LIFE IS FOR EVERYBODY
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 17, 2014, Non-Lectionary Sermon
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Acts 16:16-34
“Paul shouted [to the jailer] in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’”
I want to tell you about my friend, Joe.
He and I grew up together. We’d play at each other’s houses when we were kids. In high school, we were part of a small circle of friends who spent a lot of time together.
I bought my first car from Joe, for the princely sum of $275. A white ‘62 Chevy Belair — hardly a muscle car, and it was high mileage — but it just kept purring along, for years. I drove it all through college. I think Joe regretted selling it to me.
Joe was always a little different. He was very smart, but did poorly in school (he wasn’t especially fond of homework assignments). He had a strange passion for World War 2 military memorabilia: his trademark look, in the corridors of Toms River High School South, was a wool U.S. Army officer’s tunic he called his “Eisenhower jacket.” Somewhere he’d gotten hold of a British officer’s swagger stick. Tucked under his arm, it completed the weird ensemble.
Such antics made him eccentric to the point of strangeness. Most of the other kids gave him a wide berth. He was so odd. Those of us who’d known him for years were used to it, though. It was just Joe. He was always doing something outrageous to get attention.
His acts of mild criminal mischief were legendary. Joe’s crowning achievement was getting into the Principal’s office somehow — a room to which he was no stranger, by the way — and spiriting away the foot-long nameplate from the Principal’s desk. He smuggled it straight out the door and past two secretaries. A week or so later, returned it anonymously. Joe wasn’t about doing anything really wrong. It was all about coloring outside the lines.
Graduation came, and most of us went off to college. Joe’s grades were so poor, he couldn’t get into a four-year school, so he attended a two-year, residential junior college that rehabbed kids with poor academic records. He only lasted a semester or so, before drifting home again.
I’d look in on him when I drove that ‘62 Chevy back home in the summers, and on holidays. Most of our group had moved on rom the old hometown, but Joe was always the same. I’m not sure, but I think he was still wearing the Eisenhower jacket.
During my sophomore year of college, somebody called me to the pay phone in the dormitory hallway. My father was on the other end of the line. He said he didn’t quite know how to tell me this, but Joe had committed suicide.
I rushed home for the funeral. There, I learned that Joe had gone into the closet of his parents’ bedroom, taken his stepfather’s handgun and walked to a wooded area behind a strip mall. There, in the early evening, he placed the gun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
At the funeral home, it had to be a closed casket.
No one saw it coming. Joe gave no hint of the gruesome death he’d been planning for some time (this was one thing at which he was determined to succeed). He left no suicide note.
Joe was never the sort of person who talked about his feelings. I think his bizarre humor was a way of keeping a certain distance between himself and other people — even his friends.
Cause of death? Suicide. But I don’t think that was really the cause. It was just the symptom. I’m quite sure now, in hindsight — knowing what I do about counseling and human behavior — it was undiagnosed depression that killed him.
Depression is on many minds these days, after the suicide of Robin Williams. That death, too, came as a surprise. Robin was one of the most beloved figures in the entertainment industry — a brilliant comic and impersonator, and by all accounts, a genuinely kind and even humble man. He made no secret of his diagnosis: bipolar disorder. In later years, he simply described as depression. He’d been treated for substance abuse off and on, as well — no doubt, a clumsy attempt at self-medication.
What’s made Robin’s death so difficult for many of us to wrap our minds around is that he was so funny, so successful, and so well-loved. Sure, the pinnacle of his career was probably behind him, but he still had lots of work. Word is, he’d just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease — very hard news — but medical treatments can now postpone the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s for a very long time. And you know he would have had the best medical care on the planet.
Robin Williams doesn’t seem to fit the profile of the “typical” suicide — if there is such a thing — that most of us carry around in our minds. He seemed to have everything to live for, and he left behind a loving family and many friends who are devastated at his loss.
If any good comes out of Robin’s death, maybe it will be that more people will understand this terrible disease called depression — and how very dangerous it can be, if accompanied by suicidal thoughts. Each of us knows so very little about what’s truly going on in the minds of others, even those close to us. In many ways, we go through this world as strangers to one another. Depression, or any other mental illness, is something most of us prefer not to think about. And so, when we glimpse its telltale signs in people we love, we make excuses. We explain it away as something far less serious than it is.
Yet, the facts are that depression is extremely common. Without a doubt, there are many people sitting here who’ve struggled with it in the past, or still struggle to this day. (I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but you know who you are.) Even those who’ve been treated successfully always face the risk of relapse.
Depression’s not the same thing as being unhappy. Lots of people think it is, and they’re wrong. There are all kinds of reasons for you or I to be unhappy at some point in our lives, but there are usually external explanations for it. True depression has biochemical causes. It happens regardless of life’s circumstances — though hard times can make it worse. It has to do with how the mind processes experiences. Those things that bring joy to most people bring no joy to the depressed person. That’s why Robin Williams could cause a roomful of people to roar with laughter, then return to his dressing-room and feel trapped in a very dark place.
One of the most eloquent interpreters of depression was the late novelist, William Styron, who suffered from the disorder himself. In his 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible, he calls the expereince “so mysteriously painful and elusive… as to verge close to being beyond description.” It is, he explains, “nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”
What makes severe depression so difficult, Styron attests, is how hard it is to feel hopeful about recovery:
“The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come — not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves… moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.”
It’s no wonder those facing such a merciless foe would feel tempted to give in to the illusion that death is a viable way out. Such thinking is profoundly illogical. Yet, this broken logic is surprisingly persistent.
One of the most unhelpful things to emerge in the wake of Robin Williams’ death was a tweet sent out by somebody who worked for a major movie studio. It got reposted many times on social media. The tweet included a still from the Disney animated film Aladdin, in which, of course, Robin gave voice to the Genie. In the image – which comes, in the movie, just after Aladdin has given the Genie his freedom — the two friends are locked in a warm, celebratory embrace. The tweet says, “Genie, you’re free.”
Now, that may sound at first like a touching tribute to Robin Williams — which, I’m sure, is how it was meant — but it does him no honor. Just think of the impact of such a statement on a person contemplating suicide. It absolutely affirms the broken logic. It advises such a person, “Go ahead, take your own life, and you’ll be free, too — just like the big, blue Genie with the rapid comic delivery.”
There is no freedom in suicide. Quite the opposite: it’s the ultimate slavery. Depression is the harshest of taskmasters. It values the life of its human chattel so little, it destroys those lives on a whim. It actually alters the chemistry of the brain, interfering with the executive function of the frontal lobes. In the ultimate sick irony, depression kills not by means of the lash, nor by a lynch-mob’s noose, but by the slave’s own hand.
Today’s scripture reading from Acts 16 is about a man who is saved from suicide. His situation is different from the clinical-depression scenario. There’s good reason for this man to consider falling on his sword: because, in the brutal, honor-shame society that is the Roman Empire, it’s the honorable response to massive personal failure.
The man is a jailer, and his failure is in not keeping his own jail secure. Unbeknownst to him, in the middle of the night, God has intervened to free his most high-profile prisoners: Paul and Silas, who’ve been sitting in the maximum-security cell with their legs in the stocks.
What happens is an earthquake. The doors of the prison are thrown open, and the inner cell-doors as well. Even the wooden stocks are splintered, and the chains, secured to an eye-bolt in the floor, shattered. Paul and Silas are free to leave — but they don’t leave. They remain in their cell, praising God.
“When the jailer woke up,” Luke tells us, “and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’”
Jails, in that ancient society, were run by private contractors, often low-ranking retired military men. This jail may, in fact, have been a portion of the jailer’s own home, maybe a dug-out basement, secured by stout doors. But whether it was his own house or some municipal building, the jailer is personally responsible for the prisoners. If any should escape, his overlords will swiftly call him to account. In the case of a massive security breach, by which all the prisoners escape — which seems to him to be exactly what’s just happened — the penalty for him will be death, anyway. Better to die swiftly by one’s own sword — says the Roman honor code — than to submit to a humiliating beating and public execution.
Before the man’s able to turn his short sword around — placing its point up against his belly before falling to the ground — something stops him. It’s the voice of Paul, uttering the sweetest words that hard-bitten military man could ever expect to hear: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
Mark — and mark well — those four little words, “We are all here.” They give the jailer hope. Ultimately, make him a follower of Jesus Christ.
This, my friends, is where you and I enter the story: not the jailer’s, not Joe’s, not Robin’s, but the story of those people near and dear to us, still living, who struggle daily with depression. They may readily admit to their illness, or they may keep it a closely-held secret. Yet even if they do, you likely do realize — on one level or another — that they are souls in pain. The thing that will truly make the difference for them will be for you or I to find a way to say — not in so many words, but more likely in deeds — “We are still here.”
The reason this is so vital is that depression is, by its very nature, an isolating disease. Most people who attempt suicide imagine they are profoundly alone. They imagine this even if they’re living in a houseful of people, even if they’re surrounded by co-workers who interact with them daily. Viewed through the gray film of their disease, such relationships seem superficial. Nobody, they believe, knows the trouble they’ve seen. Nobody really understands. No one’s willing to stand by them and help them battle the demons that make their lives, at times, a living hell.
For most depressed people, of course, this is absolutely not true. There are others around them who care deeply for them. But the voice of depression says: “No, they don’t understand, they don’t really care.” The timely and regular reminder, “We are still here,” numbers among the most effective of treatments.
In order to offer such support, it’s important to be perfectly frank in our use of language. Don’t shy away from the word “depression.” Don’t minimize it, saying, “You’ve just got a case of the blues,” or “You’re having a bad day,” “Get a good night’s sleep, things will be better tomorrow.”
Such statements say to the depressed person, “I don’t really care about how you’re doing. I don’t care enough to go with you to that dark place and wait with you there until the agony passes. I refuse to acknowledge that the pain you’re feeling is really pain” — or, worse yet, “I’m going to judge you for being weak, for giving in to negative feelings you really ought to be able to handle on your own.”
It’s also important, in communicating with a severely depressed person, to bring up the subject of suicide. Some people think, “Oh, I’d better not mention that, it might give him ideas” — but believe me, if the thought flits across your mind, it’s probably something the other person has pondered on many occasions. Suicidal thinking — thinking, mind you, not necessarily actions — is surprisingly common. But, do you know something? Most people having those thoughts try to keep them secret. The more they try to push down the lid and trap them inside, the more powerful they become. To give a person permission to release such a deep and frightening secret, to a non-judgmental person, may be the start of a process of deep healing.
To be truly present to a person in depression — to say to that friend or loved one, “We are still here” — is to offer hope that’s more precious than you could imagine.
Life Is For Everyone
Driving in the car a few days ago, listening to the “Fresh Air” talk show on NPR, I heard a rebroadcast of an interview Terri Gross conducted with Robin Williams several years ago. Robin was his warm, brilliant, zany self. Sometimes he was soberly thoughtful. Moments later, he’d shift into manic mode, flinging out free-association comic lines with abandon. One quip of his — a throwaway one-liner — I found chillingly ironic, in light of what’s happened in recent days: “As the guy said at the suicide clinic, life isn’t for everyone.”
The joke probably sounded amusing the first time the interview aired, but in this rebroadcast, it fell flat (as you may expect). More than that, it sounded desperately sad. Robin may have already been wondering if maybe life wasn’t for him.
From the standpoint of Christian faith, I wish I could turn the clock back and say to him — just as I wish I could say to my friend, Joe — “No, you’re wrong! Life is for everyone. That’s what the good news of Christian faith is all about. ‘I came that they may have life,’ says Jesus, ‘and have it abundantly.’” Sure, there may be moments when we doubt it, but it’s no shame or personal failure to feel that way. In those dark times, the thing that can be counted upon to get us through is other followers of Christ — people we know and love — with courage to look us straight in the eye and say, in an unmistakable way, “We are still here.”
May you be blessed to know such strength in your own life: and may you share it, freely and generously, with others!
Copyright © 2014 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.