(I also wanted to warn you. This is long. And self-revelatory. And muddled.)
Last month I was joking about how I was probably going to hell for being somewhat irreverent (a pretty irreverent statement in and of itself). My friend replied that there was only one unforgivable sin.
Things that I’d had in my mind for years began to coalesce around those words.
I was somewhere between 8 and 12 years old when I first remember thinking about suicide. I remember sitting in front of the television, so it must have been something I saw on TV. I must have asked my mother about it, because I remember her telling me that suicide was the worst sin a person could commit because it was a murder that you couldn’t live to repent. That only God had the right to decide when to end any life, and it was our job to figure out how to survive what we were given.
The next time I remember thinking about it, I was somewhere between 14 and 16. I remember standing in my closet, looking for something, and the thought just flitted through my head, what would it be like? To hold a gun to my head and pull the trigger. I had no reason to think about it, it wasn’t something I was considering, but the image wouldn’t leave my mind, and I remember sitting down on my closet floor, shaking. Wondering if I had a problem. Wondering if I should see a psychiatrist. But the image faded, and I knew that I was happy, and healthy, loved my life and my family too much to do that to them and myself, and that my only mental problem was an over-active imagination. But it terrified me all the same. What I could be capable of under the right circumstances. Or the wrong ones.
My junior year in high school, in the spring, I got a phone call that one of my best friends was in the hospital. There had been an accident. Some incompatibility with her prescriptions. They’d had to pump her stomach. When they’d let me see her, I brought cards, flowers, chocolate, a teddy bear, I don’t know what all. I was just so grateful she was okay. She was pale and weak, and quiet. She wouldn’t talk about how she felt, she wouldn’t talk about what had happened, and things just seemed so off. But I didn’t realize what had really happened until much, much later. I’d long lost track of her (she’d spontaneously stopped speaking to me at the end of the school year, and I never knew why). A friend of mine told me that everyone had known. Even my boyfriend. And no one had ever told me. I felt terrible. I hadn’t known she was unhappy, scared, trapped. I loved her so much and would have done anything for her, and I never knew she needed anything. Thank God she made it. I’ve heard since that she’s married, has children, and is living a happy, healthy life.
Why didn’t she tell me? I would have done ANYTHING. Could I have done anything? I guess she would have told me if I could. Or is that just me evading the guilt? And why do I feel guilty? For not knowing. For not being there for her. I don’t know. Thank God she lived, for her own sake, and for the sake of the people she would have left behind.
Then there was the guy that year who did tell me. Sat down against the courtyard wall beside me one morning while I was waiting for the band hall to open.
“I wanted to tell you. I thought about killing myself last night. But I didn’t, because I knew you’d be mad.”
To be honest, I didn’t really like the guy. He terrified me. He was violent (one day I was the only reason he didn’t beat one of the guys harassing him to a bloody pulp). He was… difficult. Dark. Angry. But he had always had so much respect for me. And even if I didn’t like him and was afraid of him, I cared about him.
“I would be mad. I’m mad that you even… Don’t EVER think about that again.” I told him to get help, please, God, get help. And to never make me feel as terrible as I would feel to lose his friendship that way. That I knew things were hard for him. That he had trouble. But that high school only lasted so long, and that he was smart enough to go to college, and that he could start new there. That he was too… everything, I dunno, to do that to himself.
I don’t know if I said the right thing, did the best thing. But it worked. He got better after that. Seemed happier. He asked me out, and that didn’t go well for him, but we stayed friends. He moved away, and called me months later, and was doing well. Still credited me with some good influence. Was staying out of drugs… because it would make me mad. I don’t like being someone else’s conscience, someone else’s self-esteem. But I hope I helped. At least he gave me the chance.
The next time this entered my life, things didn’t end well. Since college I’ve thought about this, at least in passing, almost every day. Every time I look in the mirror, I see a scar that I’ve had since I was 10. I was playing with my friend and he accidentally hit me full on with a golf club. Only time I’ve ever had stitches. I still remember the horrified look on his face as we both saw the blood running over my hands, and said in unison, “My mother’s gunna KILL me.”
I remember playing with him again later, exploring around his grandmother’s condo complex, pretending to see monsters in every corner, and him saying, “I really see them, I’m not pretending. Are you just pretending?” And me answering no, with a faith and an imagination so strong that when I close my eyes now and play that conversation over in my head, I see the monster behind the oleander that I know could not have really been there. But I saw it then and I see it now.
And it was with this friend, at his grandmother’s condo, that I might have seen a ghost for the first time. We did both see that, a presence so tangible that I turned to ask it a question, thinking it was his grandmother, and finding myself gazing into air, then turning back to see his face white and eyes enormous with wonder and fear.
His family moved away, and I didn’t see him much after that, but my memories of him are filled with that magic. I didn’t have many playmates my own age growing up, but I remember him as he was then. I would give anything to call him up and talk about those times, now that I’ve lost so much of my past in dribs and drabs along the way.
But I can’t. In high school he got into drugs. He got busted, and put on probation. He had been smoking pot when he found out his probation officer was coming over to check on him.
He blew his own face off with a shot gun.
And he survived.
After months of agonizing surgery and recovery and surgery and recovery, he was back to whatever normal was possible for him. Should I have written? Should I have called? I wanted to, but his family, after the first shock, did their best to sweep it away, say it was an accident, hide it. To help him get on with life, to help him be normal. To hide their shame, maybe. And I wasn’t sure I knew that young man any more. I wasn’t sure he’d want to hear from me. And I was much younger then, too. I was much less sure of myself than I am now, and I guess as a result, I was less willing to give and to share. Less willing to believe anyone would want me to share. And things never did become “normal” again for my friend.
Within a year of the shooting, his mother found him hanging in his bedroom.
It was terrible for me, the finding out. I can’t imagine what the finding must have been like. I curled up into a ball and sobbed for the little boy who’d sent me to the hospital and shared so many daydreams with me. I can’t imagine how you mourn for your child. I felt guilty, horribly horribly guilty. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed a thing, but I could have told him how much I loved him, loved our memories, cherished them. How much I still believed in all he could be, in spite of the drug problem, and the desire to die. And I was thousands of miles and several years removed from him. How must the people who saw and loved him every day, every long and difficult day, how can I possibly imagine how they must have felt?
His grandmother was a lady of extraordinary faith. But how can your faith help you through such a loss, when your faith tells you that this treasured person who you loved as a part of yourself, this beautiful and radiant soul, is damned? Is unforgiven.
If you believe that repentance is the means to forgiveness, it logically makes sense that suicide is unforgivable. Murder is a mortal sin, suicide is self-murder, and you have no chance to repent during life if you kill yourself. Therefore, you have no chance of forgiveness. Quod erat demonstrandum.
I do not believe this.
I don’t know what leads a person to the decision to die. I have never, never really been anywhere close to that decision. And when the words, “There but for the grace of God go I” come to my mind, I know that it is the truth. It could have been me.
There was a time years ago that I wanted to die. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had lost everything that mattered. I woke up every morning, and cried because I was still breathing, and the grief was like an anvil laid on my chest as I lay in bed, nearly suffocating me in mind-blanking pain. I knew in my mind that things would get better, but my heart was too crippled and broken and bleeding to believe it.
I remember walking under the stars in a gorgeously clear night sky, and feeling oppressed instead of uplifted. I remember praying to God, as I shivered from the cold and from the weight of being. I told Him I couldn’t do it myself. I was too afraid. I had thought about whether or not I could. And it seemed easy enough until I thought about my parents, my friends. All the people who would grieve and want to know why. And I could never explain it to the people I would hurt. But I prayed to Him to please, please take me home. I was too weary to go on.
But He made me go on. And slowly, my heart came to believe what my head had always known. And my soul slowly opened up with the knowledge that not only would things get better, that I had the ability and the responsibility to make them better. And that I did indeed have the strength to do it. I could never have believed it, how strong I was, until I found I had to be.
Today, I can’t imagine (and don’t want to try) a series of events that could bring me back there. No matter how much I lose, or how much I get wrong, I’m so much stronger in my faith in myself, that I can no longer imagine coming to the end of that faith, in myself, and in God. He’s pulled me up out of so many things, that long-past depression included, that I just know, in my soul, that when things are bad, they *will* be better. And that it is in a large part up to me to work to make them so, in any way that I can. But I can still remember the pain. And I think that anyone who goes as deep as I did, and then goes deeper, that person of all people will find a way to God’s pity and love, not his wrath.
I think it’s we who have such trouble understanding and forgiving. To look in imagination into the mind and heart of the person who could end life like that, I know I can’t really understand. It seems dark and tangled and full of pain. A mind so full of the darkness I tasted for a bit, that the step into a greater, final darkness seems like the next step. I can’t understand. But even I can pity, not in a condescending way, but wishing I could share the burden, if that would lighten it. And I think even I could forgive. And if I can do these things, me, flawed and self-centered and arrogant as I can be…
How can God not? An all-loving and omnipotent and forgiving God. How could he not forgive the poor broken, lost, but still lovely being that will stand before him in pain and grief, and maybe anger? A Father God could forgive such a child. Would comfort such a child. Surely He would. Maybe He wouldn’t, though. But how can we here say what He would do? I know what I hope and believe He would do. Other people believe differently. But how can we possibly know? And if we can never know the mind of God, how can we call any sin unforgivable? It’s not that I don’t believe in evil and wrong. And I recognize them when I see anyone hurt another willfully and wantonly.
But how can I say I would never act, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, just as others have acted? And if something ever drives me to that extremity, I can only hope that God can forgive a lost and lonely child. There but for the grace of God…
It’s maybe a little ridiculously hyperbolic how much deep and struggling thought I’ve managed to come up with out of that one comment that was meant at least partly in jest. But thinking about the decision to die has made me think of something else that’s been troubling me. Something I’m much more in danger of. The lack of decision to live. You can decide to not die, if you don’t kill yourself. But that’s not the same as deciding to live.
And for a long time, I didn’t decide to die, but I didn’t decide to live. I just… was. I kept breathing because after one breath was over, another came. My heart kept beating, because that’s what hearts do. But it’s a soul-shuddering thought, to wake up one morning and realize you aren’t alive. To have life slam into and over and around you like a tremendous wave that crushes you because you weren’t riding it.
And there are other ways of not deciding to live. There’s my dad. His doctor told him, when he started having blood-pressure trouble and heart trouble, that if he didn’t stop smoking, there was no guarantee he’d see his youngest daughter graduate.
Well, he didn’t, and he didn’t.
I can’t say that it would have changed things. I know the doctor thought it would. And it makes me angry that Daddy, who always said he do anything for his girls, didn’t do this. Didn’t do this thing that might have meant he’d still be here with us. Or might not have. Really, in the end, it doesn’t matter so much, I guess, what the outcome was or might have been or wasn’t or might not have been.
What matters is he didn’t do it. Not even for us. When he knew how much it could mean. He didn’t decide to die. But he didn’t make that decision to do everything he could to live. But I guess he lived the way he wanted to. And he did decide in many ways to live as much as he could. He was so vibrantly alive. So uninhibitedly alive in a way that I was refusing to live. I can’t help being angry at him, still. But I can’t help admiring and loving him absolutely.
If he hadn’t died the way he did, I may never have decided to live. Living hurts. It’s terrifying. You give yourself away bit by bit with no guarantee that you’ll get anything in return, or that you won’t be giving and giving until there’s nothing of your self left. So far, though, I’ve found out that I do still always have more. And I do get a lot in return. I’d like to get more. But then, I’d also like to give more. Working on that.
But it seems like so many people are so afraid or apathetic or self-doubting that they don’t decide to live, even if they don’t decide to die.
Is that really any more forgivable? In theory, at least, I’d rather stand before my Father and know that I did something, rather than stand before him knowing I did nothing. I’m not saying I approve of suicide. I won’t judge any of the people I love that thought about it or did it. I know it will never be the right decision for me, but knowledge can shift and sift away and back. There but for the grace of God…
Still, I’d rather go to hell for something I did rather that all the things I didn’t do. Hell and Heaven aside, I’d rather suffer on earth for the things I do, rather than for the things I’m too afraid to do, and so don’t. And I can imagine what it might feel like to be so trapped and terrified that life doesn’t seem to hold any other options. I don’t think it’s something I can ever understand from the outside. And I intend to remain on the outside.
I also don’t know if there’s anything anyone else can do when you get to that point. I hope there is, because I hope if I’m ever there, someone does something. But in the end, we decide for ourselves what to do. Or not to do. And only we are responsible for the decisions we make about our lives. Even if it seems like the only choice, you’re still the one who has to make it.
That doesn’t stop me for hoping that I did something to help my friend who didn’t decide to die, because of me.
That doesn’t stop me from wondering if I could have done more for my friend who did decide to die, to help him decide to live instead. Maybe it’s like Dad’s smoking. The outcome might have been the same, but I would feel better knowing I did something. I didn't. I have to live with that now.
I didn't. I have to live with that now.
In the end, I don’t have any answers for any of this. I still don’t have answers, even after all the years since I first asked what suicide was. In fact, I have less answers, because then, when I was a child, it was cut and dried.
If I’ve contradicted myself, well, lots of things are less black and white for me now.
Lots of questions don’t have answers for me now.
I may look all my life and never find them.
But I know I’ll never find them…
If I don’t look.