Whoever Knows the Right Thing to Do

Another semester has come to a close.

And as usual, I am drained and exhausted beyond measure.  I am exhausted because agonize over whether I was effective in getting my message across.  I agonize over grades, fully realizing that my actions and judgments affect the lives and futures of my students.  I always wonder how students can leave an exam completely oblivious to how they performed on it, and then irately contact me when they think they deserve a higher grade.

Another thing that exhausts me is dealing with those students that choose to engage in academic dishonesty.  I have little sympathy for the ones who engage in egregious infractions of a standard code of academic integrity.  It always feels like a personal affront when people cheat instead of try.  All students enter my class as equals, with my respect for them intact.  I hate that breach of faith that destroys an otherwise decent human interaction.

But something that hurts me worse than all else is something that I learned the last week of classes as I was making my way back to my office after my last lecture on Wednesday afternoon.  I started across the quad, pulled out my phone to check my messages, and was immediately met with the news that a student in another of my classes had completed suicide.

I was devastated.  I almost felt like I would collapse on the sidewalk.  I felt sick.  And helpless.  And I felt like I had failed.

I mean, after all, I’ve been trained in suicide prevention.  I thought after leading sessions on prevention, I would be ready for dealing with suicide, and I was going to be ready to help change the world.  But that just made me cocky and a little too self-assured.  Or deep down, maybe I just thought I’d never need to use it.    

In this case, I saw none of the signs that we are supposed to look for.  This quiet, bright young man apparently quietly suffered with depression.  He was bent on completing the only thing that he thought would end his pain. 

But in his state of confusion, he, like so many others who choose suicide, failed to account for the pain he would leave behind.  I can’t imagine the pain his family is dealing with right now. 

I barely knew the young man, as my only interaction with him was in the classroom.  But I have spent hours wondering what I might have been able to do to help him.  Why didn’t I expend the effort to get to know him? Why didn’t I give the talk I often give about suicide prevention in that class?  Why didn’t I let him know I was there to listen, and that I cared about him and that I wanted him to live?

But I kept my professorial distance.  

And I will forever be haunted by those questions.

I have written on many occasions about the need for learning more about how to help people with suicidal thoughts.  That has not changed.  We still need to know what to look for and be willing to ask the hard questions and reach out to them.  More than ever, I affirm my belief in Donne’s stirring declaration, that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I do feel diminished, but resolute that I must be more accessible to those in pain. I must be more empathetic.  I must be more compassionate. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”  This is the goal: to achieve fulfillment as a human being, I must fully become part of humanity.  To take my place in the fullness of the human experience I must help others to achieve all that they can be. 

According to the biblical author, James, who some say was the brother of Jesus himself, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4.17) Therefore, from the position of faith, I must do what I can to help others, I must alleviate suffering, I must be willing to carry a weight.  To do any less is to sin against my own humanity, against all humanity, and by extension, its Creator.

Another semester is done.  But there is so much left to do.  I resolve to leave less unsaid and less good undone.  Life is too short to shy away from uncomfortable situations.  I hope that I will not someday look back on my life with regrets for lost opportunities to make a difference.  I hope that I can say and others can see that I did what I could; not for my own glory, but because of my understanding and acceptance of what it means to be made in the image of God, to show love and grace and mercy.

I must be better.  And while I may not be able to do it all, I know that through a strength born of faith and a fuller resolve to channel Heaven’s grace, I can do more to help others, and do it more effectively.  I know the good I can do.

Now it’s time to get to work.    

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