US teen suicide. Christianity & dying to oneself

Revised 12 August 2009 Wednesday at 0414 hours
MANILA – Today, 09 August 2009, Sunday, I picked up and couldn't stop reading to the end a book my daughter Graciela left around and which I learned later she has borrowed from her sister Neenah: Pitch Black (Color Me Lost) by Melody Carlson (2006, Cubao QC: Navigators Ministries, 202 pages). It's about friendship; it's also about becoming and behaving as a Christian. It's also about teenage suicide, and it strikes me that Jason Harding worried too much about his grades in school he actually killed himself by taking an overdose, 80 to 90 pills of Tylenol, that one for pain and fever with the generic name acetaminophen. I learn from the book that suicide is itself generic among American teenagers, being the second leading cause of death among youth in the United States – but not in the Philippines, thank God. Civilization does that to you. An overdose of Tylenol irreversibly damages the liver. That should teach everyone that life depends on the liver.
Entirely fiction, the novel Pitch Black makes good, light reading. It's serious and it's funny at the same time. I love it. Morgan writes as she contemplates suicide:
I hope I can remember to write all this down when the time comes. I hate to think of leaving anything undone. Well, besides my life, that is.
Grace is talking on the phone to Morgan (the I), co-conspirators in their little suicide pact, after Morgan has changed her mind about committing suicide:
'Dying is pretty permanent, isn't it?'
'Jason's not coming back,' I say.
She sighs.
'So, are you going to be okay tonight?' I ask.
'As in, I won't kill myself?'
'Yeah.'
'Not tonight, Morgan. I'm too tired. I just want to go to sleep.'
Teenagers have problems, and so do their parents, and neither side understands the other. My daughter Neenah is Protestant and Graciela and I and my wife are Roman Catholic. We have problems, and they are not necessarily religious. Pitch Black argues for living out your problems, whether you are a teenager or mother or grandmother – in this book, the father happens to be a 'distant' relative – and gently nods the reader towards 'finding Jesus,' that is, accepting Jesus into your life and becoming a Christian.
'God gives us each other to help carry the load when the weight gets too heavy,' says Pastor Orlander. Maybe, but it's not easy to tell when. It's easier to think of life as either black or white, Christian or non-Christian. There comes a time when all you see is black, or white, or gray. No colors. In any case, life's not that easy, even if you believe in Jesus.
The book is written in the first person. The storyteller, Morgan Begstrom, seriously considers suicide herself, in a suicide pact, with her friends Seth Blum and Grace Benson, 3 friends encouraging each other. What are friends for?!
'Peer pressure can be overwhelming,' says Detective Mason. It is always overwhelming, even among professionals, even among scientists who are supposed to be critical thinkers. I should know; I've worked with them for at least 34 years.
Seth has the gloomy outlook in life, and Grace, being 'racially mixed,' has been receiving racist treatment herself. And Morgan? She is no ordinary 17-year old girl. She is bright and breezy. But her parents are divorced; her Mom is having an affair with a man young enough to be her son; her brother is heavy into drugs. She takes all that by herself. And that's when friendship can be deadly. An insight I have gained from the book is that suicide can be contagious as a disease is, if you have frustrated youth around town and one of your friends decides to say, 'Goodbye, cruel world' and invites you to come on in, the water's fine.
Morgan is vulnerable, to say the least. Earlier, she tells Jason, her best platonic boy friend:
God just doesn't make any difference. If anything, God is a setup for me to expect that things are going to change and get better. And then they just keep getting worse. So why bother?
She egged him toward suicide, didn't she? In an email that day, Jason wrote he wanted to talk to her. But Morgan didn't check her email. Now she's saying, too late: 'When Jason really needed a friend – needed me – I wasn't there for him. I make myself sick!' She adds: 'If only I hadn't been so self-absorbed and pathetic.'
At a prayer meeting after Jason's suicide, which Morgan attends, Pastor Marcus Nickerson makes the point that when Jesus said, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me' (Mark 8: 34 NRSV), Jesus was really talking about spiritual death, dying to oneself, and that we needed to do it everyday, that is, 'to give up everything for Jesus' sake.' Not physical suicide but spiritual suicide.
Good point. The good pastor explains how one can die to oneself everyday:
When we lay all of our earthly valuables at Jesus' feet, and when we tell him that he is worth far more than all we thought we desired, that's when we truly find ourselves, because that's when we really die to ourselves. And that's when we have real life the kind of life that no one can take from us – eternal life. For it's only when we die to ourselves that we find true fulfillment in Jesus.
Another good point. But I don't think that's all there is to being a Christian, dying to oneself everyday. It's like I, a Roman Catholic, am going to mass everyday, that's all. Jason Harding prayed a lot too, you know, and then made a mistake, killing himself. As I understand it, being a Christian is nothing personal – it's social.
In any case, the story is that Jason Harding was worried about his GPA, Grade Point Average, or the weighted average of all his grades in his last year in high school, because he wanted it good enough to get him into Princeton U, like his father Gary wanted him to, like his brother Aaron and sister Jessica had done. You commit suicide because of your low GPA? Keeping up with the rest of the family can do you wrong. It's easy to delete a life, but how can you undelete it?
Jason was worried about his grades not being high enough to get him into Princeton to please his father. That was nothing compared to mine when I was in college at the University of the Philippines Los Baños in the early 1960s: in that fateful semester, I had 5 subjects and my grades were Failed, Failed, Failed, Conditional, Conditional. Foolishly falling in love can do that to you. Unlike Jason, I didn't have to please my father – I didn't tell him – but I had to please myself. Those grades automatically qualified me to the degrading status of Extreme Delinquent. In those days, being Extremed, as it was termed then, was the darkest hour of your life as a student – everything was pitch black. You had been kicked out of school. You were ostracized by everyone you knew, or who knew. That was a terrible blow to my ego, a 3rd placer in Grade School and High School (1st Honorable Mention), and a College Scholar at one time. I was readmitted and eventually graduated, thank God, and my nights were not pitch black anymore, but the bruised ego turned into nightmares and daymares – and, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, there seemed to be no end to my angst.
When I returned to the Roman Catholic fold in 1991, I saw light at the end of the dark tunnel. A pinpoint light to be sure, but it was enough to give me a bit of hope. Pitch black was not pitch black after all. That was all I needed at that time, a bit of hope. I thank God for the Bukás Loób sa Díyos (BLD) Catholic Charismatic Community in Los Baños for helping me hope. BLD aims to open hearts to God.
My wife and I were active at BLD for year, but it still took many more years for my anxieties to leave me completely alone and for the assurance of a loving God to take over my life. Some lessons are difficult to learn. An insight from the book of Melody Carlson: 'People do what they want to do,' says Morgan. 'How can God stop them? He sure didn't stop Jason.' An insight from the book of my life: I think church groups should do less worship services – praising God in songs and prayers, and do more life services – helping people lead lives of truth, beauty and goodness, as well as leading such lives themselves. Like Couples for Christ are doing in their Gawad Kalinga, not merely building houses but building lives, building communities. No Morgan, even if you accept Jesus into your life, you don't just expect that things will change and get better and better by themselves. Don't forget family.

Frenchman Emile Durkheim, the Father of Sociology, studied suicide and religion (emile-durkheim.com). Comparing countries, he made a rather disconcerting discovery: there were much less fewer suicides in Catholic and much more in Protestant countries. From Maurice Halbwachs we learn the explanation (The Causes Of Suicide, 1978, 372 pages, books.google.com.ph):

According to (Emile Durkheim), Catholicism deters from suicide, not because of any particular dogma, but because the Catholic Church creates a close community of life and thought among all its members, by the uniformity of its rites and beliefs and the importance that it attaches to public worship. Thus, the faithful feel themselves to be members of the same body, and the bonds which attach them to their group also hold them to life. The Church's effects upon the faithful does not differ from that of the family over its members. (page 168)
At Jason's grave, Morgan makes a solemn promise:
I promise you, I will do this: I will try to be the best friend that I can from now on. I'll try to follow your example and love and accept others for who they are.
Exactly. 'Love and accept others for who they are.' But oh, Morgan, I can tell you that that is the most difficult thing to do. It's difficult even for those who are members of your own family. Been there, not done that. It took me years, but I have learned to thank God for those I love – and for those I have yet to learn to love. It's a great feeling. Try it sometime!

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