Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Creator will honor. – John 12:24-26
Beginning with the End in Mind
Recently I shared with my congregation that when I was nineteen I thought about shooting myself. In the video above I walk them through a little bit of what led up to that thought. But the incident I talk about in the video by no means was the sole factor leading up to that thought. It was just almost the proverbial straw that almost broke the camel’s back.
Suicide is one of those subjects that no one really wants to talk about and yet it is a subject that will not go away. In fact, incidents of suicide are on the rise in this country in pretty much every demographic. I will tell you that I can hardly go a week without hearing about at least one death by suicide. And every time I hear it, it breaks my heart.
As a friend said recently, “Whenever a person hears of someone dying by suicide, the thought comes back to a person who contemplated it themselves.” I never was able to articulate it this way for myself. But, I know that every time I hear about someone going through with this decision, I feel myself wishing that I could have gotten to them first to tell them that it’s not worth it. But I can’t. All I can do is remain grateful that a Voice called out to me and took the ability to make that decision out of my hands.
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
When I was sixteen one of my friends shot herself and another friend made an attempt to end her life by suicide. I’ll be honest and say that I was not as understanding as I could’ve been. I was angry with the person who succeeded and disappointed in the person who failed. I guess I thought they should’ve been tougher. But when the thought almost captured my mind years later, I learned that everyone has a breaking point. Or at least I learned I had one and that unless I watched my mind, the thought could sneak up on me again. And that awareness alone has me grieving for our world. What if we hit our collective tipping point and there’s no voices to pull us back from the brink?
As you’ll hear in the video, the thought of suicide was tempered by other thoughts that kept me from pulling the trigger. I share some of them. One I didn’t share, was what I experienced as Jesus saying to me, “If you’re willing to kill yourself over some temporary bullshit, why can’t you eternally live for what I teach? What’s the worst that can happen? You get crucified. You’re already talking about killing yourself.”
Now I can admit that perhaps this wasn’t Jesus and that my mind could have just been grasping for straws to keep me alive. But be that as it may, I do feel like there was some correlation between that thought and what the above referenced passage from John points to. One thing I can say for certain was that I gained a new dimension of my life when I took that logic to heart. What hit me in the moment before I considered suicide was the overwhelming pressure of being a black man all coming down on me at once. The video refers to an incident I had with the police where I actually benefited from the fact that the white officers on the scene didn’t care about me or the other black men who were part of the encounter. I was basically saved by racism. But rather than make me feel lucky, it made me consciously and definitively hate my life in this world.
As I mention in the video, I was blessed with the benefit of having read and heard the scriptures all of my life. Additionally, I have prayed as long as I can remember to understand what the deal was with the Jesus story. In a lot of ways, Jesus always filled in the gaps in all of my relationships with others. Because of this, the voice of the world that tried to convince me of my worthlessness as a black man and the challenges of my upbringing that I believe was deeply infected by the disease of toxic Americanism, were tempered by an alternative Voice of Love. What was missing though, was that I had not yet allowed Christ to fill the gap in my relationship to myself. On that night, that changed. That’s when I really think that his role in my life started to make sense. And that’s when I began to receive the life I asked for when I chose to be baptized at 6 years old. When me life stopped being my own, I received more of the life God had given me.
The Hardest Part
The thought of killing myself and the image in my mind that followed it was so intense that–to be honest–it felt like I had the experience of doing it, somehow experienced myself as a conscious non-being, and then reappeared in the moment of my contemplation with the realization that the release I thought I would have on the other side of pulling the trigger was actually accessible in any moment. The hardest part is that I didn’t and still don’t know how to effectively transmit this to people who may be considering suicide. If I were to give it words, I guess it would be that I touched the Void–the Beginning or perhaps the End. Whatever it was, I came back from the vision of non-being with a clearer understanding–at least for me–of what the scriptures meant by “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
After the experience, I knew that I did not have the ability to kill myself. This does not mean that I can’t shut this body off. But rather that the true self that God created is more than the body that I experience life through. Just as a balloon demonstrates the “life of helium” but does not take it’s “life” when the balloon pops, the Breath of Life in me does not begin or end with this body through which the breath is expressed. In so many ways, this thought experience caused me to understand the expression in Jeremiah where it says God told the prophet, “before you were formed in your mother’s womb I knew you…” I realized then that I didn’t even know the me I thought I had the power to kill. I still don’t. But I am trying to. The person I wanted to end was an idea of a me that was constructed as a resistance to a narrative of who I was supposed to be initiated by people who knew not what they did or who they were either. And that day that person dissolved.
Sometimes when I hear of someone dying by suicide I almost get this sense of survivors’ guilt. But then, I remind myself that this is an irrational thought that serves no one. The best thing I can do is continue to do the work of allowing God to work on me and to pray that I will take whatever opportunity I am afforded to speak life into the world.
I am living moment to moment trusting that the One who knows will add to my knowing and witnessing to the awareness that we are all more than the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves or the stories that are told about us. And more than that, the Author of all of our lives only writes bestsellers that never end.