Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.

Feb 062012
 

 

Note: The following are remarks I made to members of the Latino community in Aurora, Illinois. I was asked to speak about teen suicide following another tragic death just before Christmas.
 
Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today. I am here because a mother and father have lost a child to suicide. I wish that tragedy had never occurred, but it did. My hope is to use this occasion to prevent this from happening again…from happening to any more children.
I am also here because I have been a volunteer on a suicide hotline for more than 8 years and 2000 hours, and have talked with thousands of human beings in tremendous pain. I have talked with children, teens, adults and seniors, many of whom have contemplated ending their lives.
But most importantly, I am here because of the children and the teens. I am here because of a wonderful organization known as Operation Snowball, which helps teens lead healthy lives and deal with the challenges of becoming an adult in an increasingly difficult world. It is through Operation Snowball that many teens, including some of your children, have allowed me to love them, and they have loved me in return.
Across America, and the world, we are facing an epidemic of suicide among teens. No one knows why exactly, but if my being here can help prevent even one, it will have been a tremendous victory.
If there is one thing you should remember from today it is this…you matter in the lives of your children. In my thousands of hours with people in pain, one thing is crystal clear. Every human I have talked with deeply wants to be loved and cared for by their parents. They need to know they truly matter in your eyes. They need to know they are important and loved by you! If you are like me, it is easy to believe we don’t matter to our children. It is easy to feel we are a failure in their eyes and that we are not deserving of their love and respect, but nothing is farther from the truth. They truly want to love you…and they desperately want your love in return.
I know that many of you grew up in a difficult, often frightening world. Most of you have faced and overcome difficulties I cannot even imagine. I stand here inspired by your courage and strength.
But that does not mean that your children are becoming adults in a less difficult world. It is difficult in so many other ways.
I faced bullying at school, but could escape it when I went home to be with friends. Today, teens face insults and cruelty, not only at school, but every moment of every day through the Internet and Facebook.
Over the past 4 years, our economy has made it difficult for any of us know with certainty that we will be able to support our families. Imagine how frightening this can be to a teen who may not even be able to find a summer job, let alone a career to support a family.
I grew up during the cold war, the proliferation of bomb shelters and school drills to protect us from a nuclear attack. It was scary. But today, terrorism highlights our daily news, cancer seems to impact every family and neighborhood, war rages in Afghanistan.
And there are other issues too numerous to mention.
In the face of horrible bullying, a difficult economy and horrific world news, how does it feel when a young personal world seems to fall apart—a parent yells, a clique becomes brutal, a failing grade appears, a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks off? Do we really know?
It is easy to think that our lives were so very difficult, and that our children have been given so much they have no reason for sadness, depression or suicide. But the things we have been given, the lives that have been handed to us, are meaningless if we are frightened, scared or feel hopeless. If we do not have people in our lives who can listen, truly listen, look us in the eye and tell us we are okay, life can feel truly overwhelming.
If you demand your children speak to you; if you prevent them from speaking to others about the problems they face, you prevent them from learning how to face fears that even we cannot understand. As parents, we need ears that can hear…not those of judgment. Ears that hear their fear and know it is real. Ears that will not compare their lives to ours, and dismiss their fear, but will hear that their lives are truly different than ours and can be frightening in spite of our belief it is not.
And if your children find another person in whom to confide, another who will listen in a way that we cannot as parents, then, rather than seeing it as an insult to the family, rejoice that your child has found someone to save them. One of the saddest moments I face with teens in pain, is when they tell me of an aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher or minister in whom they would love to confide; a person who loves them enough to offer comfort. But they cannot go because, they tell me, “If my parents ever found out, they would never forgive me!”
So if you see signs in your children that worry you. If they withdraw…if their habits change unexpectedly…if the patterns of their lives alter in startling ways…it is time to seek help. And it is okay to admit that you don’t know what to do. There are resources to help. Talk with a trusted relative, minister, priest, school counselor or the wonderful adults in Operation Snowball. Call the National Lifeline. Please do something. Because if you choose to simply tell your children to get on with life because you have given them all they need, then you are withholding the one thing they need more than anything…your understanding.
So if I have a final word for you. It is a single word…Love. Love them for who they are. Love them in spite of the fact that you do not understand them. Love them in spite of the fact that they are unable to understand you. But don’t just love them. Actions speak louder than words; show them you love them. Tell them you love them in every way you possibly can.
It has been said that youth are the messages we send to a world we will never see. Let us, at this very moment, commit to sending them into that world knowing they are loved and that they matter.
Gracias!
 
Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
 
Local Depression Hotline:
1-630-482-9696
www.spsamerica.org
 
For assistance in Spanish:
1-888-628-9454