In relation to my previous post about patience in suffering and about my brother’s suicide in 1982, about which I write in greater detail in my book, Home Waters, and whom I remembered on the recent anniversary of his death, I wish to reflect on a few things that I feel I have learned in retrospect. These are spiritual lessons, mainly, and they relate to the specific nature of how my brother died, but I hope that they might apply to other circumstances as well. I admit that I haven’t suffered any loss quite as terrible as my brother’s death and that was a full thirty years ago. I am no expert in suffering. I don’t own the right to assert these ideas definitively. I only feel the urge to explore what I hope I have learned and what I hope I will remember the next time I enter the fires of intense sorrow.
1) Heartfelt compassion is more important than explanation
I remember being in the hospital awaiting news of whether my brother was still alive, just hours after he shot himself. Family and friends were gathering in a small waiting room in the hospital. My bishop arrived. He was someone with whom I had grown close to in the preceding months as he was helping me to mature spiritually. Little did either of us know how important that help would be at this moment of crisis. I don’t remember if he said anything at all to me. I just remember how shaken he looked. And I remember at one point that he sat down beside me and wordlessly placed his own trembling hand on my leg. His compassion at that moment was palpable and beyond speech. I am grateful he didn’t feel compelled to offer words that might have trivialized my pain at the time. He instead offered his own shared pain. Too often we want to offer words of comfort, especially at a distance from a tragic event, when it would be a more Christian and healing act to be willing to simply mourn together. I am not sure this only applies to specific life events. It may apply to life circumstances. King Benjamin pleads with us to forgo the temptation to explain the reasons for someone’s misfortune and instead remember our common lot as beggars, to remember our nothingness and our creatureliness before God. If this is true of the actual beggar, it is true of the rich man too. We are not asked to link cause and effect to make coherent sense of the life stories of others and perhaps not even in our own. We are instead asked to feel our profound dependency on mercy and the great need for compassion.
2) Mental illness is an illness
I am aware that there are serious questions about whether we are overmedicating for mental and emotional struggles. I believe a great many problems can be ameliorated by a healthy diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and spiritual discipline. But I do not accept a theology that believes that all manifestations of mental and emotional breakdown are simply symptoms of a spiritual problem that can be “cured” by exercising greater discipline over the body and the spirit. The fact is, many illnesses attack our very capacity to exercise such discipline. Mental illness is as real as any other physical ailment, but it attacks the brain, the emotions, and one’s capacity to establish healthy relationships. It is cruel and even dangerous to suppose that someone suffering from severe mental illness can be “fixed” with just more effort to follow the regimen of daily caretaking of the soul. I watched my uncle live with schizophrenia for all of his adult life. His was a battle to find the right medication and the will to take that medication and he made mistakes along the way and his illness took a massive toll on his ability to have normal and healthy relationships with others, including his only son. But I believe his incapacities are acknowledged by God, and I believe his capacities, however narrowed by illness, were honored by those who loved him. We are sometimes especially hard on ourselves, adding at times unnecessary guilt to what is already a state of unexpected and perhaps undeserved misery. It is vital to remember that a truly expansive meaning of Christ’s atonement includes his suffering on behalf of our infirmities, our pains and afflictions, and not just our sins. To be honest, God and Christ make little sense to me otherwise. Even though I have never been severely mentally ill, I know I have suffered on a few occasions the symptoms of real depression. Those moments have taught me that I don’t know sometimes how to separate my sins from my afflictions, or my agency from my genes. I am not sure the Lord expects me to sort that out, and I am grateful for parents and a wife who haven’t demanded that I know myself perfectly. He wants to aid me in finding and magnifying my agency, but that happens in the context, I believe, of a host of factors we never chose—where we were born, to whom we were born, and the myriad choices made by others before and around us that affect the circumstances of our lives, not to mention the ever mysterious and complex interplay of our genes and our biology, our environment, and our agency. All I know is that the things that cause me the greatest sorrow are the character flaws that feel like they will take an eternity for me to fix. I keep working on gaining a greater measure of freedom and mastery over my self, and I believe the Lord expects me to continue this quest, but he wants me to do so with an awareness of his patience and compassion for my struggles. He knows better than I what my capacities and incapacities are. My only requirement is to remember my indebtedness to him, to make the best offering I can, and hope for and trust in his mercy.
3) Suffering isn’t suffering if it isn’t, well, suffering
Sometimes things happen that contradict logic, defy expectations, and shake us to our roots. We might wish to cry out loud, “What is this for!? How can this be providential?!” This happens to Christ, so I am not sure why I should expect it won’t happen to me. He felt abandoned, he pled for release from what he knew he had to do, but his willingness to submit remained unbent all the way through. I doubt God cares much for whether or not I am always cheerful or in the right mind about my experiences. I am sure he doesn’t want me to be compulsively complaining and always seeing myself as a martyr. Surely many of our sufferings are self-generated through delusional thinking. But the fact is, sometimes really awful things happen and they don’t make sense and the more sense we try to make of such things, the bigger the mess we sometimes make of them. This is true mostly because we end up finding someone to blame disproportionately. In such moments, I suppose God understands and expects some venting on my part, some exasperation. I think he is most interested in helping me conform my will to his, rather than making me conform my emotions to a steady state of cheerfulness. In the midst of suffering, it is hard to feel comfort or to imagine how we will see this moment in retrospect. The older I get, the more I realize that I am prone to misinterpret the significance of what is happening to me. So that at least has tempered my own emotional reaction to things. It has led to a kind of existential pause in my thinking, an agnosticism not about the reality of God but about the ultimate meaning of what I am experiencing. In the midst of suffering, I think I am asked to suffer, not to rush to understanding. We are to learn patience and forbearance, what the scriptures call longsuffering. Panic, anger, or blame, or the emotional exhaustion that ends in apathy—these are all ungodly emotions that result from an overeager desire to escape contradiction. I think that what the Lord wants from me is to feel my experiences and to feel them deeply, and this patient waiting is precisely what facilitates such feeling.
4) The Lord foresees tragedies, even if He doesn’t will them
I don’t believe for a minute that the Lord wanted my brother to die. I find it hard to assert that a great many terrible things that happen in this life are events designed and put into action by God. We get into trouble every time we pretend to have our own prophetic gifts of knowing why terrible things happen. I would like to call for a moratorium on such fast and loose and poor theology. We don’t need to know why something happened to know what can be gained from it. I believe a great majority of tragedies are the natural consequences of living in mortality, subject as we are to biology, to chance, and to time. We live in dying bodies. It is only a matter of time for all of us. So the fact that I have lived to see another day seems to be the true miracle. Once I understand that existence is the essential thing, the holy thing, to paraphrase John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, then the trials of life seem less shocking to me. That doesn’t mean that the Lord can’t foresee when terrible things are going to happen or that He doesn’t know the time and circumstance of our death. I don’t pretend to understand how that works, but I do know that He prepared me for my brother’s death. This is too personal of a story to share here, but I believe He knew it was coming, that I needed help to be ready, and I believe that since that time, it has left me a better person. Knowing this made going through it much easier to bear. This is not the same thing as saying it was God’s will that my brother died. That would be ludicrous. But it is also not accurate to then have to imagine that God is nowhere or in no way involved in the unfolding of what we experience and how we learn to bear the burdens that are uniquely ours. I think giving personal aid in such matters is His central concern. This is what the scriptures call “tender mercies.”