By Fr. Glenn Jones:
“Woohoo!!” was the cry from—everybody!—when the CDC relaxed their mask guidance in place during the COVID pandemic. But the negatives of this last year’s pandemic are so very tragic—losses of friends, family members and neighbors by far the worst. So, hopefully the need/requirements of other COVID restrictions will also pass by the wayside before too long and the pandemic finally be behind us and only a bad memory. This whole period has been a struggle for many, with uncertain employment situations, online schooling, separation from family and friends, etc. We are a social species, after all, and many have found necessary distancing and separations that came with COVID extremely stressful.
That may be a reason that scarcely a week goes by nowadays in which I don’t hear of someone having taken his own life, even within the comparatively limited orbit of society with which I am most familiar. But God is the master of life, for it is He who gives life … provides for life. We are stewards, not owners, of the precious gift of the life God entrusts to us—life given for the purpose of loving Him and loving one another. Those are our very missions in life.
Yet we do not know each individual mind and emotion. Because of that, the days of “automatic condemnation” for suicides—which we often hear in movies—has long been over, but that misconception is still often present. St. Paul reminds us: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” (Romans 14.4) And with increased modern knowledge of the complexities and often fragility of mental health and psychology, we know that emotion often overwhelms reason. After all, taking one’s own life is an act of desperation when rational thought is likely absent.
It is revealing that some of the highest suicide rates are in countries in which people are most affluent. Why does the U.S., South Korea, and Russia rank so much higher than such poverty-stricken countries like Venezuela, Haiti and even Ethiopia and North Korea? No doubt there is some influence from cultural and religious beliefs, but one can’t help but wonder if some of the higher rates—especially of young people—stem from a comparative ease of life and the lack of the need to overcome major and/or exasperating challenges.
Also, very often in our societal obsession with notoriety it seems that many see themselves as failures unless they have a thousand “likes” or “friends”. We should never forget that “notoriety” and “importance” do not necessarily—and often DO not—coincide. For instance, Albert Einstein is regarded as one of the greatest of physicists, but how often do you hear about his mom or dad, without whom he wouldn’t have come into existence? And we’ve all heard of stories—or even had personal experiences—of unknowns who have influenced people or events in ways impossible to foresee? Think “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
But we also have inner strength which often remains untapped. I’m reading the New York Times bestseller “Can’t Hurt Me” by retired Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer David Goggins—an inspirational autobiography in which he outlines his very abusive childhood and the challenges of racial hatred, and yet ultimately finds within himself strength and motivation to not only survive, but to excel. He admits that he could easily have retreated into a refuge of professed victimization, but he rather went from being victimized and self-defeating to achieving what very few, if any, have ever achieved. He became one of the most elite warriors in the world—not “only” becoming a SEAL, but also excelling in Army Ranger and other elite military schools. And, if that wasn’t enough for a lifetime, he also placed highly in some of the most brutal and challenging endurance competitions in the world—those in which typical “Iron Man” courses are only “training”. And so he not only defeated the physical challenges before him, but mastered his own feelings of defeat and depression, finding inner reservoirs of strength and resilience that we can call upon, but rarely do so. A caution, though: the book is written in the saltiest of military language (the old phrase “curses like a sailor” applies), but there’s a “clean” edition which curse words are (supposedly) excised.
Chief Goggins—like anyone who has achieved—knows that hard times in his life were formative for what he eventually became and did. Likewise, no one who achieves does so without challenge, else it wouldn’t be achievement. Yet nowadays we often see “helicopter” or “lawnmower” parents removing every possible challenge or difficulty from their kids’ path even though such early challenges are invaluable experiences for the young ones to polish themselves into diamonds. If Mommy or Daddy bails them out of every crisis, when will they learn to handle crises as adults?
But to be great or successful does not require notoriety or world class events; it simply requires seeking to do good in all circumstances; that is the greatest success of all. Rather than in notoriety, our own importance may be vital and yet remain ever unknown. But that does not make it any less noteworthy. Why tie self-worth to public accolades, which last a moment from a fickle public? For instance, we hear daily of Bezos and Zuckerberg, Gates and Musk, but little about the inventor of the transistor who made their fortunes possible. So, then … who is the more important? Likewise, our responsibility—and joy—in the world is simply to strive to do good through love and charity—the insight of every beneficial philosophy and religion. Even giant redwoods and sequoias were once tiny seeds.
Remember St. Paul: “…the body does not consist of one member but of many…there are many parts, yet one body…the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (1 Corinthians 12) And so, my dear brother or sister having feelings of worthlessness or desperation, know that you are vital to the whole, and each person’s life can be world-changing.
Hardships and struggles are inevitable in life, and things certainly do not go our way every time, or even most of the time, whether one be prince or pauper. But the greater merit and virtue lay in struggle itself, for without struggle there is no victory. Know that God ever gives sufficient grace and fortitude to not only endure, but to excel in love and kindness … in the mission He give us—no mansions, ribbons or ticker tape necessary. Bravo victor!
Do not fear what you are about to suffer…you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.