Hope, One Inch at a Time


Someone I know is suicidal.

I want to help. I don’t think, “Oh, how could you possibly even consider such a horrible thing?” I remember how I felt when I was hopeless.

I can’t overstate the importance of hope.

Is there a way to give hope?

I’m asking the most serious question I can express in words.

When I get severely depressed, it feels like my chest is caving in. Crushing heaviness, an anvil smashing my lungs. Air sucked out of the room. I can stand in broad sunlight and feel nothing. Feeling nothing is much scarier than feeling anger or fear, at least for me. Prayer somehow becomes screaming at nothing, or worse, feeling the nothing so tangibly, the weight so oppressively, that any prayer at all is more than I can muster. Even “Help.”

So now my friend is making frightening choices. I am horrified, doubly so because I have too clear an idea of the mindset: to them, this obliterating soul crushing is not just today. It is always. This is not objective reality, but it is their reality.

Now you understand my question. Is there a way to give hope?

I’m not debating whether, objectively, life has hope. Nothing in this discussion should be abstract or theoretical. This is life and death, not academic.

The first thing I know is people must know they’re loved. Love and sunshine may not get through but they’re still true. Sunlight still carries vitamin D; whether or not I can experience it consciously, my body takes it in.

In one of the most difficult conversations of my life, I asked someone utterly dear to me if they’d ever experienced God’s love. They said, “Just because you experience it doesn’t make it real for me.”

I hated that lesson, because I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to be able to make my loved one experience Jesus’ love as I had. But I couldn’t. I can’t.

“But Mike,” someone will object, “Jesus is the hope of the world! That has to matter.”

If you were going to make that same objection, take a deep breath, .

I can’t make God real for others. I can’t. Not with brilliant logic, not with flawless biblical exegesis, not with the most vulnerable and moving sermon. I can share every powerful story of God’s presence–and intervention–in my life. One of my most bitter fights with God is over why God (seemingly) won’t answer prayers when I’m begging for someone who feels this way, who has no sense of God’s reality. Like, “If you love everyone, how could this possibly not be what you want? I don’t freaking get it!”

I believe God loves us and I believe God came in person to tell us. Even many of those who don’t believe Jesus is God know Jesus spoke of love and resonate with that message.* My takeaway is we need to be told in person. We need to be shown in person.

Don’t imagine that just telling someone you love them will snap them out of depression. I’m not saying that. I’m saying the beginning of rediscovering hope is knowing we’re loved. Love and sunshine are real, even when we can’t feel them, and they do their work, even when we can’t discern it. When we’re feeling hopeless, we need to know we’re loved more, not less.

When we’re saying “I love you,” we also ask, “what can I do?” ie. “I love you and how can I show it right now?” Often, someone suffering depression will have no answer to that question. It’s still right to ask. Then follow with suggestions. “Can I bring/cook you a meal? Can I help with simple chores or tasks? Do you just need someone to talk to, or watch a movie with, or stare out the window with? Do you need a good book?” (Everyone needs a good book.)

Hope comes from believing things can be better, having things to look forward to, a reason to look ahead.

We’ve all heard–and maybe uttered–the bewildered, bereaved cry, “But they had so much to live for!

Yes, that’s how it looks from our perspective. It turns out our perspective isn’t their perspective.

I can’t make you see what I see or experience what I experience. If you don’t suffer depression, I try to explain it so you can have some compassion, if not empathy.

If you do, I want you to believe you are loved and there is hope. The best I can do is try to build trust with you so that when the time comes, and you tell me–or I find out–that you’re dwelling in Mordor, breathing sulfur and forgetting the sun, I can empathize. I won’t say, “But no! The sun is shining! Spring is in the air! Wildflowers everywhere!~ Just open your eyes!” Your eyes aren’t seeing what mine are. They can’t right now. Your perspective in this moment simply is not mine.

If we have trust, I can tell you, “I’ve had the world turn its lights out on me, too. It felt impossible–and meaningless–to hang in there. I didn’t even want to. But it got better. It can get better.

And no matter what, no matter what, I love you.”**

God told us in person. So will I.

PS Some people hesitate to say the word “suicide” for fear they will plant the idea in a loved ones mind. From a medical expert friend, that isn’t how it works. On the contrary, if we don’t ask the question, it’s harder to know when a serious intervention is needed. That’s the real risk.

*In fact, many who don’t follow Jesus point out that those who do claim to seem to have missed the “love” part of the message.

**This is the start, not the solution. Next steps may include calling a crisis line, medical intervention, prayer, counseling, possibly in-patient care if that is possible. I’m just addressing surviving today.

4 thoughts on “Hope, One Inch at a Time

  1. Teresa Musselman

    As so often happens, your words have reminded me that my perspective is not the perspective of others. I grew up with a mother who suffered depression, and at one point I think she may have been heading to that very dark place. As a young person, sometimes it made me angry (Why couldn’t she just cheer up? Be like other moms? etc.). I thank God for the way my dad was always such a patient support to her, for the intervention of our parish priest (who later became my father-in-law – an Episcopal priest, in case you’re confused!), and for some professional help. Thank you for reminding me of the ways we can help, but also of the ways we can’t.

    • Thank you, Teresa.
      I remember asking similar questions about Dad.”Why can’t you just be more normal? Why do you have to lose your temper in front of my friends and humiliate me?” When he was finally diagnosed, a few months before his death, I was old enough to get it and have compassion. When he died, I was just sad for him that his brain chemistry had been so off and he never really got help for it–partly because he refused help. Hard lessons.
      Beautiful that your dad, church, and some medical professionals were able to rally around your mom. That’s a great model for how this can work!

  2. Susan M Heminger

    Beautifully said, Mike. I used to feel pretty judgmental of those contemplating or completing suicide, until it touched my life. One of my childhood neighbors, a very dear and sweet man who suffered from years of chronic illness, took his own life about ten years ago. I know that he did it with the best possible intentions, even though everyone wishes he were still here. A few years ago, I also learned that the real reason why my paternal grandfather was orphaned was because his mother, my great grandmother, died by suicide. It was awful. I can see the ripple effect through my family. I am so glad to know the truth, because my relatives and I are predisposed to depression. This knowledge will help me be there for my kids if they face it, too. I pray the generational trauma from untreated mental illness ends with me!

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