As the dust from the day settles and the kindling from the fire burns, I find myself reflecting on the past and what everything that has happened thus far means. There was a pile of wood. Big logs much too long to fit into the fire pit. Whittling them down with a chainsaw (an electric one because portability has become my new motto over the years) I visualized the sizes I needed in order to make the perfect fire. Mentally measuring one to one-and-a-half foot sections, (30-50cm for everyone else in the world) I sized the large pieces of what was once a pecan tree and started to cut into them. I felt every fiber of the wood strip away slowly. Not trying to rush the process I gently let the chain rub against the semi-hardwood allowing the blade to go where it may in order to section the pieces one by one. Within a matter of minutes I had all the wood cut to the perfect sizes. I gathered the wood and started to place it into the makeshift pit I created out of concrete garden pavers. Placing one horizontal layer at a time I carefully arranged the wood so that it sit side by side with no gaps in between. Creating perpendicular layer after layer with smaller wood placed on top of the larger as I stacked. The final layer of split wood from a particular log I found, heavily weathered but not rotten, was placed on top. I carried this piece a few hundred miles from its original location just so that I could chop it into smaller slivers and create the perfect top layer of firewood. Atop that, a much smaller layer was used to light the initial flame. This pile comprised of very small saplings from a dry bush I have in the yard. It always seems to keep growing so I just continue to keep breaking off branches. It is a symbiotic relationship I have with this bush. I lit the kindling and watched as what started out as a very small flame suddenly turned into more flames and eventually caught the rest of the wood beneath it ablaze. It is always a thing of beauty every time and every time it seems to be a much simpler task. As this fire has been burning on its own for the past 30 minutes, I have been watching it evolve and turn into its ultimate fate. The circle of life right before my very eyes.
This whole phenomenon is a cycle that transcends all things good and evil. It is this circle of life that we take part in every single day. The birth of us. The growing of our bones and muscles into small human beings. The forming of even larger muscles and the expanding of our minds taking us into early adulthood. The increasing expansion of our adult lives as we learn and grow, eventually having our own children. Watching them grow into their own existence and become adults. The timely demise of our flesh and bones back into the very thing that gave us life. This process is one that I myself once took for granted.
I can’t remember all of the finer details about what led to this particular event but I can tell you that I was a very angry and disturbed child at the time. Maybe I was not given the attention I required in order to feel safe and loved. I know my childhood was not that different than most other people I know. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about it. Maybe this was the reason. I couldn’t really see anything special or magical about my life. It was one droning existence that seemed to be surrounded by a never-ending struggle to be happy. The ups and downs of life were extreme, much of why my decisions and stances on certain topics are much the same. There was no real balance. One day in the midst of a million other things going on I got into a really big argument with my father. I think everyone else in the house was numb to all of it because it seemed that we were the only people moving and making noise. Everyone else seemed to be really quiet. The fight ensued for what seemed to be hours when in actuality it was only a few minutes. In those few minutes, a lot of negative words were thrown back and forth. He was upset. I was upset. We were having a power struggle that would match two nations fighting for a sliver of land on their borders. The skirmish took a turn when I felt this overwhelming need to bring everything to a standstill under my own power.
I remember grabbing a shotgun which I had been gifted on my 5th birthday. It was one thing I held close to over the years because it had so much meaning behind it. In my mind, it was a combination of responsibility and trust. It was the kind act of an adult, my father, bringing me into a world where I had to be a man and he was trying to instill in me early on that responsibility was something I needed to respect. Now in my 16th or maybe my 17th year of life I was almost a full grown adult and yet, I still hadn’t embraced the lesson he was trying to teach me at such an early age. I was totally ignoring any responsibility to him, myself, or my family. I was taking matters into my own hands with the hopes of some drastic outcome that would put an end to a power struggle. I was ready to either take his life or mine in order to cease the fighting. Technically it wasn’t homicidal or suicidal, it was merely a means to an end. An end that would abruptly change everyone’s life around me forever. As I sat on my bed, low to the ground, I loaded the single shell in my Winchester 20 gauge break-action shotgun and just sat there pondering my next move. I looked toward the door hoping it would not open. If it did, I had to make a decision. His life or mine. Which was the better choice? As I sat I could feel the cold barrel in my hands and I slowly moved the tip of the barrel toward my mouth. Was I really trying to do the unthinkable? Maybe once and for all, I could end his suffering by offering my martyrdom. I could stop his worry about me (or his frustration for that matter). I sat with the barrel in my mouth for a few seconds. My arm stretched out and my thumb on the trigger…. sitting and wondering about everything. About how I had made it this far in life. How I had endured the ridicule from schoolmates and the constant struggle within myself. It was what I would call, the moment when your whole life flashes in front of your eyes. Of course, my life was just beginning and why the hell would I end it so soon? For whatever reason, I decided that it was not my time to go. I took the barrel out and just sat there with the shotgun in my hands. Gripping the cold steel with all my might and anger. Before I could think of anything else the door burst open and startled me back into reality.
My father stood there dumbfounded and silent. Maybe he had something he wanted to say just before opening the door. After he actually opened it he saw me sitting there with the shotgun in my hand. I looked at him squarely in the eyes and without saying a word we both had a very long hard conversation. His eyes told me he didn’t know what to do and my eyes told him to get out and leave me alone in silence. He stepped back and closed the door. I can understand now why he did. Not only was I sitting there with anger and disgust on my face but I also had tears of fear and pain streaming down my cheeks. Years of pain and anger just gushing out of my face. He left me to my own devices. He left me to think and to try to understand what was really going on.
I have briefly revisited this memory a few times over the years, not really getting to the core of what was going on, until this evening. The conversation came up as a question. Not a question of how but more a question of why. Not surprisingly the one I can count on more than anyone else to understand me, my girlfriend, was asking why this happened and why I chose the path I did. She asked me why I didn’t make a drastic mistake and what it took to overcome this epic lapse in judgment. In our conversation, I uncovered some underlying truths that I would never have concluded without her help. Afterward, she encouraged me to tell my story and to tell the lessons behind it. I’m not sure if she meant to tell it like this but here we are peeling back the layers.
My thoughts now on suicide are a deep un-empathetic view of people who think suicide is the answer. I don’t see anything in life being so bad that anyone should decide to take their own life because of it. Life is a gift and to try to end it prematurely, to me at least, is totally disregarding this gift. But there is something else I discovered which is fundamental:
Suicidal thoughts belong in your reasoning in order to put complete perspective in your reasoning model.
There is a way we make decisions or reason our way through life. Whether it’s the normal decision to go outside today or figuring out why our spouse has not contacted us for over 5 hours when we don’t know where they are. I teach a curriculum on resilience for the Army which embodies 14 methods of understanding. Within these 14 skills, are explanations and exercises meant to equip Soldiers and family members with the tools needed to overcome life challenges such as PTSD and depression. From this training is where I first learned about things like confirmation biases and the downward spiral effect. So the piece that brings it all together with suicide and why it is important in the reasoning model in your mind is that in order to make a rational decision you must be able to weigh the outcomes. No matter what you are trying to make sense of you must be able to see the extreme thoughts in order to get to the more grounded choice. This being the case, when faced with some overwhelming situation where suicide could potentially be a choice, let’s simply put suicide on one far end of the spectrum and call it the absolute worst case scenario. This would be the worst possible outcome if all things are considered equal. On the opposite side of the spectrum let us say that the absolute best case would be unicorns and rainbows, meaning that everything turns out the best it possibly could and everyone ends up completely satisfied. We all know that these two extreme outcomes are both irrational and not likely in a normal situation. If your stressor is not having enough money on hand to pay for groceries then suicide or unicorns are both highly unlikely (and a bit absurd to be honest). Why would it be different in any other situation? It simply wouldn’t. In between these two extremes lies all of the other possible and more rational outcomes. Within this spectrum of choices, you will be able to whittle down the logical truths in order to uncover the best possible course of action.
But let me not forget the first statement, being un-empathetic about suicidal tendencies. Some people will point to depression or childhood trauma. These things are very real and very much factors but I don’t think they tell the whole story. From my own personal research, suicide is a bottomless pit of self-loathing. The point where you feel helpless and hopeless at the same time. The downward spiral. I suppose feeling un-empathetic is a bit extreme because we all have our problems. For this very reason, I feel that since we all have our problems we should all have some mechanism to deal with those problems. The sad truth is that we don’t. Hence the very reason I am writing all of this right now. In order to broaden perspective and maybe help someone else to understand that suicide is not an answer that makes sense. You are going to die anyway. You don’t know what is going to lie ahead in your life. Honestly, when I sit and think about what I would have missed had I made a fatal mistake all those years ago, it brings lots of tears to my eyes. All of the life I would have thrown away just because I was fed up with everything. Missing my kids being born. Missing my sister and brother graduate from college. Missing meeting the love of my life. All of these things could not have been predicted but foregoing them completely would have been a huge loss. Much more of a loss than being angry and wanting to do something about it. My story is not unique, but your story is and it’s a story that will never be told if you consider taking your own life. Sometimes, it just takes 10 seconds of quiet in order to realize what is going on and to make the rational decision that needs to be made. So I guess within the conversation I have answered and refuted my own stance on suicide. I do have empathy. Not for choosing suicide but for people who are suffering from thoughts of suicide. For those that carry around so much pain in their hearts. For those who need someone to just listen to them. For those who simply need to let go and forgive. Essentially for everyone, because we all have these thoughts and feelings from time to time.
What resilience teaches us
Resilience, in any form, is the ability to forgo pain. To forgo the bitterness of life. Resilience training I have conducted over the years really gets to the core of what matters. It is the ability to think through things and make decisions out of love rather than out of hate. It is the ability to safeguard yourself so that when adversity comes around, you are prepared to deal with it head-on rather than turning away and trying to ignore it. Resilience is something we are born with. It is the lessons we learn as we grow and discover the world. At some point, we know enough to navigate and avoid pain and suffering. By avoiding pain and suffering we are building the habit that we SHOULD NOT have to endure or deal with it. We shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable in a world where comfort is the norm. We shouldn’t have to face adversity, but when it comes we run in the other direction. No one wants to have to face a lion every single day but there are days when there is no lion. On those days it is even more important to seek out adversity and pain. To find pain and to sit with it and have the conversation, on your own terms… calmly. When there is no crisis is the best time to practice what you need to do in order to overcome a crisis. Yet we take this all for granted in our lives as we grow and mature. We think these false thoughts that “it won’t happen to me, how could it?”. Indeed, it won’t happen until one day… it does. If you don’t prepare and build up your mental toolbox you will not be ready when disaster strikes. So resilience, or rather, resilience training is all about filling your mental and emotional toolbox with everything you could possibly need in order to stave off adversity when it faces you. “That what is in the way, becomes the way”
What are some next steps
For me it didn’t happen until much later in life. I decided to shut out and forget what I had learned on that day. To suppress the feelings and emotions I had felt. Those emotions that had overcome me and pushed me to think there was an easier way through suicide (or homicide depending on what side of the conversation you find yourself). Although I did this, I still carried around with me the pain. I carried the anger around for a very long time. So long that I let it run my life decisions unconsciously. I used the anger as my fuel to get through life. It made my life very difficult. All I wanted to have was peace, but I was looking for external peace. The peace I needed to find was peace within myself. I studied it and pondered what I needed to do. I meditated on it for a long time. I learned over and over how to try to calm myself and forgive myself and others. I became the monk. I am no perfect person but I understand that it takes a long time to transform all of this anger and disgust in order to live a peaceful life (internally). Open the door with whomever you can find who will listen. Crazy or not, you need to talk and get it all off of your chest. Release it and call it out for what it really is. Rationalize it and make sense of it. Start seeing less of the people who do not uplift you. I am not saying avoid them, but learn a new way to understand them… Even your worst enemies. Learn to forgive each and every one of them no matter the hurt they caused. Then forgive yourself for thinking badly of them in the first place. They are indeed humans, just like you and I. Tune out the external noise in your life and all of the excess. If you want to cultivate land you first have to clear out all of the trees. Then you have to turn the land and fertilize it. Then you have to plant seeds for the new grass to grow. Then you have to nurture the new growth only to have a simple piece of land you can potentially build on. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you never start…it will never happen. Begin…today…with one thing…cut the first tree (clear the first blockage in your mind)…cultivate and turn the soil (flush the old thoughts with new perspectives and insights)… plant the seeds (bring new positive people in your life and start re-building your patterns and thoughts). Don’t worry about how long it takes, worry about taking however long you need today. Tomorrow do the same. Eventually years will pass and you will feel and be better.
Also published on Medium.