Two years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide. His name was Steve. When I first heard that he was dead, I was heartbroken. I was jealous. I was fiercely jealous that he had killed himself, he had gone through with it, he had died, and I had not.
At the same time, I felt the weight of his life and the loss of it. It is a unique moment in life, when the losing, the letting go of something makes you heavier instead of lighter. I wanted very much to be dead, but something in having my friend choose death urged me to keep going. I still can’t explain it. Perhaps it was the far reaching hurt I saw, the hurt I could imagine that I would leave in my wake as well. A big piece too felt like I wanted to take up the fight for Steve. I so fully understood his actions, but his loss felt like I had lost someone in a war. We were in this bigger fight together, and it was draining and exhausting, crippling, and I didn’t want to keep fighting it either. But losing a friend on the battlefield somehow gives you another push of energy to keep going, to finish this fight. To win this war.
I regularly manage to be both suicidal and hopeful. It’s a special talent that more people than you would think are adept at. Suicidality and hope do not have to be mutually exclusive. To continue to live when you are constantly being pulled toward death seems like the very definition of hope to me. When you are standing at the edge of a cliff, ready to hurl yourself off the edge, taking just one step back is hope.
I was struck a few months ago by one of the Hebrew words for hope: Yachal. Because it basically means waiting. Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies defines this particular word for hope as meaning “so far disappointing but still hoping and waiting.” I love that. Hope doesn’t have to mean that you “feel” hopeful, or that you have a clear picture of what you are waiting for. Hope stripped down to its bare bones can be the simple act of remaining.
This makes me think of the word Persist. Persist means “to continue in existence; to last; to remain.” It comes from the Latin word, persistere meaning ‘to stand.’” Hoping means standing. Remaining in existence when you don’t want to, when you don’t know why, when you don’t know how.
What does hope look like then? Getting out of bed in the morning. Brushing your teeth. Returning your books to the library. Smiling at someone. Crying with someone. Eating dinner. Sending a text. Staying alive when you don’t want to be alive.
There is a Jon Foreman song about a homeless woman, and one of the lines goes “Every now and again, when she’s sober, she brushes her teeth” It is a heart-wrenching song, go listen to it. When I first heard the line, I thought it said, “Every now and again, when she’s hopeful, she brushes her teeth.” And I loved that picture. You are homeless and you choose to brush your teeth in a moment of hope: the hope that today might be better than yesterday, that someone may smile at you and you can smile back, that you will have a warm place to sleep tonight. That maybe, maybe there will be a reason to get up again tomorrow.
This is my hope too. Hope that the next minute will be ok. That there will be a point to all of this. Hope that I am of use to the Lord, in great ways I do not understand. There is mystery to that. Hope that my life will have meaning. That my struggle will have meaning. That I can be something to somebody. That the minutes of my life will be used for something important. That someone who hasn’t felt loved can experience love through me.
When I take a step back from the edge of the cliff, I do so in part because I want to believe that my experience will be of use to someone else. I hold on to the moments when someone else’s experience felt like a lifeline to me. I see the hurt in my life as an unfolding story, and I imagine how each page is relatable to someone different. I trace the path of my own scars and I pray that something in them will offer courage to someone else.
I am going on faith only that there is some good in this, for someone, somehow. Otherwise there is just no reason to continue. There simply is not. There is no purpose to a life that is solely misery forever until death. I don’t believe in a God that allows that.
So I make lists in my head of the people I can say are benefiting from my experience of pain. I bullet point my struggles in my head: addiction, trauma, abuse, death, grief, mental illness. I match names to categories of people I have come to know because of these experiences, because of how I have been able to share them.
I have seen many times, the way my experience of hurt can build a bridge to someone else. My own pain may drown me, but it can also be a life raft for someone else at sea.
I imagine that I will continue to be chronically suicidal throughout my life. I am sometimes dangerously close to killing myself. But a deep part of me feels that I will never kill myself. I will never finish it. And that pisses me off. Because I want to be done. But I know that will not be my ending. Instead, I hope that I will be in a freak airplane crash, or get swept off to sea, or a dinosaur will eat me. I still want out, but I do not think suicide will be how I get there.
One of my favorite theologians, Marva Dawn, has many chronic and life threatening conditions. In reflecting on her numerous near-death experiences, she said she can’t help but ask “What is God keeping me alive for?” Why so many close calls, so many miraculous recoveries? Why did God seem to be working so hard to keep her alive, when life was working just as hard to kill her?
This is an important question. What are you keeping me alive for, God? Why allow so much trauma throughout my life? Why allow the nightmares and the sleeplessness? Why allow me to live so very close to death, but keep me from falling over? Why allow all this pain, and keep me alive to suffer it?
Maybe it is just my curiosity that keeps me going. Life seems too intricate, too complex, for there not to be some kind of plotline. I have a role in this story, and I wonder what it is. I wonder what God is keeping me around for. It is a mystery that I can’t deny. I am here for a reason. Maybe it’s just for you. Or for my little brother. Maybe there is just one person, or one conversation that I am a necessary part of. But I am a necessary part of something, and that is at least a little intriguing to me.
I may never know “what I am here for.” Nine out of ten days I do not want to care why I am here. I am angry about it. I want to reject whatever my eternal purpose is, because it sure as fuck does not seem worth the pain. But what if it is? I suppose it is the “what if?” that keeps me waiting around. Sometimes there is an obvious, glaring reason as to why I exist today. And for the many minutes it is not so obviously glaring, there is the memory of when it was, and the curiosity for when that moment may come again. I persist.