This weekend we attended a memorial service in a public square in the center of town for a teenager who took his own life. He was the older brother of a friend of Chandler’s. All we knew about him prior to this was that he was a problem child — someone who didn’t fit, who bucked the system at every turn. If there was a drug, he took it; if there was a rule, he broke it. No one seemed to know what to do with him.
He was raised by an overwhelmed single dad and a caring school system that tried everything they could to help him including a year away to boarding school because he was so out of control. We were expecting a difficult service with little to say about someone who obviously fell through the cracks.
Well it was difficult, but for other reasons. One by one his friends, including a few adults in whom he had confided, stepped up to a microphone to say their good-byes, and as they did, another profile of this teenager slowly emerged. It was so profound that at times, you wondered if we were talking about the same kid. The teenager we heard about was a brilliant artist, an inventive mind, a sensitive friend, a generous heart, and a mischievous will. We heard about someone who cared deeply — who raged at God for the way the world was, and felt deeply the pain of the underside of life.
We heard about someone who cared about the homeless and spent a good deal of time talking with them, sharing cigarettes and buying them meals when he could.
You can understand at least why suicide seemed the only way out for a kid who was quite obviously, a victim of himself — a victim of a mind that was too busy, a heart that was too big, a spirit that was too sensitive, and a will that was too defiant. Someone said he died because he was so unhappy.
There we stood, a crowd of adults and teenagers huddled together against the cold in the late afternoon feeling entirely helpless in the face of a situation that was beyond us all. What could we do? What could we have done differently?
Something was starting to burn inside me, so at one point I went forward to ask one question: “Why do we have to wait until we lose someone to find out who they are? Why don’t we find out now?”
Never before, as a parent, have I sensed the need for that village Hillary Clinton wrote and talked about when she said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Parents have to set boundaries for kids and then continually enforce them, setting up consequences, rewards and punishments to try and guide a child to becoming a responsible adult. It’s almost impossible to try and do that and then turn around, lend a sensitive ear to your child and expect him to want to confide in you.
There was one adult who stood up to speak who was in a position to be that ear for kids like this. He’s a sensitive type himself who runs a unique shop in town that sells vintage rock LPs and just about every old CD you can imagine. His store has become a hang-out for kids like this, and he vowed, at this service, that he was going to set up a place and time where the kids who don’t fit into the traditional structures in society can find a place to express themselves.
I’m thinking about all the family gatherings that will be going on this week as we celebrate Christmas. There will undoubtedly be people like this one present. Maybe you, as a carrier for the Gospel of Welcome, can lend an empathetic ear. Maybe you can step inside those shoes and just listen. I’m not suggesting you can prevent a suicide, but even if you change the reaction of judgment to one of empathy, that will be a big deal. Do the village a favor and keep an eye out for this kid (or the adult this kid has become).
I’m going to leave these thoughts today with a story the father of this boy told about how, in one small instance, his own view of his son was completely altered. He told about how he was driving through town one day when his son asked him to stop for a second at a street corner. As he did, the teenager took three cigarettes out of his pack, (here the dad felt it necessary to apologize for letting his kid smoke) got out of the car and gave them to a homeless man whom he obviously knew. That’s when his father found out he hung out with the homeless a lot, talking, listening and sharing what he could.
After his son’s death, when Dad was going through his things, he found a box of cigarettes. It gave him an idea. Following the example of his son, Dad went and found the same homeless man his son had befriended, and gave him the cigarettes. “He’d want you to have them,” he said. At that, the homeless man started singing the praises of the man’s son and how he must be so proud, and then he said, “This must be so hard on you; can I pray for you?” So it was that Dad sat down on the street corner next to a man he never would have known were it not for his son, and received prayer from the homeless.
I don’t ever want to forget that story.