We need to talk.
I saw you the other day, as we gathered, yet again, to remember someone who died way too young.
I caught that look in your eye that tells me you wonder if maybe it’s your turn.
You say life is hard – harder than you imagined.
You say you are sad, and that you have reasons for feeling that way.
You are. You do.
You say things are not going the way you had planned.
Life is like that sometimes.
You say it’s your fault and you can’t fix it.
It’s not, and you can.
You say it seems that the only way out is to spend the rest of your life dead.
You’ve heard all the arguments why you shouldn’t take a shortcut to eternity: People will miss you. People are counting on you. Life is already too short.
That’s all true.
Today, however, I just want to help you imagine the world you are thinking of leaving – I want you to think about a world without you.
I do not need to describe your funeral. You already know people will cry and laugh and say nice things about you – how you helped others, taught them, made them smile. They will tearfully recall the way you made your corner of the world a better place just by being there, and being you.
What I will do is tell you about a few guys who at times felt the way you do now, and why I am glad they decided to stay.
Phil must have felt, at times, that life was too hard to go on. He was a member of a minority in a city shattered twice by earthquakes. He didn’t have any important position. But one day Phil – Christians call him Philemon – received a letter from the Apostle Paul with an astonishing message.
“I hope you understand the amazing, awesome gifts God gave you, and the power of the wonderful things that fill your soul,” Paul wrote, “and that by recognizing them, you can help others.”
I can’t think of any better prayer for you, in your hour or season of darkness.
There was nothing special about Philemon. He never did any miracles ore even met Jesus or Paul. Yet the most prominent New Testament writer sent one of his most powerful motivational messages to him.
Paul would say the same thing to you: Your heart and soul is full of the wonderful stuff that God can use to help those around you and make life better for us all.
Honest Abe’s Angst
History tells of an American who at times knew nothing but pain – a guy who even in his 20s had hours and seasons of sadness way darker than most. He had already suffered many personal setbacks and had lost his first love to death. Two years later, he broke up with a woman he loved dearly. He went for a walk in the woods and described in a dark, desperate poem how he wanted to disappear forever. Here are just three of its verses:
Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcass growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!
Although that poem ends with the writer calling his bloody dagger his “last and only friend,” he emerged from those woods alive.
History is glad that Abraham Lincoln, despite that dreadfully dark poem he wrote in 1838, lived to guide our country through our darkest season. It has taken tens of thousands of authors and historians to fully tell his story of triumph over slavery – and the angst of his manic depression.
‘If Jim were here…’
Much more recently, there was Jim.
Jim too, had seasons of darkness, but he fought them off long enough to change my life.
In the early 1990s, I had given up on my first career love of journalism, and headed toward a job in government. I was doing well in public administration classes when a seat came open on the Independence City council. I ran for that seat. Jim ran, too.
Before the election, I told a friend Jim would kick my rear. He did, by a margin of 188-88.
And I needed him to do that.
Just a few weeks after that loss, I started my first newspaper job. I soon was writing about the city council, and Jim.
One of the best praises of Jim came from our city attorney, who during a debate on a complicated issue in a meeting while Jim was absent, said: “If Jim were here, he would say…”
Four years after losing to Jim, I wrote about his funeral. He had decided too soon that his time had come.
I wrote about how losing to him led me to the job I love most, and how in the future, the city leaders would someday repeat the phrase, “If Jim were here…”
I didn’t know Jim well enough to know why he made that desperate choice, but I do know this: He was missed way more than he thought he would be.
I will always remember what Jim’s mom told me: “I wish he had known how much we all loved him.”
I wish Jim had found a way to escape his darkness. I am forever grateful that he was around in the winter of 1992 to beat me in that election. If it weren’t for him, I could be stuck in some municipal office, reviewing sewer plans. Ugh!
Whatever you feel now, I promise you this: There are people who will need you as I needed Jim. Be there for them, OK?
Perhaps you can’t see, or feel this, in your season of darkness, but it’s undeniably true: You are loved more than you can imagine, and would be missed dearly.
Your family. Your friends. Their moms. Many people you couldn’t even name. They would all be deeply pained by losing you.
Just how important are you?
There are and will always be things that only you can do. High fives or hugs that only you can give. Words of wisdom and experience only you can say. Rear ends that only you can kick. Passes only you can catch. Pitches only you can hit. Fields only you can plow. Trophies only you can win. People only you can help. Projects only you can complete.
Losing you prematurely would also mean losing all of the amazing things God sent you here to do.
But, you say, it’s still so very hard.
Yes, I know.
I will go a step further and tell you this: Sometimes when life is hard, people who ought to know better end up saying unhelpful things.
For me, my hardest years by far were in high school. I was SES and ADD in a system that had not yet learned how to help students like me. We moved three times. My dad nearly died of a heart attack. I struggled through a crippling speech problem, broke my foot and tore my ACL. Many of my cousins had already spent years in the court system, and my last name was way too well-known in all the wrong places. I believed I had nothing worthwhile to contribute and that if I were to go away, few would notice or care.
Also, in the 80s, the only forms of classroom technology were the most primitive computers and typewriters. The thing I most desperately needed to succeed in my future career – a backspace button that would allow me to quickly fix my countless typing errors – was years away from being invented.
In the middle of all this pain and my struggle to find something, anything, I was good at doing, many teachers would say to us: “You’ve got it so easy now. Just wait until you are a grown-up when life really gets hard.”
Fortunately, my ADD kept me from paying too much attention to those teachers. I hope you, too, will be too busy to pay attention to anyone who tells you – accidentally or otherwise – that life is hard and only going to get worse.
Yeah, you will have some bad days – some unimaginably horrible ones, too, perhaps.
Dr. Seuss described those days in his last book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go.”
He talked about dreadful days that will “scare you so much you won’t want to go on.”
But “on you will go,” said Dr. Seuss, to those “bright places” full of better things, better experiences, better relationships, better feelings.
Along with the difficulties you know too well, life is also full of sweet surprises, things we never thought to ask for. Like the laughter of your granddaughter as she runs up behind you to jump in your arms, or the sweet moments when the one you love most is at your side, enjoying a sunset or laugh or a bowl of buttered crab legs. Moments when the best friend from your past meets the best friend from your present, and you watch them interact as though they had been friends forever. Nights you are sure that what you said or done has made your spouse want to scream, but instead you are greeted with a kiss. Days when you stand in a room full of people, sharing your thoughts about something quietly to a friend when you realize everyone in the room is listening – to YOU.
Your first priority: You
There’s no way I could begin to list all the wonderful things that await – all the amazing, inspiring surprises life has in store for you.
But you have to be here; you have to stay, with us, the people who love you (and yes, also with some people who accidentally or otherwise make your life hard). You have to remain in this crazy, disappointing and often-ugly universe, if those beautiful things are to happen to you.
So, my friend, take care of you. Nothing matters more.
If you need to talk to a friend or a counselor or a medical professional, do it, now. The sooner you do the sooner you can emerge from that fog, where you can clearly see your place in the world – a place that God and all those around you can already see so clearly.