Robin Williams and Gaza: it just got a little bit darker

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Not him. Please not him.

Robin Williams was one of the first people to make me laugh as a professional in the cause. He died today, apparently at his own hand, in the throes of an ongoing battle with depression and addiction.

There’s a lot of rough stuff, dark stuff, painful stuff in the world right now, but this makes it all a little darker.

For people like me, he was the comic voice of a generation. We grew up on his shows and his movies, laughing even at the jokes we didn’t want to admit to teenage friends that we didn’t really understand. He also – let’s be honest here, it does no one any good to gloss over – made some total rubbish. He could ‘do serious’ so very well. Which shouldn’t be a surprise because good comedy is just as hard to carry off, if not harder, than good drama. I have a little acting experience and know that to be true. To be as funny as he was took real genius; so drama should and did come easily to him. In all cases he just needed the right script – the better to improvise from and around.

That’s one reason this news overshadows much else, for a time. When you lose someone you grew up with, you need to take some moments.

Sadder still that he’s another in the litany of those wrestling with mental illness and who wanted out. We need to pause when we hear this news because to those of us who struggle with depression or love those who do, moments like this can feel like a dangerous affirmation of the choice to end the struggle on our terms. If he’s done it, why can’t I?

You can say as much you like that it doesn’t work like that and it’s worth hanging on, but it makes no difference; possibly suicidal depression has a dark internal logic as irresistible as a whirlpool’s pull. News like this can seem to add a little more gravity’s inexorable, inevitable power.

So pay attention. This matters, as much as Iraq and Gaza. Differently, but as much. Do not condemn those who seemed unmoved by Gaza or Iraq but appear to be paralysed by the death of someone they’d never met. You’re on dangerous, holy ground if you’re with them.

If you are feeling suicidal, or know someone who may be, please click here

Of children, idols, suicide and lament.

Very little that is good starts with “I posted something on Facebook…”. Nevertheless that is how I am starting.

A few days ago I posted an article on Facebook. I do that quite a lot. I do so not necessarily because I agree with everything in the article but because on some level I feel that the article expresses something interesting and of importance. In this case the article pretty much hit the nail on the head for me – it was a simple comment piece expressing a dis-ease with the way it can seem to those of us without children that society revolves around the needs of children and their parents. It provoked a (to me) staggering response in the form of 49 comments – comfortably a few times the average of what a post of mine might more normally produce. Many of them were from people who are parents of children, angered or hurt by the article, feeling misunderstood and telling stories of how difficult it is to be a parent. You can read that article by clicking here. It should be noted that it was written by someone who has had her own children. Interestingly after I posted the article  I was privately contacted by a few married people without children and single people who wanted to thank me for raising an issue they were afraid to raise even with their closest friends.

Later in the day I posted an article on the epidemic levels of suicide among men – especially young men – in the UK. It reflects well on how gender stereotypes can have serious consequences, and that our views of masculinity are causing major problems. The result of posting this urgent and important article (which you can read here)? 2 comments.

Now this is unscientific. There could be all manner of reasons for this. I’m not pretending to draw something definitive from those statistics alone. However one of the commenting parents (let’s be honest, she and some of the others did come to start to see something helpful in the article) did ask me to write something expressing what I thought the article on children was trying to get at. So this is me trying to do just that. It’s that contrast in the level of responses that has given me a place from which to start.

I like children. Many of my friends have children whom I am glad am part of my life in their own right. My wife and I do not have children – a fact of our own choosing. This is not because we don’t enjoy children, but because we feel it’s not right for us. It does not mean (as we have been told) that we are selfish, rejecting God’s plan for marriage, that my wife is unfulfilled as a woman, or that I worry about my old age (I don’t know either). As a pastor it does not mean (as I have also been told) that families will not join a church I lead (our Sunday School is growing and I’ve started a monthly all age service). It just means we don’t want children of our own.

In all this time as a married couple without children, and as a church pastor, I have never – ever – been asked by parents of young children how they could make my life easier as someone without children (I don’t mean in terms of not asking their kids who are making a noise to leave the dining room – that they do – but I mean the big stuff of life). I’ve never had a parent in any church ask what they could do to help make church better for those without children.

It is inevitable that a life-event as huge and long-lasting as having children fundamentally changes the way you see everything. I know that – I really do, although many don’t believe me. I’ve walked the road of longing for and then finally having children with friends often enough to see that to be true. I can’t fully get it because I don’t have my own kids, but I get the point. Of course there’s always more that can be done by churches and other groups to help those with children; but to those of us without children it can feel that even the slightest expression of exhaustion or stress at having to sit in a noisy environment with kids around me is selfish. If you don’t have kids you probably don’t have that innate parental ability to tune out loud kid-generated noise; so sometimes I’ve just had to leave a cafe or a church service or a park because I can’t hear myself speak, let alone think.

That’s not enough, though. Because there always more steps to take, more resources to spend, more planning around how to engage kids and families in church and society. Which is fine. As I said, ours is a church which is doing that.

As the article on male suicide pointed out, however, if a new virus was killing in the way suicide is killing men in the UK, we’d see waves of public funding aimed at it. More than that, I suggest, there’d be church programmes to help those affected by this new killer; there’d be theologising; there’d be public debates. The cry would go up … ‘How do we protect our children from this?‘ Family pressure groups would start, charities would fundraise off the back of it.

The point has been made time and again about the prevalence of male suicide and people just don’t seem to get worked up. There’s a sadness … but that’s it. No real action, no pressure, little in the way of money spent or raised. Stick a child’s face on a marketing campaign and watch the donations roll in.

God hates it when blessings become idols, when a precious gift from him becomes a subtle replacement for the energies, the resources, the time we should be pouring at his feet. Which is part of why Abraham got to the point of having his knife hover over the beating chest of his precious son in one of the Bible’s most troubling passages. He needed to prove to himself that his eyes were still on the giver, not the gift. Lest we say that this was barbarous of God, He went one step further and allowed the murder of His own Son, apparently sitting by as nails tore flesh and bone. His son felt abandoned, anguished, sweating blood in anticipation of what was to come.

It’s easy to allow our knowledge of both these stories’ happy endings suck the shock out of them. A parent about to kill his son; another letting his son be killed. We’d never allow that, would we?

Meanwhile, as families plough thousands of pounds, dollars and rands into their children, fervently hoping and praying the sons will grow up into strong, capable fit young men, another 4,000+ men in the UK will kill themselves in the next twelve months.

I don’t know what the solution is, but like all great causes, it will start with lament. Lament for the sons lost at their own hands.

Outside the walls

This week is Depression Awareness Week in the UK.

I know a man who had to take some time off from his job in a church. A working relationship had broken down to the point of him becoming ill, experiencing a serious bout of depression. Relationship break-downs are complex affairs and as a result the church as a whole wasn’t told why he was absent. Complex as it was, this was a mistake; rumours started to circulate of absence from work for reasons of illegality or immorality, none of which were fully denied by those who had the power to do so. When some of those aspects of the truth which were appropriate for the public domain were allowed into the open, it was too late for some relationships. By then the man was within minutes of suicide.

What’s at the heart of that? A lot, to be sure. There’s a much longer story to be told. Maybe one day it can be revisited; maybe not. There’s explanations, qualifications and different sides of the truth which would doubtless have to be explored and explained. What can be said is that there’s something at play here which speaks to a wider truth; that many of us Christians – and especially we charismatic-evangelical ones, for this was in a charismatic church – are scared to bring issues of mental illness in our communities into the light. Some of us are scared; and when we’re scared of something because we don’t fully understand it, it’s easy to end up with stigma. We keep the thing we’re scared of at arm’s length, away in a locked room, unspoken of and unnamed; or given a different, more comfortable, more morally quantifiable name. We prefer explanations that are easier to explain – illegality  or immorality, in the case of this man. That’s much easier than naming it depression, mental health problems; we know where we stand on pastors who have affairs or who break the law. We’re less certain when it comes to Christians (and especially Christian leaders) with depression. Christians are meant to rejoice and walk in victory, so depression doesn’t fit. So some of us push it away and give it another name, find a different box to put it in. Very few, if any, of the people involved in that story I told are likely to articulate it thus; but it’s there in the subtle ways we find to come up with alternative narratives. It’s a human reflex, a knee-jerk reaction which can seem as inbuilt as hair colour or height.

Stigma. The hiding of the dirty secret which may not actually be that dirty, but can make you feel soiled. It alienates, distances, lies, covers-ups … and depends on a lot of other factors to be maintained. It springs from fear that others will see us differently, fear of something we can’t quite understand or explain, something which once it’s out of the box can’t be controlled and can’t be put back in. Stigma stains, soaks into the fabric and can’t be washed out.

That’s understandable – we believe God heals and we want to see that happen. We don’t know, though, how to pray when confronted by some things. Does a person need deliverance or healing? Does he need love or medicating? Des she need prayer or a professional practioner? The question really should be: why do we have to choose?

Here’s the breaking news: the box is open. The tragic death of Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son who took his own life after a long battle with depression, has lifted the lid. If ever it was really securely on in the first place. Now there’s no hint or suggestion that he was stigmatised for his illness. Everything we’ve seen suggests he was held with love, compassion, dignity and grace. But the public stage of this sad story has taken the issue of depression, mental health and suicide in evangelical christianity and thrust it blinking into the spotlight. A perfect storm of stigma, circumstances, panic attacks and depression nearly killed the man of whom I spoke. He didn’t take his own life, but he was mighty close to it. He felt so trapped, so locked away, that for a while only one way out made sense. It’s hard to argue with that dark logic.

I know another man. A man who was stigmatised. Rumour, spite, manipulation, violence, cowardice and religion led him to be tortured and to hang bleeding and suffocating and dying naked on a cursed cross outside a wall, mocked and sneered at, his clothes won and lost by his executioners on the rolls of dice.

Stigma borne. Stigma owned by the one who shouldn’t have to hold it.

There’s a lid to be thrown away, questions to be asked, conversations to be had. It should start with the consideration of a man who chose stigma and let it lead Him to glory. Then it must move to those forced by omission or commission to carry stigma; it must continue with sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and understanding. It must continue thus until we’re left together at the foot of the stigmatised cross, with an ear open to the one we mistake for a gardener, calling us by name.

I have the man’s full permission to share what I did of his story. I also checked this post out with a handful of independent advisers to comment on appropriateness before finalising and posting.

A Son’s Suicide

Some days it just doesn’t work out. Late on Saturday evening our time news broke across social media that the son of one Evangelical Christianity’s best known leaders had committed suicide. Of course this shouldn’t really be a public issue; it’s one family’s deeply personal soul-wrenching pain. But because of Rick Warren’s profile – this was a man who gave a prayer of invocation at Obama’s 2009 inauguration – the news was flashing around the world at the press of a button.

The story is best absorbed directly, the better to filter out speculation and innuendo. Warren’s pastoral letter to his congregation is beautiful, simple and almost impossible to read. Matthew Warren -Rick and Kay Warren’s youngest son – died at the age of 27, committing suicide after years of struggle with mental illness. What’s especially striking in all of this is a simple sentence: “Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.” He goes on to say something which rang bells for me: “I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ but he kept going for another decade”. To many  – Christian or not – that seems mysterious and confusing. Doesn’t Jesus give us life in all its fullness? Well, yes. But if there’s a black dog foaming and snarling in your face, your fullness can feel very small.

A few years ago, before I entered ordained church ministry, I worked in a long-term stay hostel for young homeless people in Bermondsey, South-East London. Most of the staff were Christians; we dealt with young men and women who, like us, were all broken in some way. One profoundly gifted young man – a budding film-maker – was destined for big things. He’d got his life back on track and his career looked like it could head in a very positive direction. He’d made a profession of Christian faith (by no means an ‘object’ of the hostel’s work, but it still happened) a short time after leaving the hostel. He told us about that profound spiritual encounter in a long letter he wrote to us as a staff. Within a month he’d committed suicide.

We were floored. It took some of us months – maybe years – to process. Maybe some of us still are processing it. Processing is such a cold word really for integrating such a devastating reality into your life. What about his faith? He had something to live for now, surely? Why do this, now? The truth is we don’t and can’t know. The truth is that the option he took, and the option Matthew Warren took, is an option that’s always open. To all of us. Whether it’s in the impulse of a moment or planned meticulously, depression does this to you. It can sweep other options away in a dark tsunami, leaving you with just one, tempting you like the only ripe fruit on a tree when all the bounty of other branches looks rotten. Sometimes it’s taken, plucked almost reluctantly and gradually over times; or in this young man’s case grabbed as if time was of the essence, in a rush to get somewhere else.

I’ve heard suicide called giving in to being a victim. I don’t think that’s fair or true. It can feel in the moment like the only way of transcending the moment. That’s not to say it’s the right thing to do. It’s not. Of course it’s not. But to pass it off as victim-hood, as giving up, is too easy. Sometimes it may just make some kind of awful sense in the moment you’re in.

When you’re caught in the tsunami’s grip, what you need most is people. Checking in, asking, loving, holding you against the force that’s threatening to sweep you away. I wish I could say holding always works, always saves the life. I wish I could say that love trumps darkness every time. Eternally, it does. But in individual moments, when lies loom large with a whirlpool’s seemingly irresistible force, it doesn’t. Not for everyone. But that doesn’t mean the love was wasted, unheard or unfelt. It just meant that one day the black dog couldn’t be trained. But our God is one who hung, suffered, ached, cried and died – so we know He’s there, we know … He knows. Somehow.

We’ll always want to know why. Of course we do. We need to hear that some questions can’t be fully answered and still be answered truthfully. That doesn’t mean you can’t sit, though. Sit with the person for whom a snarling dog is the only reality. And sometimes, sit with the ones whom have been left behind.

Some helpful resources:

Mind & Soul: An excellent website looking at issues around the Christian faith and mental health

This video, and associated books, is a great way to explain what depression is like to live with, even to children

If you are considering suicide, you are not alone. Try reading this page.

Or for anyone, these two blogs are well worth reading:

1.Fragmentz’s post on World Suicide Prevention Day, 2012

2. My good friend Andy’s wonderful post