Early on Monday mornings the week starts in my counseling office with three close friends. We sip on piping hot coconut coffee from the local bakery, we share about the ups and downs of our lives, and we pray. It’s become an incredibly meaningful space for me. I’m one of those people who like to busy myself, I long for productivity, I desire meaning, and at the end of the day when my head hits the pillow, I often find myself fending off the loneliness deep down in the dark place of my soul.
Monday morning one of my friends brought up a news headline many of you are probably familiar with at this point. Zachary Winston, a basketball player at Albion College, and brother to Michigan State basketball player Cassius Winston, died by suicide. Even as I type that last sentence my stomach muscles churn, my chest tightens, and tears well up in my eyes. I agree with Coach Tom Izzo who emotionally expressed, “It’s impossible to find the right words in this moment, other than to say that we will support the family in whatever way they need.”
When tragedy strikes, and especially when that tragedy involves suicide, it seems there are no words. In a country and a cultural moment that is in the midst of a “suicide epidemic” it seems to me most of us struggle to find the right words, we struggle to know what to do, and we feel paralyzed not knowing how to move forward.
My friend had spent the night wrestling with the dark and painful reality of Zachary’s death. Sunday night I was also in bed with tears running down my cheeks as I listened to Tom Izzo’s press conference. While my heart breaks for the Winston family, the tears continue to flow as I think of loved one’s in my life who have been overwhelmed by suicides terrible sting.
Sunday night, during the game, the announcers repeatedly expressed the importance and the power of reaching out for help in the midst of your struggle. The suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) has become a number many of us know by heart. And as we struggle to find the words to say, I have walked with so many people who long to do something, to confront the darkness, to make a difference, to save a life.
I openly acknowledge that even as a mental health professional, suicide scares me. There’s something about it that feels out of control, overwhelming, and utterly heart wrenching. Even though many would consider me an expert as a counselor, I often don’t feel like one. Even in this moment, I acknowledge that though I struggle to find the words to say and even the words to write, I need to do something. We all need to do something.
In college I had a business professor who by the time he became a professor had already experienced exceptional success in the business world. Although he rarely shared about his past experiences, I was well aware that he was a man who was invited a lot of places, was pulled in many directions, and had no problem filling up his schedule with really “important” meetings. I was also aware that there was something different about him. The only way I know how to describe what made him different is that he always seemed so present.
Have you ever met someone like this?
The first day of class he greeted each student at the door. Whenever I passed him in the hallway he always had time to stop, to look me in the eye, and genuinely ask, “How are you…really?” And even though he had every right to be incredibly busy, there was almost always time in his schedule to sit down for 45 minutes and have coffee. On various occasions I reached out to him for help. On one particular occasion, the topic of our conversation was our schedules. I forget how we arrived at this particular point, but I will forever remember him saying:
“Matt, in order to be truly present to the person standing right in front of me, and in order to give myself the space to be genuinely curious about that persons life, I schedule two free hours into every day of my week.”
As I remember his words, it sends a shiver down my spine. What I now realize is that my professors intentionality with his schedule, was actually birthed out of the conviction of his heart:
Perhaps the most meaningful thing each of us has to offer one another is our presence and the genuine curiosity of our hearts.
I will speak for myself, but I wonder if you can relate:
The world I live in often robs me of my presence and numbs my curious heart. Whether it be the pressures of performance and success or the distractions of my devices; whether it be the maddening dance of my anxiety and depression, or the twisted desire to escape the darkness through pornography or alcohol; whether it be the overwhelming fear of the future, or the relentless shame birthed out of the regret of my past… far too often I am not present and I am not curious.
While the suicide hotline is so incredibly important and while I wholeheartedly believe that reaching out for help is one of the most courageous things a person can do, I also believe that perhaps the most important and potentially life saving thing I have to offer my neighbor is my presence and the curiosity of my heart. I believe each one of knows the painful reality of isolation and loneliness, many of us have been caught in that terrible dance of anxiety and depression, and probably more of us than we realize have deeply questioned whether this life is actually worth living.
With tears in my eyes this morning, I acknowledge that more than anything in this world, we need each other. We can’t go it alone. My presence is powerful. Your presence is powerful. Our genuinely curious hearts can literally save lives.
Last night, during his post game press conference, a teary eyed Tom Izzo shared a powerful word:
“You always talk about how fragile life is. And you know I’ve been told for 60 years, everyday you wake up your blessed and lucky… But it is fragile and it kind of makes you reassess and think how much you should appreciate the opportunities you have… when you leave here tonight, whoever it is, son, daughter, older mother, father, wife or husband, it would do you good to tell them you love them and appreciate them. And it would do you a lot of good that any of the people closest to you, that you say that, and you say it, and you say it, and you say it. Because one morning you wake up and everything’s one-way, and by 9 o’clock that night everything’s another way. And then you don’t get a chance to say it. So I told my team after the game that I love every one of them.”
While Coach Izzo was sharing his heart, what hit me was his powerful invitation:
The invitation to slow down and to create enough space in our lives to be wholly present. The invitation to look the person or the people right in front of us in the eyes and be curious about the reality of their lives. The invitation to open up our hearts and truly love.
What would it look like to be present?
What would it look to be curious?
What would it look like to to open up your heart and tell them… to tell every one of them, that you love them?