My husband turned away from the computer after checking his email, lowered his head, and made a quiet but indescribable noise.
“What happened? What’s the matter? Did someone die?” I asked, myself abruptly standing because I don’t take bad news sitting down.
Worse. Death in the worst way. Suicide. A old family friend had killed himself.
I only met the person once, but I immediately feel the black hole looming large where the man should be, but is no longer. If I, an outsider, feel a deep ache over his absence, how much more are his loved ones diminished by his death? Did he not know that he counts; that if he removed himself from the world, the world would be a lesser place? Did he not feel ties to people; ties that would tear a serious chunk out of each person connected to him if he were to pull away so severely?
I believe more than ever in these ties.
We need ties, hundreds of them, however thin they might be, connecting us to others. Or maybe just two or three cords that are thick and strong connecting us to a few; or something in between. My brother-in-law has ties all the way to Africa because of a service project he oversees in Liberia. My mother has ties with a group of 70-somethings who take turns serving each other dinner. My little niece has cystic fibrosis and a huge community has been knitted together, with this beautiful girl in the center, through fund raising efforts to facilitate a cure.
It appears to me that a sure way of making ties is through acts of service or the support of some cause. When we serve others, we connect with those we help and with those we serve alongside. If we keep up the good work, we make a web of connections with people all over the place. We have threads crisscrossing in every which way, and try as we may to escape sometimes, the ties pull on us and keep us grounded.
I do not mean to suggest that the man who took his life was missing such a network; I’m sure suicide is more complicated than that. Consulting with someone who teaches suicide prevention, I am told, “Suicide is a desperate act to end someone’s pain. They don’t stop to think how much they may be missed. They don’t do it to hurt someone else. They do it to stop the pain.” But if pain is the problem, doesn’t reaching out to help another person—to enter into someone else’s pain for awhile—take us out of our own?
Regardless of the reasons why, the way I am handling this sad news—pretty much the way I respond to suffering at large—is to encourage people to involve themselves, to extend themselves, in some kind of service to make the world a better place and to assure their part in it. This is my spiel right now and studies do back it up. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, people who are engaged in regular volunteer work have lower rates of depression and longer lifespans.
Basically, no one is immune from needing to be needed. My sister works with disabled children and claims that a significant part of their therapy program is to help these kids be useful in some way. “Purposeful activity heals,” she teaches, no matter who you are and no matter how limited are your natural abilities.
We are all limited to some degree. To a large degree. That’s why we need to get beyond ourselves. And while we are bonding with others, since we are talking about matters of life and death, it wouldn’t hurt to develop vertical ties as well, by asking God to strengthen us for each task at hand. “When anyone serves,” says Apostle Peter, “he should do it with the strength God provides…”
A few days ago, I met a man who looked like a retired rock star. I found out he is a screenwriter from LA. When I told him that I was presently promoting my new book about the benefits of serving others, he shared about the pro bono writing he does for a nonprofit. Then he said with serious conviction, “Volunteering keeps me alive.”
May we all find a way to give…and live.
Causes Gail Johnston Supports
The Stephens Ministry The Siena Maternity Home Young Life International