When Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide within days of each other, it brought into sharp focus a troubling fact that had until then flown under most social radars: suicide has become the tenth most common cause of death in both the United States and Canada.
In fact—and this is stunning to consider—the Center for Disease Control reports that while 2016 saw almost 19,000 homicides in the United States, the number of suicides was more than twice that at 45,000.
We’re talking about 64,000 lives lost to violence against the self or another. How’s that for tragedy? Add that to the approximately 800,000 legal abortions performed that same year, and one fact becomes very clear: we human beings, loved into being and formed in the image of our Creator, are throwing ourselves away.
Why do we think so little of ourselves and our humanity?
This is a core question, not a frivolous one, and it cannot be answered as glibly as some might like. Because we fear the question, though, and because we desperately want to make sense of horror when we encounter it, we try to make a fast response that “seems” to address it—mostly so we can compartmentalize the mystery and not have to think about it.
Thus, after the Spade and Bourdain suicides we heard, “Well, depression; here’s a hotline number,” which helped some tidy up the issue in their minds so they could move on. But studies and researchers have determined that suicides, or suicidal ideation, are not exclusive to those suffering from depression or ongoing mental illness. Fear, anxiety, trauma, a loss of hope, a lack of trustworthy human outreach, deep loneliness, despair—all of these can come into play in suicide, and a one-liner can’t be the answer.
So, it was disturbing to see some Christian voices—some Catholics among them—suggesting that if only Spade or Bourdain had embraced a life of faith as fully as some of us, why, they wouldn’t have killed themselves, because they’d know the joy of the Lord.
It’s a terrible charge to make against another; it’s right up there with saying that if only one had enough faith, one would never become ill. You might as well say that if only one had enough faith, one would never sin—something said by no saint, ever.
In fact, the saints attest to the truth that darkness can, and usually does, visit all of us at one time or another. In the stories of their lives, we see that knowing Christ, even knowing the Lord as intimately as we may through the Eucharist and prayer and service, does not preclude us from losing heart, becoming confused, imagining that we are alone, unloved, and unlovable, and feeling forgotten or bereft of all friendship. In her letters, we read Mother Teresa’s writing of “my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation.” The woman had faith—she knew she possessed the love of God—yet she experienced feelings of abandonment and unloveable disposability.
Sometimes we are so full of self-loathing that the idea of anyone else loving us, much less the Almighty God who is All Good, seems frankly unimaginable because we’ve become convinced that we are All-Bad. This is a dark lie, of course, but when the feeling becomes ingrained within us the battle against it can be lifelong. It is usually in the weakest of our moments—moments that will pass, but while we are in them we cannot see how—that the fight is lost. We throw ourselves away, and the people we leave behind are left to agonize over why it was we did not believe in their love, call on their love, depend on their love, trust their love.
The thing is, we often don’t call on love because we do not understand love—few of us do, really. “Love is patient, love is kind,” wrote Saint Paul, and yes, it is that. But love is also complicated, as any child who has been molested by a family member or abandoned by a parent (or the parent who did the abandoning) can tell you. Love means being vulnerable; love brings the pain, and the deeper the love (or the sense of having lost it, somehow, either through our own actions or the actions of another), the deeper the pain.
That’s why, even though we crave love and want to give love, we so rarely fully trust love.
19,000 homicides; 45,000 suicides; 800,000 legal abortions—the throwing away of humanity—all of it is symptomatic of a crisis in our understanding of love, and possibly of forgiveness too. And people who are believers, people who have faith in a God who is one hundred percent Love, and can therefore be nothing less than Love in their lives, can lose sight of what that means (because it is, in fact, a mystery) just as easily as those without faith, or “whose faith is known to God alone.”
I am a writer and a Catholic, and I have many times repeated to others the absolute truth that Pope Benedict XVI promulgated in his Principles of Catholic Theology:
It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist…If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.
Perhaps hundreds of times, I have shared that quote with others, because I believe it is completely right. And sometimes, I have had to seek those words out for myself because my own self-loathing—casting me ever-farther away from the mystery of love—requires that reminder in a despairing moment.
The theology of Love is powerful but, as the Crucifix itself attests, it is also complex because humanity is still broken, still prone to misuse love, or misunderstand love, or misidentify love. And because we do — and because we sin, and thus become further enmeshed in our confusion of love — we suffer. And because we understand suffering even less than we understand love, we throw ourselves away, or we throw away others. Ultimately, it’s the same thing.
Religion can certainly help with all of this, but it’s not an “easy answer” or a psychic bandage. The Catholic Church possesses the fullest and best theology of suffering to be found, because it is a theology of the Cross inhabited by All Love. It seems to me we have got to find a more effective way to bring that theology to the fore—to suffer together, that we may better understand and trust in love.