I was thirteen years old when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Grunge was making its debut into pop culture, but I, a blithe and somewhat naïve adolescent, knew very little about suicide or pop culture. Life, to me, was breathtaking and fragile—human life even more so. I couldn’t fathom someone wanting to end such a gift, to take into his own hands the miracle that was his every heartbeat, every breath, every thought.
I believed this, despite the fact that I was keenly aware of the problem of suffering. I write problem, not because suffering is a real hindrance, but rather because it is complex and multifaceted. Suffering is difficult to comprehend and even more of a struggle to live well. It’s a problem to most of us on a very rudimentary level, because we are wired to disdain it. To human nature, suffering is punishment. It’s consequence of sin or perhaps unfortunate circumstances.
Suffering appears to us as a specter of disappointment. We chase it only to attempt capture, only to control or subdue it. We do not allow suffering to befall us in unforeseen or unpredictable ways. And when it does, we plunge into the depths of discouragement and even despair.
It’s the despair that led me to take a deeper look into the spirituality of suicide. I’ve been seeing news of the tragic final days of legendary rock musicians that I followed in the heights of the alternative music era: Chris Cornell and subsequently his protégé, Chester Bennington. Initially, I thought that many people might dismiss the end of their lives as romantic punctuation in a volatile and intense drama.
But what about otherwise “ordinary” people who commit suicide? What can possibly be surmised from their stories? We’ll never know for certain, of course, but I’d like to posit a very foundational theory based on what I do know and understand about both suicide and suffering.
When suffering is viewed as something that should be avoided at all costs, people no longer see the merit in it. And when there is nothing that can be gained from our suffering – if it is always senseless and pointless – then we do not learn how to cope with it when life becomes unbearable. Life, if not lived in full happiness, becomes impossible. We cannot fathom going on.
This is where suffering becomes an impetus for change, either positive or negative. When we reach the crossroads of decision, we realize that all we’ve ever believed about suffering comes down to one thing: does it have value? If we accept what society implies, we will despair. If we cling to a fragment of frail hope, however, we have a chance to reframe our pain into something purposeful. And that is where the spirituality of suicide seems to converge with the cultural climate.
In a world that devalues humanity, why would we expect a message of mercy and hope? Suicide is a microcosmic symptom of a macrocosmic problem. A person who is deeply, perhaps irrevocably suffering (as in the case of mental illness) may not view his or her life as worthwhile. Through the lens of darkness, what can possibly be ascertained as good or worthy of love? One feels abandoned, alone, forsaken and at times, above all by God. Hope is fragile and distant, and at some point may be extinguished altogether.
The messages we received from the world is that suffering is symptomatic of what is bad, wrong, and disordered with life. It’s true that suffering is a consequence of original sin, and we see evidence of innocent suffering everywhere – the baby with leukemia, the woman with lung cancer who has never smoked, the young man with schizophrenia, the mother whose child died in a car accident. These forms of suffering aren’t necessarily indicative of personal sin. They are a form of suffering brought on by natural causes and disasters that result from the sin of Adam and Eve.
Does this seem overly simplistic? Perhaps it does. But if we dig deeply enough into the principle behind the statement, we see that God never intended for suffering to afflict humanity. Mankind chose suffering as a consequence of pride when that first sin occurred thousands of generations ago.
It might be tempting to dismiss this and turn our anger toward God. Anger, when unchecked, turns inward as depression or outward as rage and resentment. We cry. We curse. We blame. All of these, if done in a spirit of open dialogue with God, remains a line of communication that keeps our eyes and hearts aligned with Him. We should not shy away from God in shame when we are in pain. Instead, we can engage in the battle between hope and despair, praying that hope will win.
Hope tells us to cling to faith, to believe in what we cannot see. Hope says we are afflicted but not cast down, defeated but not destroyed, scourged but not dead. Hope beckons us to move forward, to live in our vulnerable spaces, to embrace difficulty and offer them back to Jesus as wounds of love.
Despair deceives. It says we’re worthless, that life will never change. Nothing will improve. We’ll never be happy. We’ve been abandoned and our loneliness will forever be our solitary companion.
Suicide believes the internal tapes of despair. Suicide is the only way out of despair, it claims. But hope is the antidote. Hope, however tiny a voice it may be competing with the bellowing of despair, is strong and powerful. If we accept it, listen to it, we begin – little by little – to rise above our challenges. And someday we’ll discover our pain is met with tenacious resolve and resilience to live and love not in spite of, but because of pain.
Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes. Because life is about more than what makes us feel fuzzy inside, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief. Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph. Jeannie was featured on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and dozens of other radio shows and podcasts. For more information, please visit her websites lovealonecreates.com or fromgrief2grace.com.