Since the recent death of the prolific singer/songwriter Chester Bennington I have seen the usual spat of nasty or unfeeling comments regarding those who take their own lives. They may be well meaning, but some have said “how selfish” or “cowardly” they think he was. Others ask how a person who takes their life could ignore the pain it causes their family friends and loved ones. Anyone who has been in these dark valleys in their lives or have gone through them with someone they love know all too well that it isn’t that simple.
Depression, loss, mental illness and addiction are not phantoms. They don’t vanish at the mention of a simple platitude. And well meaning bromides aside, we live in an age where militaristic chauvanism still dominates. We are inundated daily in hyper-masculine jingoism which eagerly brands anyone who challenges the dominant, patriarchal culture with derisive labels like “snowflake.” Girls and women face especially hard treatment when faced with a constant barrage of misogynistic criticism and expectations related to how they look, act and think. But this culture can also be very difficult for boys and men struggling with imposed stoicism regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.
Add to this a profoundly sick societal paradigm where money dictates, racism persists, the poor, disabled or elderly are invisible, politics is a spectacle, news is entertainment (and vice versa) and the living earth is being relentlessly decimated thanks to war, greed and mindless consumerism. You get a good idea of how any fragile heart can break into pieces.
I don’t know very much about Chester Bennington’s life or the demons he wrestled with. I don’t know what eventually caused him to go over that ledge. But I understand what it feels like to be on one. I know the desperation, the isolation and the panic that can flood one’s mind. The late novelist David Foster Wallace summed it up pretty well when he described it:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
The world we walk through is one of crushing cruelty. It is full of destruction, misery and pain. Exploitation of the powerless often appears to be the law of the land with alienation, demoralization and despair the result. It is a world that will gleefully cut your heart into shards especially when you show it that you care.
For the fragile heart there is no preventing this from happening except by hardening it. The latter may protect you from unpleasant feelings for a time. It may give you the facade of strength and detachment. But it will surely lead you to a life of bitterness and indifference ending in a soulless death. Even though it is fraught with great danger, it is only in its brokenness that the heart has a chance of experiencing love and knowing joy. And in doing this it opens up a greater possibility for healing the world you inhabit.
So if you are in possession of one this message is for you. There is a big lie that is told all too often. It’s that the fragile heart is either weak, useless or cowardly. On the contrary; it is none of those things. It is, in fact, the greatest quality our species has ever had. In the midst of violence, avarice, cruelty, oppression and ecocide it is a clarion call for sanity. Its fragility challenges the lie that “might makes right.” Every time it breaks it causes a crack in the wall between this world and the one that should be. One where unshackled joy and fearless love abound. It is the only thing that makes solidarity with one another possible, and in the end the only adventure worth taking.
Kenn Orphan 2017
If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide or are struggling with depression, anxiety or addiction please know that there are many people who care. Help is available.
Title painting credit is “Song of Songs” by Marc Chagall.