LESSONS FROM TRAGEDY: FINDING GOD AND HOPE IN THOSE SUICIDES
Boys grow up dreaming about being heroes and kings. In play worlds and pleasant imaginings, they conquer evil and inspire masses. As they get older, the dreams turn to romance and then to celebrity—teenage desires of getting the girl, embracing creative freedom, and becoming a rock star. Then young men stare down adulthood and dream about specific career and life successes—professional flexibility, a loving family, and enough money to take that family on any vacation or to buy them any house. Few men realize even a portion of these dreams, and even fewer get to live them all, but Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington were two of the boys who actually grew up to embody the whole fantasy. They lived to become real-life heroes to millions—rock stars with adoring fans, beautiful families, and enough money and freedom to go anywhere and do anything. But then they died prematurely, and by their own hands. What happened?
What is the explanation? What could possibly have encouraged such triumph to turn tragic? What in the world might cause such talented and successful men to end their own lives? The answer is everything in the world. Anything, really.
On May 18, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell ended his own life in a hotel room after a successful concert in Detroit, Michigan, and just this past week, Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington succumbed to a similar fate at his Palos Verdes Estates, California home. Each man left behind a family and an unthinkably successful career. Each man possessed more than enough pieces of the American dream to fill up ten more lifetimes. So why was there so much suffering? Why such a final bow to hopelessness?
The world is full of beauty and inspiration, no doubt, but it is also full of pain, and even the stuff that is supposed to make us happy is complicated and prone to disappearing. Money can bring strange misery, fame can bring pressure and confusion, success can bring burnout, and even the most inspiring, inquisitive, and lovely minds can turn black and hopeless when under duress or given to perpetual self-flagellation for the sake of creative growth.
We spend our days planning and working to reach professional dreams and financial successes, but those things have obviously proven incapable of producing solid hopefulness, at least in the face of severe depression and other dire circumstances. We say we want to find a connection with the rest of the world and a platform to do good through charitable outreach and the like, but just improving earthly conditions for ourselves and others isn’t enough to keep us fulfilled and hopeful, either. In short, nothing on this earth is capable of overcoming death or forever remedying the troublesome feelings of gloom and worthlessness that can find and torture us at times, so we need to stop pretending that earthly means by themselves will solve these maladies of the soul. We have to look up, beyond the horizons, instead to find the sort of hope that carries enough weight to make life worth sticking around for when our minds and emotions tell us it isn’t.
That is the simplest case for God: Nothing else we reach for can offer us what we need in severe times of trouble. Everything else proves futile.
Few events that spring from our complicated human condition highlight the need for a connection to the divine as well as tragedies such as the passing of blessed souls such as Cornell and Bennington do. How much more profoundly can the need for something more than this life be screamed? How much simpler can the equation get? The trials of this life will be painful (even if we have everything we ever dreamed of), and the trinkets of this life won’t be able to save us from hopelessness (not even if they are encrusted in gold and diamonds), so the goals we have—the soul visions—must be connected to something much more expansive than just the few decades we will spend in these bodies.
Just to clarify: I’m not saying that faith in God will by itself be enough to stop a person from killing himself when he or she is in the throes of severe depression or drug-induced gloom as Cornell and Bennington perhaps both were. Cornell and Bennington might have both had faith, but they both, at least momentarily, faced demons that seemed stronger.
One of Cornell’s demons involved a troublesome little pill. He was apparently taking Ativan, a tranquilizer often prescribed for anxiety and sleep problems, and benzodiazepine drugs such as this can bring a person to the very edge of hope and sanity, either while using them or while withdrawing from them. I know, because several years ago I stopped taking Xanax after fourteen years of prescribed anti-anxiety use, and both the inter-dose and post-cessation withdrawals were among the most difficult experiences of my life (read more about those here).
So, tragedy can still happen in the presence of faith, but I think that earnest faith in divine redemption and eternal life can also be the deciding factors (especially when combined with proper support from others) in cases where survival or surrender are being debated. When a troubled person is deciding how to walk through dark times or considering whether the walk is worth it at all, just trying to find earthly reasons to stay alive often isn’t enough (because as we can see in the cases of Cornell and Bennington, money, fame, and even loving families and awesome careers aren’t enough to provide the sort of hope needed during such truly dark times). However, when life is nothing but pain but we view that painful life as something more than simply the fleeting product of an accidental or cursed existence, then a large enough glimmer of hope remains to go on another day. There is purpose and the promise it will get better.
To clarify another point here, I’m not saying that what Bennington and Cornell did signaled a lack of faith on their part or a separation from God. No man or woman can truly know the soul or eternal fate of another, and usually it is the most sensitive and thoughtful souls who suffer and contemplate the most, so I think that both of these men probably gave God and eternal life some great thought. Some sorry fools would say that suicide keeps a person out of heaven or that a strong believer wouldn’t commit suicide in the first place, and those fools should consider the grave consequences of judging another person’s soul as if they were God Himself. I think that many a devout man and woman—many a kind and loving man and woman—have traveled through periods of severe depression and existential grayness, and some have no doubt lost the fight because of demons that were momentarily stronger than their faith and mental/emotional resilience were.
What connection to God did Cornell and Bennington have? I don’t pretend to know where either of them stood on a spiritual level, but I did recently find these words from Cornell that suggested he had a faith in Jesus (or at least an admiration for Him) even if he didn’t publicly subscribe to a religious denomination for fear of being associated with the judgmental sorts of people mentioned above.
Speaking of religion and spirituality, Cornell said: “Like the life, for example, of Jesus is well-documented. It's corroborated by different people, who had different backgrounds, and different levels of education. And they wrote about it. We know that this guy existed, and we know pretty much what he said, and it's pretty simple. Everything from that point on in terms of wars and fighting over land and territories and religious things, none of that was even included in anything he said. His message was pretty simple, be really nice to each other and everything will be okay."
I personally hope that Cornell also believed that Jesus represented the answer to the really big questions, the ones such as Why are we here? and What happens when we die? Because some people, wary of being seen as simpletons or lunatics, boil Jesus down to a “Good advice for a productive and connected life” kind of guy, when he was really about so much more than that. He was about peace on earth, certainly, but he was also about providing the monumental answers to the monumental questions, the ones that can take us past the point of hope if we don’t find satisfying resolutions to them.
The music that Cornell and Bennington made during their lifetimes gave much to many, so what do their deaths offer us? I think these tragic events give us the following lessons:
Always reach out to others when you are feeling depressed, isolated, and misunderstood. When you are feeling so hopeless and hopelessly depressed that you can barely speak, find a way to reach out anyway, even if it is through email or Facebook messaging or texting. You are never worthless. There will always be someone who will help. Here is a link to a nation suicide prevention hotline with an instant chat option. Please reach out to this or any number of similar options if you are ever feeling too confused to go on another minute on your own.
Follow your dreams, but always keep them in perspective. I dream and work to realize those dreams, and I get disappointed when my dreams are detoured or flat-out smashed. I also would be ecstatic if certain dreams of mine came to pass tomorrow, but I know that broken dreams won’t steal my soul and realized ones won’t be enough to save it in times of trouble. Money, career success, a dream house, a beach body, learning ten more “marketable” skills: These things are tiny and peripheral pieces of a much larger puzzle. Focus on staying close to loved ones and God—the rest of life just blows past those things like whimsical flutters of wind.
Keep an eye on the emotional well-being of your friends and family members. Even if someone seems to be doing okay (or continually says they are, as we all do), ask about how they are doing again. Ask them to talk about the specifics of their feelings. What disappointments and successes have they had over the past week? What great dreams or troublesome thoughts? Encourage talking. Everyone needs to open up on a weekly basis. Repression and isolation lead to real problems.
Be wary of tranquilizing drugs such as Xanax, Ativan, Lorazepam, and many others. I say this not from a moralistic place, but from one of personal experience. I suffered so much because of Xanax, but thankfully I was able to survive to the other side of that years-long withdrawal. However, there are many others who are still in the midst of confusion or emotional turmoil because of such drugs, and I urge everyone out there who is currently suffering from anxiety and sleeplessness to try every other possible solution to these problems first. These drugs aren’t long-term solutions, but rather just masking agents that numb people for a short while—until the next dose is needed. And they play with the mind in a dangerous way. The evidence is becoming clear: These drugs complicate lives and in some cases contribute to ending them. Just because pharmaceutical companies and doctors have a legal/entrepreneurial right to call dangerous dope “medicine” doesn’t alter the reality of the situation. Just consider the evidence that is out there, and watch out for yourself and your loved ones.
Make sure that your connection to the eternal is secured (and make sure that your friends and family members secure a connection, too). This life is short, and its best prizes don’t provide comfort in the face of true sorrow and depression. God is needed for that (along with supportive friends and family members). The best doctors in the world can only throw straws at a drowning human condition that involves sickness and eventual death, and religions that only talk about making life better on this earth don’t help when our stressed minds begin fixating on the reality that even an enlightened earthly life is bitterly finite. The words and life of Jesus, as Chris Cornell said, stressed empathy and compassion and charity and love, but they also pointed to the necessary second part of the equation: eternal life. Without that second part of the equation, even the most charitable, productive, and loving life comes up, well, too short to be worth much. We need to extend our vision beyond the tiny decades we have on this planet.
Cherish Your Present Moments. Today, remember to take a break from striving toward the next best thing—the next career advancement, the future moment when the debt is finally erased, the next fitness goal, the happiness you imagine at the end of the next week and month and year—and thank God for everything you have right now. Call or text your parents if you are still lucky enough to have them around, make plans to get together with your brothers or sisters if you’re still lucky enough to have them in your life, have a drink with your husband, wife, or friend on the back porch at dusk, and just thank God for giving you TODAY. Enjoy a book, a movie, or a nice meal. Enjoy your hobbies. Enjoy whatever measure of good health you have. The little things in life really are the big ones, clichés be damned.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and all of the other, less-famous individuals who have lost their lives while struggling with depression, substance abuse, or other painful circumstances. I pray for their comfort, and I also pray that we will all remember to be available to each other when the next individual is feeling hopeless.
The dark thoughts are out there every day—they can gather en masse around any one of us in stressful and painful circumstances—so we just need to make sure that we reach out to others when we are suffering, and we must be available for others when they are feeling attacked or trapped by pain. Also, we can’t be afraid to talk about God, redemption, eternal life, and all the other stuff that won’t make it into most headlines, coffee-shop conversations, and blog posts on a given day because people feel silly or stupid for talking about something that doesn’t involve the building of earthly kingdoms. Because those kingdoms fall short, time and time again, when it comes to providing lasting satisfaction and meaningful hope during life’s inevitable dark periods. There simply has to be more. We have to keep reaching for otherworldly beauty—eternal comfort—and sharing it with each other.