“Who are you?”
That’s what the caterpillar Absolem asked Alice when she was brought to him – at least in the movie version of “Alice in Wonderland.” (Confession: I’ve never read the book.)
It’s also a question we ask ourselves. The answer we give is a story.
In our formative stages, “who we are” is largely predetermined by genetics, chemistry, and experience. But as we grow older, we begin to exercise ever greater choices in our experience, and ever greater introspection on why we make those choices.
Children are often asked, “What is your favorite color?” As a little boy, my response was “Red!” My parents gave me a red tricycle for my birthday (third, I think), but I’m pretty sure that was after I had already declared red as my color of choice.
A few years later, in maybe the second or third grade, we were asked to write sentences about ourselves. It was the typical stuff, like “Where do you live?” and “What is the name of your pet?” and “What is your favorite color?”
When I got to the color question, I remember wondering, “Why do I like red?”
“Is it because our tractor is red? Or the barn? Is it because I like cardinals?
“Why do I like red?!”
Why am I like that?
Now, I was a weird kid (who grew up into a weird adult), but somewhere along the way, I think all of us have those moments where we step outside ourselves and ask, “Why am I like that?” We may occasionally find a definitive answer (“Oh, yeah, STRAWBERRIES!”), but more often, we only find various threads, related to our questions in some fashion, but not leading to a simple answer.
Sometimes, not finding one overriding “answer” is fine, especially where our self-questioning doesn’t impinge on the core way we look at ourselves or the world. But when it is not “fine,” when answering the question seems a crucial piece to “Who am I?”, we are faced with substantial mental discomfort until we can either convince ourselves the answer actually doesn’t really matter or we can weave an answer from at least most of those threads. In either case, we create a story about ourselves.
Now, our self-created stories have both the promise of resolution and advancement, and the threat of dissolution and despair. If the story we build from the hints and analogies of our experience helps us to gain confidence, moving us forward in our lives and relationships, this narrative creation can be constructive. If, however, the story establishes barricades to our hopes, limiting our choices and separating us from others, it can lead to depression.
Three recent suicides have pushed me to think about the way we each construct our identity through stories. Two of them involve men wildly successful and famous. One involves a teenage girl who was bullied online.
Chris Cornell, known best as the vocalist for Soundgarden, had an incredible gift for music and vocal expression, matched by spectacular range and feeling. I remember hearing the song “Outshined” for the first time back in ‘91, and being blown away. About the same period, “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog, with Cornell and Eddy Vedder singing together, also got a ton of airplay – and I was blown away a second time. After that, I was a fan.
But as a fan, I had rarely considered, other than when spurred by the occasional entertainment headline, the struggles with substance abuse which plagued Cornell. His addiction to drugs and alcohol proved to be a symptom of the despair associated with depression. Millions of dollars and stadiums thronging with adoring fans hid from us the pain and suffering of a fellow human being. Chris Cornell hung himself May 18, immediately after a show in Detroit.
The story of Sadie Riggs is simply heartbreaking. This wonderful creation of God, just 15 years old, was learning to cope with high school, divorce, and new step-parents. The obituary says she had lived a “tough life,” without further elaboration, but was getting medical attention and counseling. Still, the bullies among her peers saw a soft target and struck.
A parent of teens, as well as now a grandparent, I bear painful witness: It is all too easy for people to be brutal in their words without any consequences, especially online. I see a culture which either coddles pre-adults to avoid the tough job of engagement and example, correction and caring – or dismisses them as weak, immature (of course they are!) and a lost cause. Bullies have always been around, preying on those they could isolate, but their reach was limited and, usually, adults could be counted on to step in. Today, bullies can and do create their own packs, torturing their targets on Facebook or Twitter, outside the vision of parents, teachers, and police. Unfortunately, many of today’s adults won’t speak up against such abuse online. Indeed, we have a president who participates in it. The case of Sadie Riggs clearly demonstrates the cost of silence.
Every time her story comes to mind, I can’t help but tear up. Every time I see re-posted insults, sweeping derogatory comments against our younger generations or unthinking defense of the bullies, I can’t help but get angry.
Sadie was just one young lady among many of our children and young adults whom we have let down, and we are a poorer people because of it. Sadie hung herself on June 19.
Yesterday’s news of Chester Bennington’s suicide was a third hammer-blow. Bennington, the iconic singer for Linkin Park, had a long and well-publicized history of dependency, but one I had thought he had put behind him. A few years back, after Linkin Park had practically kicked him out of the band to force him to detox, Bennington had taken a new turn. Once sober, producers and bands were lining up to get him to collaborate on various projects. He rejoined Linkin Park and he also became the lead singer of a renewed Stone Temple Pilots. Everything seemed to have changed, and for the better.
However, in retrospect, the signs of trouble were appearing earlier this year. After releasing their latest album, Linkin Park faced a great deal of criticism, particularly from their own fans, for “selling out.” The new album was much more “pop”-ish, something anathema for a band which could be credited with creating “nu-metal.” Apparently, after being booed on stage, Bennington cursed out the fans at a concert for failing to understand the need to experiment and grow. He then got into a tit-for-tat argument with Corey Taylor of Slipknot on social media over the fan response, which quickly degenerated into name-calling. While Linkin Park seemed successful as ever (i.e., one of the most successful bands in the past 30 years), Bennington seemed to take the criticisms personally. As it turns out, he was also a good friend of Chris Cornell and was undoubtedly mourning the loss. Yesterday, he hung himself on Cornell’s birthday.
Two men in the prime of their publicly-successful lives; a young lady with her whole life in front of her. Each of them had constructed a story about identity. We can’t know what each story was; we can only see that each person was convinced by the story that there was no future, no hope.
Could the endings have been different? Could the stories have been changed?
Maybe; maybe not. Once we convince ourselves we have no hope, arguments indicating the contrary, indicating there is hope, don’t carry much weight. Only action, involvement, results can turn the narrative in a positive direction.
Involvement: Worth the cost
And our involvement is dangerous, costly. There is no guarantee of success. Chris Cornell’s wife, Chester Bennington’s family, Sadie Riggs’s parents – they know the cost.
But the cost is also paid when we hold back – perhaps not in such personal and emotional terms, but expensive nonetheless, when we do not get involved. Yet, as we look at how destructive and oppositional society has become, I would argue those social costs of non-involvement are even greater, dragging down the horizon of hope for all of us, making hopelessness a more convincing story.
The hope for a changed story, a new narrative for those who see their own story ending in despair, comes from personal relationships. When you see someone struggling, offer a hand of friendship. Invite them over for dinner. Ask them to meet you for an ice cream cone. Loan them a CD you really like. See if they’d like to jam on guitar or play a game of cards. Indicate you want to be a part of their life.
Involvement disrupts the narrative of despair. It doesn’t fit. It reopens the search I mentioned earlier, that “Who am I?” question. It affords new ways of looking at the world and new ways of looking at one’s self. It may force a new, more positive turn in the narrative.
That’s no guarantee. The narrative of hopelessness, like many other narratives we hold, can become impervious to contrary information once it has been accepted. Still, the sooner and more fully we involve ourselves with those struggling with these questions, the less likely a narrative of despair will be able to take root, grow and shade out all hope for happiness.
We are all in the process of creating our own story. Remember, your story has hope. You also have the power to bring hope to another person’s story. Please do it, whatever the cost.