Recently I learned that 12% of current American college students admitted to having seriously considered suicide. I am not a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I am a professor, and I must walk into my classroom next Monday (August 27, 2018) to meet my new students. This statistic forces me to consider what silent despair may be hidden behind those youthful eyes. I teach about 100 students per year, and each one is a unique living, breathing human being, loved by God. Each is capable of so much good or evil, love or hate, hope or despair. And when I think that 12 of the 100 may be thinking seriously about taking their own lives I begin to seek for something to say that might replace their despair of life with hope.
As I said, I cannot speak as a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I can speak only as a fellow human being, from life experience and faith. I thought I would share with you what I think I would say to my students if I were to speak to them about suicide:
I know what it is to despair of life, to suffer inner pain and to feel that no one understands or can understand your suffering. I know what it’s like to be unable to think of a reason why I should expect tomorrow to be any different than today. When I was 17 years old, not much younger than you are today, I suffered such isolation and hopelessness that I concluded that it would be better had I never been born. I worked hard to hide my despair from others by an outward show of wittiness and from myself by staying busy. But when alone my thoughts would turn to my unhappiness, and my gaze only magnified my misery. I didn’t feel worth anything. I didn’t like myself, but felt unable to change or forget. And if I did not like myself how could I believe anyone else could? I saw no way forward and no way out. But I did not kill myself.
I said above that I saw no way out. And I didn’t. But I believed it was possible, though I could not imagine how. This slender thread of hope kept me from utter despair and suicide. Even in the depths of the pit I could still cry out to God and still believe he could save me, though I could not feel his presence or see his light. And he saved me. That little ray of light was God’s way of being present and of pointing toward the future he had planned for me. That period of near despair taught me two lessons I don’t think I could have learned any other way: (1) I am utterly dependent on God for my being, worth, meaning and hope. Without God I can do nothing. I have been in the pit. God was there. (2) I have great compassion for any one suffering from the despair I felt. I know what it’s like, and I know there is hope even when you cannot see it.
When I was in despair, as I said, (1) I felt alone and believed that no one could understand my pain, (2) I did not like myself and thought no one else could either, and (3) there is no reason to believe that the future will be better than the present. I was wrong on all three counts.
You are not alone. Many have suffered as you are, and there are many good and kind people who will listen as you express and deal with your fears and wounds. Don’t suffer in silence. I understand that the thought of letting someone else into your head and heart is terrifying. Please believe me, there are others who will understand; they will not gasp in horror or laugh in derision. Find them.
You are worthy of others’ love and respect. You are God’s creation, and God thinks you are worthy of life and joy. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you have done. When I was in despair I was afraid to learn what other people thought of me because I suspected their thoughts would not be kind. I did not yet know the rule I have since learned: if you love others they will love you back, but if you determine only to get love from others they cannot love you in return. Love can’t be earned or forced but must be freely given. However little you feel it, however tiny that ray of hope may be, believe that you are loved already and are worthy of human love. Act on that faith and you will find it confirmed.
Things will get better! Even from a common sense point of view, things are always changing. The present is not fixed in concrete. Different stages of life bring different challenges and rewards. The weather changes! Moods change! Not all these changes can be bad. New opportunities arise. From the point of view of faith in God a wholly new perspective arises. God is in charge of the future. God may require hard things of us, but he will not ask us to face these challenges alone and unequipped. He will be there.
This life is not eternal sentence. This may seem strange advice to give to those tempted with despair of life. But listen. Life doesn’t always feel good. There is much evil in the world and many regrets and anxieties dog our paths. So, when you think of the troubles of life and the evil that seems to rule the world, remind yourself that it won’t last forever. There is a way out. I think I would go completely crazy if I thought I had to live forever in this world. Thankfully, we don’t! But let God make that decision. God is the only one capable of making the right decision at the right time.