Bruins and Trojans

“It’s so nice to see you!”

I smile and reply, “It’s nice to see you, too!” That’s the transcript of our entire conversation. The dog and I continue on our run, but the smile and the connection stay with me.

This woman is like me, out walking her hapless dog, and she is also, like most everyone I know, someone to whom life has dished out some big-time-heart-break. Politically, we have – shall we say – divergent views, and I almost wish I didn’t know this about her. It might be easier to offer a smile and a hug. Ignorance is bliss, after all. But does it have to be so hard?

I reach into my UCLA Bruin heart and say hello to a lot of USC Trojans. I send quite a few Christmas cards to Trojan friends, I host several of them at my own table, and I even have one on speed-dial. Trojan-provided scones blessed my family’s breakfast just last week. On one notable January First in recent Rose Bowl history, I personally donned the cardinal and gold (you will have to ask my Trojan bestie for the photos) and encouraged the team. I do believe that Fight On is the greatest college slogan ever. Make no mistake, I am not a fan. It’s just that life is bigger than the teams that play. I reach into my Rice Owl heart and sport a sincere “Sic ‘em!” for my son’s Baylor Bears and even the occasional “Hook ‘em!” for my friend’s daughter at the University of Texas.

Kindness and compassion and beauty are bigger than the teams on the field. They just are.

In a Christmas sermon, the priest says how amazing it is that God came to us in the vulnerable form of a baby to bring His light into the world. Herod was so afraid of being de-throned by the baby king that he killed all the infant boys to secure his own power, and the wise men wisely skipped town so as not to lead Herod to the The King. See how wonderful God is to bring light into the darkness? And all this holy hoohah landed on me completely askew. All I could think was, What about the mothers of all those innocent children? Would she have preferred the dark world so long as her son was spared? I would.

I don’t need a God who justifies the loss of life for His win. We have military generals for that. I don’t think God calculates and plans. I believe in a God whose heart breaks with any child’s death, the shepherd who saves the ninety-nine and the one. I admire the Father who doesn’t keep score and certainly doesn’t divide His own children into camps of winners and losers. I believe we have much work to do to bring that sort of existence to life, but that’s the light I would like to contribute to the world. Regrettably, this means opening my heart to…, well, everyone, even Trojans.

I do not believe in a Divine One who closes his heart to the suffering of a family – or any single person – for the sake of the greater good. Likewise, I don’t think closing my heart is the answer. Closed hearts fester; they become suffocated with bitterness, resentment and fear. Broken hearts heal, open to each other, vulnerable enough to love and to be loved. Yes, there is a time to protect the wounded heart, to stay safely in the cocoon, gathering strength. And then comes the time to open, to connect, to shine. We need more love, not less.

We were at a concert the other night, and the conductor explains, “This piece contains the emotional history of humanity. Music is where we connect with each other beyond language and time, and each one of us – composer, performer and audience – plays an integral role in this holy trinity of music. This,” and he holds up the sheet music, “cannot be erased by the victor.” And all I can think is, Yes, this is the kind of power I can believe in. A Divine Music beyond the confines of time and space and out of the dynamic of winners and losers. A God who wears every single color – or the whole entire rainbow – and who shows up and says, “It’s so nice to see you.”

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And more love.

What If?

Sam committed suicide in October nearly eight years ago. There is so much stigma surrounding suicide that it is still strange to say out loud.

One of the boys tells me that sometimes, instead of using the “S” word when people ask how his father died, he tells them that Sam fell accidentally, so they won’t think less of his father. I get that. Immediately after Sam’s death, I expected to be ostracized by my community, my church, my sons’ school, even potentially my own family. It’s the world we live in. A world that criticizes death by suicide. A world that marginalizes the grief wrought by a loved one’s suicide. A world where a young boy feels compelled to protect his dead father’s reputation.

I wasn’t treated as an outcast after Sam’s death. I was held and fed and heard. I think this is a testament to the progress that has been made by raising awareness and increasing compassion toward mental health issues, even in one generation. But we still have work to do.

Sam’s last words to me were “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” What if, instead, he had been able to say, “I need help”? What if he had been able to let me – or someone, anyone – know that he was in a kind of pain that wasn’t addressed by an aspirin and a nap? What if he had been able to articulate that he was in so much anguish that jumping off a parking structure seemed like a rational idea?

I have learned not to get caught in the “what if” loop, because “what if” wasn’t and “what is” is. It might not have changed everything. It might not have changed anything. But there is a place for “what if” thinking; it is the place where we hope to create progress, a place where we provide community and a gentler world for those who follow. We might not have been able to eliminate Sam’s pain, but what if we could have taken away his shame? Maybe he would not have felt so alone in the darkness. Maybe he could have heard my last words to him, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

Sam had chronic and debilitating back pain, and he rarely (and then reluctantly) asked for help. Then again, his back pain was impossible to mask, wincing as he got in and out of the car, shuffling along old-man style. In fact, he had a prescription for vicodin left from his most recent back surgery, but he resisted taking the pain-killers for fear of becoming dependent on them. The toxicology report showed that he had vicodin in his system when he died and, as a result, was not likely in any significant physical pain. I found this fact oddly comforting. But what if, instead of reaching for the bottle, he had reached for the phone?

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally, and some of us seem to struggle more with this than others, especially if we fear being judged. When life’s problems do not yield to simple solutions, these are the times that companionship along the journey is especially important, but silence suffers alone. Sam had fewer than ten contacts saved on his cell phone; more than half of those were his favorite places to order take-out. What if he had called any one of the ten? I imagine that even the pizza guy would have wanted to help. It might not have changed everything. Or anything.

Sam didn’t call anyone.

September is the official Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and even though it’s October, the conversation continues. Believe me, I know these are hard conversations to have, but silence makes the stigma worse. What if, by increasing awareness and compassion, we open up the possibility for the kind of world where someone in distress can reach out for help without fear of judgment? It’s a legacy worth talking about.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And possibility.