Leaving the burning house
“Pain is God’s midwife, that helps some virtue into existence.”
HENRY WARD BEECHER, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit
It wasn’t two weeks ago that my friend’s daughter lost her love to suicide. He was very young, he’d had troubles for such a long time, and I didn’t know him at all. I wish I had, because I had some things to tell him that might’ve had some chance to help. They have before.
I have to start earlier than this. Long ago, in the way-back, I worked in a hippy counseling center called Everyday People. It was started by a preacher who saw a need for a place where lost souls could go and get help. It wasn’t a religious place, despite his vocation, and there wasn’t another one like it for miles. I qualified quite handily as a lost soul and one day, at age 15, I found myself there. For the first time that I could remember, I had people who would listen to me as 15 years of anguish and self-hatred came pouring out. I stayed, much to the horror of my parents, and in the process, got trained to help, just like the grownups did.
The biggest premise we were taught is that we all essentially know both what we need and what we need to do about it – and that nobody else really has the answers for us. The trainers – psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who volunteered their time – told us that our job was to help the people who came to us find their own paths and figure out their own ways to get where they needed to go.
That made perfect sense to me. I might have had no rights and thus, no ability to convert my answers to actions, I actually did know what I needed and what to do to make it happen. It wound up taking a long, convoluted, exquisitely painful time to accomplish, but indeed, I’ve brought to fruition the essentials of what I set out to do all those years ago.
In the 42 years since that time, I’ve spent a great deal of time considering how to help people through that agonizing rebirth required to get to where they want to go, and in the process of living, have stumbled upon a few things that seem to shine at least a flashlight into the darkness. And so, what I wish I’d had the chance to tell this desolate young man:
I would have told him that, despite how much it felt that he did, that he didn’t really want to die. Really, he didn’t. What he wanted was for the pain to stop and at this point, he thought that death would do that. But the sad reality is that he would just be dead. He wouldn’t have solved anything. In fact, I read that the few people who survived things like jumping off bridges thought, as they fell, that damn, they could have fixed anything but what they had just done.
Almost everybody hurts. Most of us had pain that started in childhood and was exacerbated by the self-doubt and even self-hatred that time engendered. Often, we are raised to feel we are absolutely alone with it, and that this pain is a source of shame. Our pain is weakness and we must hide it, especially from people who could see us enough to help us, even though the last thing we should do is be alone with it.
We also may be too afraid to face our pain. It’s huge! It hurts! It’s like we’re staring at a burning door and we’re saying “Omigod, I can’t go through that! It’s on fire!” But we’re already on fire because we’re in a burning room! We have to go through that burning door, because there people on the other side waiting with the hoses of cool water to put out the fire. They have salves and words of comfort, and they will help us heal. Yes, it will hurt to walk through that burning door. We will have scars, too, but those are badges of courage.
Sometimes, when we walk through one burning door, we’ll find ourselves in another burning room, faced with yet another burning door. Yes, we’ll have to walk through it all over again. We may finally find ourselves outside, or there may be another room, but every passage through every burning door brings us closer to that final escape, to the cool, sweet air outside.
And even though we are scarred, the pain will be a memory, to be taken out from time to time, examined and learned from. That is the solution. Not suicide. Not death. It’s walking through the burning door into the arms that welcome and heal and comfort and soothe.
Those who love us are anxious to help. They may not have the tools themselves, but they can help us find those tools, help us find the people who know how to use them. We must not fear to burden them – the chance to truly help someone you love is an enormous gift to the giver and not a burden at all. Besides, the old saying, “A burden shared is a burden lifted,” really is true. But if we choose death, we’re gone. Our problems are never going to be solved. We’ve simply left our pain behind to tear the hearts out of everyone who loved us.
I can’t be sure that these words would have helped that young man. A whole lot of really good people tried, I am told, and for a very long time. All I can go by is the tight, tearful hugs I’ve gotten after sharing these words with people. I just wish I’d had the chance.
This is dedicated to everyone who ever held the hand of a person in anguish and helped them find a light to shine in the darkness.