Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Final Word on the Suicide of a Friend

On Friday, February 23, 2007, I discovered the body of my friend. I left work early in order to change a bad tire on the relic Cadillac I was driving at the time, then to drive the forty-five minutes from Kansas City to Lawrence to pick up my two young children for the weekend. I found him in his bed, sunk into the mattress. I had seen him the previous day around the same time of day and thought he was sleeping. Now I found him again in the same position, though I could not be sure. I called his name several times, and he did not respond.

When my first child was a baby, he slept so deeply I sometimes feared that he had become a victim of SIDS, and like many parents have done, would put my ear down to his mouth to hear the consolation of his soft breathing. I did not think of this when confronted with my friend, but instead tried to gently shake him awake. I knew that he was dead, but I did not want to admit it. I called his name. I shook his foot. I yelled, "wake up!" I grabbed his cold arm and shook him. The chasm between the truth and my desire cracked deeply into me, so that I behaved irrationally. For instance, as if being filmed or watched I mimicked what I have seen hundreds of times on television and in the movies, reached forward, and checked his neck for a pulse. As a child might do playing a game. I felt nothing, of course, but then recognized my action for its own absurdity; I did not know how to check for a pulse, a bad actor in bad faith.

After summoning another housemate from downstairs, calling my kid's mom and letting her know I would not be picking them up that evening, calling 911 and, insanely, telling them, "I can't wake my roommate up" even though I knew in my heart that my problem was more metaphysical than any medic would ever be prepared to handle; after the crime scene unit made me wait in the cold for more than an hour, then told me there wasn't any evidence that anyone had come into the house and done this to him (I also knew that already); after they carted his covered body out in silence, leaving behind the overturned garbage they went through, open drawers and even their discarded plastic gloves thrown here and there without care on the furniture; after my friend Mandy checked on me and took me to Tea Drops in Westport where I had a tall glass of bubbly, sweet and exotic green tea, I went back into the house and recognizing that he was dead, that he was gone, slipped easily into a state of shock.

I have been in physical shock before, and have the scars to prove it. The accidents of childhood sent me to the hopsital on several occasions -- a deep cut in my brow, my big front-toe nearly dismembered, the gash on my lip from when the Malamute lashed out at my throat -- and each time, though bleeding, dimly aware of sensation, I did not panic. I remained calm, stoic, cognizant of small ebbs of pain, but derailed from participation in my own existence, doubled, an observer only marginally inhabiting experience. The mind seems to clear, facts differentiate between themselves, variables are assigned degrees of significance and value, a clear course of action determined -- all apart from the pain, the loss, the full dimensions of suffering. One's sensory perceptions of the tragic become numbed and are malfunctioning. One seems more in control, able to cope, to "stay cool in a crisis", or "work better under pressure".

I made arrangements to see my kids, made phone calls. I informed our mutual friends, and other friends of his. I spoke with his family members, bundled up his sheets and blankets to hide some of the travesty from them. I cleaned our section of the house meticulously, except for his room, which still held all his things. His father came the next day, a large man who reminded me of the archetypical farmer, broad and sweeping and somehow connected to the earth, yet disconnected today, his countenance clouded. His older brother, a pastor, generous and full of questions, not understanding what had happened. And another brother, stern and distant, angry in his grief. His presence seemed to linger. I spoke to him.

I asked him, I asked the empty room, why? I asked, what happened? The questions seemed to float up from the floorboards, hang in the air. I spoke his name. I said to him, to the empty room, I love you, and I'm sorry, and pray for me.

My friend was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but he was responsible and to all appearances, sober. He worked a full-time job, paid child support for his two young children (visited them monthly in another state), paid his mortgage and the bills on his house, acted as a landlord to myself and three others (including tenants of a front apartment and a basement apartment), and saw his psychiatrist at least twice a month. He was prescribed an anti-psychotic pill, an antidepressant and Xanax, all of which he took regularly, but against which he also struggled. The drugs paralyzed him. He had very little personal energy. I would sometimes be writing at my computer, and turn around with surprise to discover that he had been sitting in a chair behind me. When I asked for how long, he might say, a while, or thirty minutes, or, not long. He would creep in silently and sit and say nothing. He sat on the back porch and chain smoked cigarettes. He died of a drug overdose, having swallowed all of his medication at once.

Small insinuating accusations gradually presented themselves. I had complained the day before, perhaps even after he had died and was so far undiscovered, to a friend on the phone that his mere presence totally drained me. Had he heard? He asked me to pray with him at an inopportune time, and I was too busy, invited to a banquet but I had other plans. He had written to a mutual friend that he and I didn't do much together, and that 'Eric is in his own little world." I betrayed him through my own omissions, by not reaching out to him as often as I should have, by not being as faithful as I could be, by not being the person who I ought to be. All the various sins of pride, or selfishness, seemingly small acts of neglect, acts that I considered trivial, personal and private collect themselves into an army that defeats me, and through omission, destroys my brother. Would he have not murdered himself had I behaved otherwise? There is no way to tell. I am to blame, however, not for the destruction of possibilities or exigencies in an inscrutible could-have-been future, but for the destruction of the possibility for love and redemption through my own carelessness.

I am to blame and I am not to blame. We are all responsible for ourselves and for each other, it all connects, and if that isn't true in this situation, then I do not know where it might ever be found to be true. Yet, I am not to blame. I did not cause or create his mental illness, nor suggest to his sensibilities the notion of ending his life, nor make the decision, in whatever skewed or layered dimension of thought it lay, for him. We are all responsible for each other, but we are all responsible for ourselves as well.

The day of the funeral arrived, a day to slide from shock, remember him, begin to grieve. My friend was interested in becoming Orthodox, and had attended services at my parish, but he had not; he still struggled, he said, with a few issues. His parents were lifetime members of a Protestant church which I took to be Dutch and Reformed and Evangelical, though I was never sure of the exact denomination. I prepared to let go, to mourn the loss. The memorial service began, the pastor spoke of my friend's childhood, his antics, narratives designed to highlight the facticity of his life, sharpen the loss, open the doorway to grief.

But his eulogy shifted, turned sour by his tenacious and discursive allegience to theological fairy-tales. Most of the congregants were not well acquainted with my friend, but knew his family, and they were there for them, so the pastor, he seemed to feel, had a duty to instruct. This was a suicide, after all, an act which elucidates human freedom, our capacity for destruction, the great and terrible responsibility of freedom in the face of which we might tremble in humility, or run from in abstraction and fear. The pastor chose the latter route, and his refrain became, "...what happened to the joyful boy we knew? how did he go wrong?" Obviously, the notion that he had a mental illness beyond his control and for which he was not at fault never occurred to the man.

His presumption was clearly that my friend's suicide (assuming it was a suicide) was proof that he had backslidden from faith, that he had plunged himself into the decadence of his own darkness. His words and arguments did not gel well, became ethereal and patronizing and self-contradictory as he sought to balance a doctrine of "eternal security" against an error of antinomianism. Finally, with great bravado and indignity, he held his Bible up Jimmy Swaggart-style, and roared that my friend's problem was that he "started hanging out with a group of people who do not believe in this!" By this he meant myself and our mutual friends; he meant the Orthodox Church. What was meant to be a eulogy turned quickly into an accusation against my friend's character that Satan himself would heartily approve, slander of my friends and myself, and a glaring misrepresentation of the Orthodox Church and its understanding of the holy Scriptures.

My grief turned quickly into anger and disgust. My friend was mentally ill, a sickness that preceded any interest he had in Orthodoxy, and manifested itself long before he started hanging out with the likes of me or our mutual friends. He struggled in courage, but in the end lost that fight. But this pastor followed the gist of his religious fervor, which is to turn life into abstraction, God into an object of discursive theologizing, prayer itself into a privatized validation of personal doctrinaire tenets and beliefs. The church of my friend's family, the church of his childhood, even the sickness of his soul could not be culprits to his downfall, none of these could be blamed for the audacity of his tragic ending. So we were blamed out of fear and for the sake of doctrinal propriety. At least the pastor could protect and defend his beliefs and himself, escape blame for this final act that ought not have happened given the "correct doctrine" in which he was raised. So he ran in rhetorical fear to slander a dead young man, thirty-two years old, in the rabid defense of sola Scriptura.

I was angry, but I did not want to respond directly to the pastor because my friend's brother worked with him, and I did not want to cause him any further pain. Instead, I responded more indirectly by posting a heartfelt message on the funeral home guestbook webpage. I recieved grateful responses from my friend's mother, his ex-wife, and other members of his extended family, and friends as well. I merely pointed out the good qualities he exemplified, tried to give a more complete picture of who he is without trying to make a "theological" point.

Various people respond differently to suicide. The Orthodox Church is lenient and understanding towards those who murder themselves when it can be shown that the person was not mentally sound. It is less lenient (i.e., will not provide an Orthodox burial) towards those who are of a sound mind, but believe that suicide is a viable option from a philosophical basis. We do not have the right to murder anyone, nor to take our own lives.

I do not know what happened in the case of my friend, what went through his mind, whether or not it was an accident, or what happened to him beyond death. None of that is any of my business or within the purview of my knowledge. I think of him often, and I pray for him, my requests for mercy on his behalf hopefully reaching beyond the gates of time and space to broach the timeless Day that is not a day, that of judgment, in the eternal presence of God.

Some scientists believe that memory works by remembering memories; gradually, we no longer really recall the initial event, but our memory of it. Because my sweet, dear friend was significant to me, and had died, my mind, clutched in the fist of my heart, began to quickly remember various moments in the time we spent together, conjure his presence, his aloof demeanor, the light in his eyes, a repressed humor.

I tell others about the many times he would walk out of his room, and my two children, four and two years old, would cry out with joy, “Philip!” and run to him, and as children do, grab his arm or his legs, tell him what they have been doing, a pure greeting from which I can learn.

On one occasion, he looked at me with genuine bafflement, as one child wrapped himself around Phil’s leg and the other pulled on his hand, and said, “I wonder why your kids like me so much?” I laughed at him, but didn’t reply because I thought the answer was obvious. Maybe I should have said, “because you are a likeable guy,” or something to that effect, but I didn’t. I did not realize that he didn’t know.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Worms and Men

While living at a monastery in California, there was a period of time during which the Abbot and I found ourselves alone with each other, and were sometimes forced to converse. The only monk there at the time, along with the only novice, were both on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos, leaving the hieromonk and myself to our own devices.

We entertained each other with stories. I spoke briefly of my own conversion, and he of his. I remember him telling me that while he was a student at an ivy league college on the east coast, he, as an avowed agnostic, took a class on the history of Christianity. His idea of Christianity was one that denigrated the human person, an idea that he loathed and did not believe in. In his view, Christianity taught that the human person is a worm, not merely stained by sin, but totally and thoroughly corrupted to the point of a complete absence of spiritual resonance. The heavy burden of guilt, both inherited from Adam as well as attained through one's own actions, proved the human being to be depraved in every faculty of his miserly existence, even down to the marrow of his very nature.

(Although the abbot was not a Calvinist, this is one of the main ideas of Calvinism, from which follows the notion that one is so demolished by guilt and sin that one is incapable of his own volition of wanting to know God, or choosing to embrace Christ, unless he is overpowered by God and spiritually regenerated -- but all that is another story.)

The Abbot, before he became a Christian, felt a particular distaste towards the faith that was focused on this idea of the repugnance of the human person. Then, in the class he was given assigned readings and confronted with the writings of the Church fathers , and found something else entirely. Instead, he discovered that the early Christians believed that the human person, created in the image of God, is good, has intrinsic value, is not de facto guilty of sin from birth, nor so engorged by the presence of sin as to be incapable of seeking salvation from God. He was particularly stricken, and angered, by an article regarding St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c.395), who wrote that although stained and darkened by the presence of death through sin, the human person shares through his higher faculties a reflection of the qualities of divinity.

"He who created human beings in order to make them share in his own fullness so disposed their nature that it contains the principle of all that is good, and each of these dispositions draws them to desire the corresponding divine attribute. So God could not have deprived them of the best and most precious of His attributes, self-determination, freedom...." (Catechetical Orations).

The Abbot told me that the early saints of the historic church, particularly St Gregory of Nyssa, infuriated him because they did not describe that which he knew as "Christianity". Instead of describing the human person as at core a hopeless wretch, justly guilt-ridden and deserving of nothing but punishment, they described him as stained and corrupted and darkened by death, yes, and therefore given over to deep-rooted sinful addictions -- but also, they described the human person as in his very nature glorious, the very image of God, of such weight and tremendous value that not even death could totally eradicate his worth.

Angrily, after reading an encyclopedia article about St Gregory of Nyssa in which he described the human person in the latter manner, the student who would later become my spiritual father (for a while, anyway) wrote to the author of the article, someone named Georges Florovsky, a Russian who taught at a nearby university. In response, Florovsky invited him to come and visit him, which he did, and together they visited the writings of the fathers, the Scriptures, and Orthodox services, which he described as a liberating experience, and through which he himself embraced Christ.

I am reminded of his story on occasion, usually when I come across people who are not Christians, but who see us as morose, guilt-ridden and neurotic hypocrites, forever caught in a tangle of self-deprecation and inevitable human longing. This is not the Christian story; it is an unfortunate and deceptive distortion.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Author Interviews

Some time ago I discovered the "Wired for Books" website which contains an audio archive of interviews with various writers conducted by Don Swaim (http://wiredforbooks.org/mp3/). I downloaded nearly all of the interviews, a few dozen hours of material. They are informal, conducted in the 70s and 80s, fodder for a much briefer radio news broadcast, from which Swaim would cut and snip, parsing the question and answer format for a bit of reportage that left undisclosed his own often humorous, idiosyncratic personality.

Today at work, I listened to three somewhat awkward interviews with the late Alice Adams (whose stuff I have never read), a conversation in the mid-80s with Allen Ginsberg, two interviews with the Israeli writer Amos Oz, and a talk with Amy Tan. (The Adrienne Rich interview was cut short after three minutes -- the mp3 file apparently didn't fully download.) As a perceptive person might see, I started with the "A's".

Adams, a prolific short story writer for The New Yorker, spoke of her various troubles with rejection in the industry, which prompted Swaim to speak of Rick Bass, the short story and nature writer, who he says claims to have written a thousand short stories before one was finally accepted for publication. I find this extremely difficult to believe. Maybe he was into flash fiction? Adams found this incredible as well, but recommended trying for the best publications first, as she did, and working your way down. (Things may have changed in publishing in the twenty years since she gave this word of advice.) Also of interest -- she mentioned she taught a creative writing class, attended by Harriet Doer, who was in her late 60s and working on her first novel while in the class (Stones of Ibarra). She later published it at the age of 74, and it won the National Book Award.

Ginsberg was eloquent, political, passionate. Smaim did not know who Moloch, the pagan god whom Ginsberg references in the second part of Howl. So the late Beat poet told him that the Israelites were forbidden to offer their children to the god Moloch; they were not allowed o make them to "pass through the fire". He related this to what parents do to their children in our civilized, industrialized, war-profiterring countries. He also read the first few lines of Howl, a rendering that brought life to it which I haven't quite heard so well before. He said that the poem was meant in some sense to be a literary translation of the jazz sax riffs rendered by Lester Young, which brings me to a less abstract form of translation...

Amoz Oz was interesting in his theory of translation because he writes all of his work originally in Hebrew. He then works with American translators on the English renditions. His arguement was that he did not desire a too-literal translation of his work, especially idiomatically, since that would break up the normalcy of the dialogue. he demands of his translators, he said, that they "be unfaithful to be loyal". He said that it was like playing a violin concerto on he piano, which can be done beautifully as long as one doesn't try to make the piano sound like a violin, a vulgarity. Oz was also of interest in that he grew up in a conservative home, rebelled as a young teenager by joining a kibbutz (a type of socialist and originally agrarian commune -- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz). As a writer as of the interview, he still lived in the kibbutz with his family, where he was allowed to spend a lot of his time writing, but also still waited and served tables during some meals, could be found driving a tractor as well. The kibbutz basically subsidized his writing during his early years. After he found fame and more money through translation in English and other languages, he still gave all his money and royalties to the community; he signed his checks over to the "smiling accountant". However, should he ever need anything, such as a month off to rent a motel room somewhere and write, he could merely go to the "frowning accountant" to make a request, and a check would be unquestioningly written to him.

Amy Tan, whom I have also never read, but with whom I am familiar as a member of the rock and roll band, "The Rock Bottom Remainders" (along with Stephen King, Roy Blount Jr, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, and other mass market literary figures) spoke of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, which began as a series of short stories. She reports that the telling of her own personal experience, her subjective and honest rendering through fictional characters, unveiled universal truths about the nature of motherhood. Jewish woman would say, "your mother wasn't Chinese! She was Jewish!" And Irish, African, American, Russian, Greek woman, the same. She was surprised by this, she said, since she was writing something very particular about her own unique experience.