In January, I attended a suicide intervention training1 that involved role-playing exercises. We separated into pairs with one partner playing the caregiver and the other playing the at-risk individual in "performances" in front of the whole workgroup.
One of the teams was comprised of a mother and daughter who were attending the workshop together. The guidelines for this particular program call for the caregiver to encourage the at-risk person to first talk about the reasons she wants to die and then move on to the reasons for living. As the at-risk person, the mother painted a bleak existence for her character--a widowed, childless nurse who was being forced into retirement after 35 years of loyal service. The mother was so convincingly distraught that the daughter struggled to find a positive with which to help her start her list of reasons to live.
When the two of them finished their presentation, another woman in our group asked the facilitator how to handle a situation where "everything in a person's life seems so awful that you can't think of anything good to tell them."
The facilitator turned the question over to the group and, looking for clarification, I asked the questioner, "Are you asking how do you find hope in the face of suckishness?"
The woman's eyes lit up. "Yes," she said, "that's it exactly."
"Well," I answered, "I think that's really one of those core life questions, isn't it? That we all kind of have to answer on our own."
Feigning dismay, she said, "So you're telling me you don't have the answer either?"2
A few weeks later, I was sitting with a friend, an avowed and sometimes vehement atheist, who was trying to move on from the mistakes of his past, but was not at all sure what to do with his future. He was struggling to find a path that felt meaningful and he said, without that meaning, he didn't really see the point of making an effort at change at all.
It hit me that he, too, was talking about hope in the face of suckishness, albeit in a different way than the woman at the training. Even as atheists, we can see that hope in the face of suckishness is one of those things that religion often gets right. Religion offers not just faith, but fellowship and tradition, that can help to fill that hollow spot where hope should be.
For nonbelievers, the search for something big enough to fill that enormous emptiness is daunting. It's an easy thing to say that everyone must figure out for themselves how to fill that void, but much less easy to live with that void in the meantime.
That day, my friend and I eventually had to concede that we'd discovered no easy answers--no answers at all really. But we had at least felt comforted by talking with someone who struggled with the same questions.
It was a couple of days before it finally occurred to me that far from being a consolation prize, that sense of connection, of having found a fellow searcher, was actually part of the answer. A little part, sure, but lots of big things are built of little parts.
"How do I find hope in the face of suckishness?" may be a big question but, for me, the answers turn out to be small ones, or at least a big appreciation for small things: moments of true connection with family and friends, words strung together in a way that makes a bit more sense of the world, that male cardinal this morning at the tippy top of the still-bare silver maple across the street singing at a volume clearly meant to prove once and for all that body weight has no direct correlation with decibel output.
Taken together, the little things add up to more than enough hope. It's just a matter of remembering that they do.
H is for Hope
1. ASIST. Highly recommended, by the way.
2. The facilitator stepped in then and answered the original question regarding how to steer someone toward reasons to live when there seem to be so many negatives stacked against them. He said that while it's not much, the fact that the person is willing to talk about suicide shows a willingness to live and that they are having the conversation at all can be just enough to build on.
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