Warning: this post talks about self-harm and suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing this, you can chat online with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call at 1.800.273.8255.
We are in the final weeks of the Christian season of Lent: a time where we focus on the fact that we are not yet who we will be, and that we still live in much darkness, weakness, and self-obsession. On its own, this could become masochistic or over-indulgent depending on your personality. But this is why Easter comes on the other side as a call to cast off the brooding and soul-spelunking to rise into the highest heights of celebration and freedom the Resurrection offers.
But still, this time lends itself to sadder reflections. The other day, my coworkers and I were sharing stories of social work clients we’ve worked with over the years and I was brought back ten years to my first time encountering a suicidal client when I was brand new to the field.
She had just been released from an inpatient psych unit, one of the only places she felt really emotionally safe, and had been carrying around a large knife in her bag in case her PTSD-induced “bad thoughts” came. And sure enough they did and she wanted to cut herself. She wanted to be back in the hospital. She said she has been running and working so hard to get better, but nothing ever changed. She said she was tired. She just wanted rest.
I said I could not promise much. The thoughts may never go away. The depression may never subside. But you can have some peace and rest. You may stumble the rest of your life, but you can move forward. There is healing you can experience–that you have already experienced. And we love you. And we are here. And we will fight for you. And we won’t let go.
Her past suicide attempts had never made the flashbacks let up. Those dark whispers had promised her something they could not deliver. I asked her who cared more about her, the knife or us at the program, including me? Who loved her more? Who had her best interests at heart? Who would tell her the truth about reality when she was too fractured to make sense of anything? We will. You are strong. You have come so far. You are loved. You are secure. You are respected. You are cared for.
And she gave me the knife. We hugged. She thanked me. I told her this was only one step in a very long walk, and I’d walk it with her. She said she was a Christian, so I tried to give her the best gospel encouragement I could think of:
Jesus hates so much everything that haunts you and hurts you–even more than you hate them–because he loves you even more. His death can free us from our pain better than yours can. He died so we eventually won’t be enslaved to our darkness. But you still are. And so am I. And we’ll spend the rest of our lives loosening ourselves from it; but we’ll do it as a family, together.
This is healing: it will get slowly better and better and better; and then it will get worse. Then it will get better and better and better; and then it will get worse. Then it will get as bad as it ever has been; and then it will get better.
* * * * *
I left that job a year after this. Looking back, maybe my words were a little too easy; maybe a bit trite. Or maybe I’m just a bit cynical about immediate, dramatic “turning points” in one’s spiritual life. By the time I left, she really was doing better, though not without more talks, more hospitalizations, and a couple more attempts at self-harm along the way.
Yet is this not, in a sense, all our stories? Doubts, sins, addictions, uncertainties, and ambiguities mark more of our lives than clarity and holiness. We savor those moments of bliss, freedom, and rest because they are a foretaste of a world that is already “here” in one sense, and is becoming ever increasingly “here” as we love, live, serve, create, and worship. And still we fall backwards; indeed, often we run there.
This is what Lent is all about, and why it is an annual pilgrimage for our souls. Year in and year out, we join with all the saints of history in the growing crescendo of time in our struggle with angst and sin. The tension and mourning of this season builds to its highest crescendo and most fevered pitch as we lose all sight of self-sufficiency and fall on our faces, exhausted, late on a (Good?) Friday night–confused, weary, and having given up.
And then we wait for Sunday to come.
And it will. Let us not waste the next couple of precious weeks. Let us confess our sin. Pray our sin. Sing our sin. Meditate on our sin. Taste our sin. And then let us exchange our sin for our Christ and join with all the Saints this Easter as we confess our Christ. Pray our Christ. Sing our Christ. Meditate on our Christ. And taste our Christ.
[image credit: “The Giant” by Francisco de Goya]