mitchell in 1984 and published in a small volume entitled Letters to a Young Poet, are among the most beloved letters of all time. And it’s no wonder! Over the past twenty years I have read and reread multiple passages in the letters, for comfort, for inspiration. The depth of understanding about life which they reflect is revelatory, stunning when one realizes that Rilke was only twenty-seven when he corresponded with Kappus. We know he had a painful childhood, that he struggled greatly with solitude, a burden he felt necessary for self-preservation. Even so, he loved deeply and had a rare appreciation of women. (One of the paragraphs about women’s strengths is remarkably fitting for today; I will share that quote, and others, in future posts.) There is so much in these letters. If you are not familiar with Rilke, seek out Letters to a Young Poet and read his poetry. I wouldn’t be at all surprised you don’t also come to treasure his words.
Suicide challenges our assumptions and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be, and death always leads us to try to make sense of life. Death substantiates life and reminds us to make each day count.
Many of us, I suspect, experienced an anguished sting at the moment we learned of actor/comedian Robin Williams’ recent death. Suicide usually surprises, and it always raises questions. We try to understand why, perhaps wonder if anyone tried to intervene. Over and over, we hear and speak that word: Why? Why? Why? If the person who died was someone we knew or a loved one, we wonder why he or she didn’t come to us or if there wasn’t something more we could have done. Along with our pain at the loss, we may feel shame, even fear or anger, all normal feelings in the wake of such tragedy. Suicide challenges our assumptions and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be, and death always leads us to try to make sense of life. Death substantiates life and reminds us to make each day count.
That someone who brought so much laughter into the world could feel such despair seems incongruous.
We want to believe it impossible. Seeing that it is not, we imagine reasons for Williams’ choice. Even those close to him, who loved and understood him better than any others, have likely struggled with such questions. No doubt they tried to talk to him, to give support, engender hope. Somehow it wasn’t enough; whatever happened, he chose to leave us. Some say a prescription he was taking to treat his Parkinson’s disease may have triggered suicidal thoughts. As most of us know, it wouldn’t be the first time that an otherwise useful medication has led to such tragedy. But we don’t know the circumstances or Williams’ reasoning, how clearly he was thinking or carefully he had weighed his options. And we certainly have no right to judge.
Stigma and shame are the products of others’ ignorance and emotional bias and block people from getting the help they need.
Sadly, few of us recognize the tell-tale signs of serious suicidal threat or know how to respond helpfully. We all have personal beliefs about depression and suicidality, sometimes well informed by training or experience, but all too often motivated by ignorance and emotional bias. While we care and mean well, when faced with another’s despair we tend to be at a loss for what to say and do. Perhaps we feel expected to “fix” the problem, and feeling frustrated or impotent, end up turning our backs. Or maybe we look the other way because shows of emotion, especially when “heavy,” make us uncomfortable. Sometimes others’ depression and suicidal feelings challenge our beliefs or frighten us, so we judge and ridicule so as to push the threat they represent away. “Get over it!” we say, or “Stop wallowing!” or “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself! Nobody likes a pity party!” Maybe we try to help by pointing out what we see as positives and say, “So c’mon, you’ve got nothing to complain about!” Does anyone find such statements helpful? I doubt it. All such words do is diminish and invalidate what the suffering person is feeling, as if the pain is something to be ashamed of or inconsequential; they make it sound as if he or she should be able to simply flip a switch and find everything okay.
Being stuck emotionally points to a need trapped in confusion and begging for illumination.
Needless to say, if it was that simple, people would do it. Contrary to what some believe, people don’t like to suffer. Folks who imagine there are those who enjoy misery should try it. Serious misery, I mean, the kind that comes from wounds beyond belief or things that can’t easily be made sense of. And who but the one who has been injured can describe it as beyond belief? No one. Pain is subjective, and can be hugely complicated. So is change, hard. Being stuck emotionally points to a need trapped in confusion and begging for illumination. Until a person can peer into the darkness and see at least some light, or at least have some reason to trust there is no drop-off or trip wire, it’s not easy to take steps forward. Continue reading