One of the questions I most frequently get from my students when they find out I’m a retired cop is, “Did you ever have to shoot anyone?” (No.) Some other questions: “How many homicides did you go to? Did you ever taser anyone? How many chases were you in?”
Most of the time, I can answer these questions with a solid number. But the question I can’t put a number on is how many suicides I’ve been to. To be honest, I lost count.
One of the most abhorrent calls a cop can take is that of a suicide. There are no winners; only losers. There are no “bad guys” to lock up, no crimes to be solved, no reconciliations to be made — only distraught family members and friends; those left behind to pick up the pieces.
There’s been a lot of talk these days about the new Netflix series, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” And most of it isn’t good. If nothing else, I’m glad my wife and I didn’t cave in when our oldest daughter asked to download Netflix to her phone. “Absolutely not,” we said. But there’s something more — and I’ve written about this before: the idea that other people’s actions “cause us” to take actions, as if there aren’t other alternatives. An armed assailant walks into a school and shoots first graders and it’s “not his fault;” he was bullied. An adult abuses a child, and it’s “not his fault” — the same thing happened to him. Someone takes their own life — and it wasn’t their choice; fellow students “made them” do it.
Before I paint with too broad a brush stroke, I want to be clear. We should never make light of suicide. Depression is as real as any disease, and we must do our utmost to help those suffering from it. Many suicides I responded to were radical symptoms of this disease. But that doesn’t mean they all were. Some suicides were prompted by selfish motives, or were induced because somewhere along the line, our culture began to romanticize it as a means to “get back” at all those who have been mean to us. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Denver, Colo. Within the last month, seven teens have taken their own lives, and officials are certain it’s at least in part connected to this new “Thirteen Reasons Why” craze. In response, many libraries have taken the book off the shelf, and some librarians are crying foul over “censorship.”
My life is replete with the stresses of the daily journey — my kids’ grades, social media, the mortgage and the rising costs of education. So how do I manage? Well, sometimes not too well. Maybe that’s why my wife and I try so hard to find balance and peace. It isn’t easy. It requires being less concerned with what the world thinks and more concerned with whatever affords us the peace to hear God’s voice. It requires saying “no” to that second travel team so we can spend time together as a family. And sometimes it requires not answering the phone when it rings during dinner. If my kids don’t think they’re important enough to spend unabated time with, maybe that sends a message.
It also requires taking off the “blinders” we’re so tempted to place on our kids to prevent them from seeing the world as it is. We try hard not to throw our kids “to the wolves” at too young an age. But that doesn’t mean we make them believe the world is a utopia.
Mostly, I think it means providing our kids with “thirteen reasons why to have hope” rather than allowing the culture to give them reasons to lose it. It means limiting their social media activity so they’re less affected by a culture that cares little for them, and more affected by a family who does. It means reminding them that they won’t be defined by how others treat them, but by how they use their free will to respond to it.
Life can be difficult. And sometimes we can never fully understand another’s pain. But I’m confident that at least the Bible, their faith, and our Church can give them plenty more than thirteen reasons to celebrate life, and scoff in the face of those who portend that our culture has the power to take it away.
Paul Stuligross is director of campus ministry at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory and is a former police officer.