I think that for the most part, people mean well. Even with blinding avoidance of some topics, I don’t think malice is behind what seems like apathy, or even repulsion. My guess is that it’s more a matter of just not knowing how to approach some topics, especially if that topic is linked to some sort of instability or potential ‘trigger’ for harm. In my life, that applies to anything related to my hospitalizations for being suicidal, or having attempted suicide (though I never really wanted to die…I just didn’t know how to get out of the pain associated with eating disorders). It’s just not something that is covered in “Social Conversation 101”, and add a church background that repels any sort of mental pain as some type of spiritual weakness, and the doors and mouths are shut when the exact opposite is needed.
I love that I grew up in a church that was a great social and spiritual setting. The kids’ and high school programs were a lot of fun, and the place where most of my friends hung out. I have deep gratitude for being raised in a church, and while I haven’t been to any particular building for many years (related to my job for a lot of that time, and otherwise my health limitations), my belief in God and Christianity are strong. I’m not ‘rigid’, as is often associated with evangelicalism. When I was growing up, the beliefs I learned were just how it was. I then spent time as an adult reading through the Bible on my own, and found so much less judgement and hostility towards ‘non-believers’…that those who hurt are who the Bible is meant to attract, as well as give guidance to those who do believe. It’s not meant to be a ‘weapon’ of pompous piety. I was embarrassed at the narrow-minded acceptance parameters that I’d grown up with, and I also felt that I understood being on the ‘wrong’ side of what was acceptable. My high school and post-high school years were an intense period of general unrest, eating disorders, and suicidal depression that never happened unless I wasn’t eating properly. During those years, suicide was something that came up more than once… yet I couldn’t really discuss it with anybody who knew me very well. My parents found out I was mentioning some dark topics, and then chastised me for ever talking about such a thing; I had nothing to be all that upset about, why did I want to make THEM look bad? All about them. So I didn’t talk anymore. Until I got away from home.
I had worked at a wonderful church camp during the summers before my senior year in high school, freshman year of college, and half of the following summer. I’d met some incredibly caring people, and I’d disclosed a bit about the depths of despair I’d felt with the eating disorders and accompanying depression with a select few of them. I did talk about suicide with one of them, that I remember, during a semester break when I was working at a missions conference that she attended at the University of Illinois, where I went to school. She was also quite young at the time (though older than I was, so I was sure she knew just about everything, being in her 20s !), and she was a major source of encouragement. When someone is in the midst of not knowing if they even want to live, it’s not that helpful to tell them they’re not doing something ‘right’, and she didn’t do that. She did focus my thinking towards the lies in my head, and more on my/our Christian belief system. I adore this friend to this day, and while it wasn’t her ‘job’ to be my counselor, she did the best she could. Now, many years past those miserable early adulthood years, I do agree that focusing more on being what Christ wants of me, and less on the superficial things like weight and human perception (at least how it was then) is very much what I want to do, and needed to do back then. But as a scared, malnourished, ashamed, and depressed eighteen year old, I didn’t really get it. But at least she talked to me at all… I didn’t feel safe talking to about %99.9 of people I knew (or didn’t know, such as therapists). And she listened, which was ‘enough’ to help me hang on. She gave me her time.
Sometimes, just having something to hang on to is ‘enough’ to get through another day, and maybe that next day isn’t so bad, so it’s easier to see making it through the day after that. I don’t think it’s a sin to have ‘negative’ emotions. I think that there can be sinful choices in how they’re handled sometimes, and I also think that there are times when people are so deep in the weeds that they need someone to look to while they try and climb back to tended ground. I also don’t think that mental illness is a sin or sign of spiritual weakness. It’s an illness, and those who suffer from it (and it is suffering) are seen as being spiritually weak in many church settings. That is SO sad.
I can only imagine Jesus looking down at those who are hurting emotionally, and wanting those who claim to know Him to reach over and encourage and gently nudge the ones in pain so they keep adding days to their lives until the oppressive clouds lift, and they see daylight again. I don’t see Jesus adding shame and judgement to someone who is already struggling to see that the next breath is worth taking.
There is a time and place for instructional discipleship, and a time and place for compassionate encouragement. But silence in the middle of a rotating thunderstorm just doesn’t make sense. It’s that silence that can be the last opportunity to reach out to someone who is spiraling out of control, and into a place of absolute helplessness and hopelessness, and ultimately suffocating darkness. Even ‘just’ asking if someone wants to talk, and ‘just’ sitting with them can be enough to let them know that they matter enough to keep taking up space on the planet. Nobody has to know all of the answers. And it’s possible to have more questions than answers and still be a temporary rock in the middle of pain that feels like it’s going to last forever. Being so afraid of doing something wrong that nothing is done is sometimes beyond useless. To someone who hurts, being glossed over by those who know them is worse than having something not be ‘perfectly’ helpful. Perception in the middle of pain is often very ego-centric and inaccurate. But a kind word in a gentle tone can ease so much.
There is nothing wrong with saying “I really don’t know how to help you, but I am so afraid for how much pain I see you in. What can I do? I am here for you. You matter to me.”. Having human limitations isn’t going to cause irreparable damage to someone. But apathy and inaction might. I don’t think that anybody is ever the ’cause’ for someone else taking their own life. If someone is resolute in their decision to at least try and end their life, they will do so. But when there are signs that something is wrong, I do believe that at least offering some human compassion and understanding can’t hurt. And, no matter what, I’d rather know I at least tried.