Everyone weathers storms.
Some of our rough seas come in the form of our external circumstances. Maybe you get a grim prognosis or your spouse asks for a divorce. Your daughter refuses to go to rehab or an eviction notice is pasted to your front door. Maybe your best friend dies in her sleep or your company shows you the door.
By contrast, some hearts are tossed by powerful inner storms. The outer life seems to be the picture of smooth sailing. But the soul is struggling to keep from going under.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in relatively quick succession recently. Good looking, charming, and successful, Spade and Bourdain enjoyed the comforts, security, and admiration that many associate with happiness. And yet apparently they found their lives unbearable.
I confess that Bourdain’s death struck me more profoundly. Unfamiliar with the world of women’s fashion, I had no idea who Spade was. My sadness for her was of the generic sort. But Bourdain was the icon for hip older guy for me. “Parts Unknown” was one of my few regular cable indulgences. His death stunned me. I felt it as a loss.
Unlike some of his fans, I was not surprised that his enviable outer life of travel, food, friends, and drink housed a spiritual heaviness. I had not glimpsed his inner turmoil with my pastoral x-ray vision. Instead, my long pastoral experience has taught me that many people bear heavy burdens that they hide from the world remarkably well.
Sometimes, those burdens become too heavy for a person to bear. I do not know how that heaviness manifested itself in the hearts of Spade and Bourdain. But the manner of their death suggests that the weight of their own being had dragged them under.
Some grow angry about suicide. It’s selfish, they say. And while I acknowledge the enduring pain of those left behind, this is not the perspective I take.
Others scramble to find reasons. Spade and Bourdain were depressed, they say. Others have pointed out that Bourdain’s continued use of alcohol despite his opioid addiction left him in the throes of a deadly, progressive disease. I don’t deny any of this. But I don’t take these perspectives, either.
I’m standing in a place of heartbreaking compassion for people for whom life became unbearable. And I have another confession. There have been times that I have felt life’s weight pressing me under the waves. I have felt like hell.
I don’t really believe in a place called hell. But I’ve experienced a spiritual state that the word “hell” aptly signifies. Some of us seem to get out of it one way or another on this side of the grave. My firm hope is that everyone does on the other side.
Here’s how I interpret our escape from hell from a Christian perspective. In the old-fashioned way of reciting the Apostles’ Creed, we say that, after his death and before his resurrection, Jesus descended to hell.
I take that to mean that God shows up wherever we are. Including whatever hell we happen to occupy. It’s as if Jesus enters our tomb and says, “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I’m not suggesting that faith would have prevented their suicide. I’ve buried too many faithful people who died by their own hand to harbor such a thought. Instead, I’m saying this:
My response to suicide—and to those left in pain after a loved one’s suicide—is compassion. I believe in a God who responds in the same way. And that compassion eventually liberates us and infuses our being with lightness.