Ahimsa in a Hard World

“Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don’t get off is it’s still 50 blocks from where you’re going? Well I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride 50 more years and get off then, it’s the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I’ve had enough, it’s my stop. I’ve had enough.”

-Jessie, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman

This past semester, I sat in on a Modern Drama class at the university where I teach, and ‘Night, Mother was one of the last plays we read. The synopsis is that Jessie, a forty-something divorced woman, lives with her mother in a rural area. Jessie has epilepsy and cannot work, her son is a criminal, and she’s finally decided she has had enough. On this particular night, Jessie tells Mama that in a few hours, she will be killing herself. Her mother argues, begs, pleads, denies, bargains, basically going through the stages of grief as Jessie calmly insists this is what will happen. And at the end of the play, it does. Jessie explains herself a little more, but what it comes down to is this: Jessie is not having a good time, and has no reason to believe it will ever get better.

A former student of mine ended his life this week. I didn’t know him well, and in some ways this makes it worse, because I had him in two classes one year apart, enough time to know him better. What I do know is this: he was alternately quiet and outspoken, moody and jovial, hard-working and seemingly apathetic, depending on the assignment and the day of the week. What didn’t change–he was always intelligent and thoughtful.

When I heard via a Facebook post of his death, I searched the internet for information. I found the articles he’d written for the local newspaper and campus newspaper, as well as his personal blog. Re-reading them, I pieced together some of the difficulties of his last few semesters as well as things I already knew–his intelligence and dedication to getting the story right. As of last December, he was wrapping up his senior project on the health care law changes coming to Grant County, reporting on how the two local evangelical universities were suing the federal government over contraceptive requirements.

As I’ve written before one, of the first principles of yoga is ahimsa, or nonviolence, both to ourselves and others. Before, when I’ve written or thought about nonviolence to myself, it’s been in the realm of daily life–not beating myself up mentally when things go wrong, not ignoring my health, not, in the worst case scenarios, literally hurting myself as a way to deal with stress. Until now, I haven’t thought about ahimsa in terms of whether or not to end one’s own life. Now I am, and am coming up short when confronted with how so many of those among us feel that life is doing a terrible job of not hurting us.

When Robin Williams committed suicide last summer, the only things I could say were simple, one-step-at-a-time things. Talk to someone. If you’re on medications, keep taking them. Find a counselor. Find a friend.  It gets better. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.

And that’s all I can say now. Another student of mine asked me earlier tonight what the point is. Intelligence won’t save us, and life is hard. Why keep trying? I wish I had better answers. In our semester of hard plays, we read several on suicide, all of which confirmed to me that I do not understand the mind of a suicide. I have been depressed, but never to that point. I wish I knew the way through the darkness and back out again, but my life has only been grayish at times, with enough light to see forward. For those of you in something darker, my heart goes out to you. You are loved.

At the end of ‘Night, Mother,  Mama pounds on Jessie’s bedroom door in a desperate attempt to keep Jessie from pulling the trigger. “I was here with you all the time,” she screams. “How could I know you were so alone?” I wish I could ask the same of my student, but the truth is I did. The only question I really wish I could ask him is what I could do–present tense, before it was too late– to help him make his life better.

Life often feels senseless. The only thing I know is that somehow, our lives, and the lives of others matter. They are worth paying attention to. Tim, I wish I had paid more attention to yours. Rest in peace.

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