Sunday, October 3, 2010
This is one of those essays I find difficult to start writing.
Like so many others I have been profoundly affected by the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student whose bright light was extinguished by the waters underneath the George Washington Bridge from which he jumped last week.
It is ironic to me that as we debate the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue in the Armed Forces, and we are told that the younger generation does not have an issue with those who have recognized their gender attractions to members of their own sex, that it was exactly members of the younger generation that attempted to ridicule and shame one of their own.
It is bad enough that the life of Tyler Clementi was brought to an abrupt end, but the facts are that in recent weeks five teenagers in the United States have taken their lives because they were openly gay or thought to be gay. I do not care what one’s personal beliefs about gay and lesbian individuals may be, there is no excuse for the brutal behavior they are exposed to by their age peers and others. To me such behavior amounts to nothing less than a hate crime and should be dealt with as such.
This morning, on CBS Sunday Morning (CBS, 7 AM PDT), the lead story was about this subject. Reporter Jim Axelrod stated, “You may hear about a bad break-up or stress as the cause of a suicide. Those usually mask underlying mental health issues as the real explanation.” People struggle emotionally for myriad reasons, yet so seldom is there the courage to stand up and say, “I’m struggling. I need help.” The report states that in 2009 13.8% of US high school students—almost one out of seven--reported they seriously considered attempting to kill themselves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Laurie Flynn who runs Columbia University’s nationwide TeenScreen program, designed to identify 14-to 17-year olds who are at risk, asks teens, “Why didn’t you say anything?” The teen response was, “Nobody ever asked me.” It would seem that part of our problem of escalating teen suicide has to do with our failure to ask! Somewhere between a person’s fear of asking and our failure to recognize another’s emotional needs and ask, “Is there anything I can do?” someone falls through the cracks and is lost.
Some of us are hesitant to intrude on another person’s private thoughts and feelings. However, if we sense there may be a serious problem building to an explosion point, isn’t it better to take the risk and offer a listening ear or a hug? The worst that would probably happen is to be told “No.” Sometimes we may need to not take no for an answer. I wish I could tell you how to be absolutely certain when it is time to act on behalf of another person you think is in need. I cannot. Still, I prefer the pre-emptive action of making myself available than to simply wait until it is too late. “What ifs?” are never satisfying.
Some of you who follow my blog or Facebook Notes are aware that I have had my ups and downs emotionally. We all do to some extent. What has saved me for the most part, in addition to writing as an outlet, is that sometimes I am able to ask for help. Other times I have found myself receptive to someone injecting themselves into my life, not only asking if they can help, but insisting upon it. My former wife and long-time friend, Shawn, was such a presence for me awhile back. Putting aside her own issues she visited me to make sure I was okay. Her courage to ask made a remarkable difference for me at the time.
The failure to ask goes both ways. We need to carefully monitor our own sense of well-being. It is important to have persons in your life with whom you can confidently share your needs and who can understand your need for help. We need to ask for help. We also need to be aware of our family members and close friends, watching for any sign that they may need some kind of assistance. We need to ask, “How can I help?”
The tragic loss of Tyler Clementi and others who were trying to understand their sexuality and what that means for them is regrettable in so many ways. Every life is important. Every life counts. No one should be put under a microscope of scrutiny and judged as irrelevant. No one, especially teens, should be mocked and ridiculed. Much of our society today is so divided and so willing to see everything in terms of black and white, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, that we are virtually at war with each other. Is it not apparent where this divisiveness and bigotry are leading us? It is time for understanding. It is time to be more “our brother’s keeper” than his enemy.
Finally, failure to ask is NOT an option! We need each other!