Bourdain, Spade, and Denethor—Loving Parts Unknown and Known

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. We are so sad—so deeply sad. What more can be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked this week as more amazingly talented creators—high profile leaders—chose their own exit. We feel such sorrow together.

What more should be said?

My reading and training on grief have coached me to say nothing. Less is more. Remain silent. Do not preach or dispense advice. Simply grieve with the grieving.

And under almost every circumstance, I concur. Indeed, we pray comfort and divine hope for family and friends. We live ever-cognizant of the heartache of mental illness and the struggle of addiction. Ours is a pulsing grief, oft best unspoken. Together, our hearts ache.

Albeit for a moment, indulge me. Perhaps lean into a shade more reflection. I am compelled to break from the normal silence of our society’s prescribed, safe decorum. When we witness such a sad avalanche of remarkable people, it seems that some further commentary might be appropriate. Perhaps, a few next level thoughts might prove helpful to someone. And we join together in confessing, there are still parts both known and unknown.

I shall not engage in diatribe against the supposed emptiness of the splendidly wealthy and the wickedly successful movers and shakers of current culture. Over my years, I have seen too much. Suicide regularly claims the upper crust as well as the best of us lower crumbs. She plays no favorites in her deceptive malice. Life’s pressure, pain, and resulting hopelessness are no respecter of persons.

In the wake of Anthony and Kate’s self-determined exits, my mind has been moved with sadness. And I am drawn into a Tolkien scene and several correlating truths. Beware. This scene happens far from the Shire but not yet Mordor. We find Gandalf and Pippin in one of the dreadful, messy middle places of Middle-earth, the Citadel of Gondor during the apex of the Battle.

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had served many years as the ruler of the city and surrounding parts, both known and unknown. Overwhelmed by the Shadow and Sauron’s dark influence, this long-time leader chose to do the unthinkable.

With great haste, Pippin desperately explained to Gandalf: ‘Denethor has gone to the Tombs, and he has taken Faramir, and he says we are all to burn, and he will not wait, and they are to make a pyre and burn him on it, and Faramir as well. And he has sent me to fetch wood and oil.’

Denethor’s son, Faramir, had been wounded in battle, a wound the father assumed to be fatal. Gandalf and Pippin raced to the house of the dead in an attempt to rescue both father and son. They rushed in, and we read: “Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”

Gandalf and Denethor engaged in a volley of heated argument. Denethor declared: ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’ The old wise guide responded, attempting with all his might to clear the crazed perspective. O if he might talk even an ounce of sense into the frazzled leader.

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

Here is one powerfully germane, highly potent statement from the Wizard’s lips. Before we quickly shrug, shake our heads, and dub this as insensitive, provincial, or even judgmental, let us ponder the depth of Tolkien’s analysis.

Gandalf was drawing from the deep recesses of his memory, reaching back to ancient times in earlier ages when rulers chose to exit life of their own accord. His analysis was profound. The root cause was a dark blend of pride and despair. They allowed Dark Power to get the better of them. (Catch the rest of the story in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chapter 7.)

But notice this standout statement: Authority is not given to you…to order the hour of your death. Tolkien was very deliberately conveying through the wise lips of Gandalf his own world and life view. Humans are ultimately accountable to their Creator. From Tolkien’s perspective, to think otherwise is a misguided, under-the-Shadow, yes even arrogant perspective. When the leading persons of a culture arrive at believing they hold the authority to decide when they shall depart, they are beguiled by “pride and despair.” But Tolkien does not end with diagnosis. In typical Tolkien style, there is hope and wonderful good news.

Gandalf’s next words to Denethor conveyed so much: ‘Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’ He called the Steward of Gondor to recognize his important stewardship. He called him to humbly recognize his sacred calling and how much he was needed.

We must all remember, even in our darkest moments:

The choice is not our own. Yes, this runs contra popular, pervasive perspective, the groundswell of societal opinion. Misguided, we think we should rule our own entrance and exit. Sadly, we are now slogging through the Shadows of such dark thinking.

We are needed. There are still friends, coworkers, clients, precious children and spouses who do indeed need you to stay in the battle. Choose to stay. Please choose to stay!

There is much we can still do. There are new parts and places to go—both known and unknown. There are fresh meals to create and taste. New people to meet and bless. There are fashions to still make, meetings to lead, and products to create. There is Good News to share, bad news to battle through, and love to spread profusely.

We all battle with our own blend of pride and despair. We all have demons, addictions, and old enemies. Amidst the voices of dark despair, may we listen instead to the voice of Gandalf and ultimately our Creator. Hear him say: You are not your own. You are loved.  You are not alone. COME! You are needed.  There is much that you can yet do. There is hope!

 

 

Work’s Agony and Ecstasy—Remembering Robin Williams

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“Nano nano.” As a fourth grader, I tried to spread my fingers just like Mork from Ork in order to bid adieu to friends at school. (my right hand, no problem; left hand, I still can’t do it.)

We are awash in a sea of emotions at the stunning news of Williams’ suicide. Like so many funny men, the work of his early years was hysterical and at points raucously crude—symptomatic no doubt of youthful immaturity. As his body of work grew, so did his sophistication, choosiness of roles, and thoughtfulness of his characters. Still always treating us to jovial faces and good-like-medicine laughter, his work became more and more purposeful. Complexity of characters and message are profound in Patch Adams and Dead Poets Society. “O Captain, my Captain!” “Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys.”

So we longingly ask, what goes wrong? How does such a hilarious guy of stardom fall so far emotionally that he chooses to exit? The forensics and toxicology are still being completed. It is well documented that he battled both depression and addiction. Friends have been interviewed, and they confirm that he was struggling, albeit with a seemingly strong support system enfolding him.

None of us, especially those of us with deeply religio-spiritual backgrounds, should rush to hand out diagnoses and snap judgments. Let’s not forget, it was not long ago that Rick Warren’s family faced the tragic loss of their son. Let’s not forget, so many of our extended families have experienced first-hand the ravages of mental illness and suicide—including my own cousin just a few years back.

What can we say? Because God designed us for integrated living, we must resist the urge to compartmentalize, thinking that our mental-emotional health is incidental, a sidebar. If you are struggling with depression and addiction, reach out for hope and help, both to Christ through spiritual mentors and to health professionals—please do it NOW!

What else can we say? Because God wants us to work as his coworkers, in his image (Genesis 1:26-28), we need to balance life better. Work hard, yes, but resist defining our own identities solely on our work success. Here’s where our faith, a deeper trust, has to intersect with our creative good works, pre-ordained by our Maker (Saint Paul, Ephesians 2:8-10). Will we trust him? Don’t let your own identity become so wrapped up with your work outcomes that you descend into the abyss, especially in those seasons when your work is not producing a remarkably fruitful crop. You are so much more than the sum total of your portfolio!

I recently read Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel of Michelangelo.[1] We readily applaud the sculptor-painter’s amazing achievements, but we often fail to recognize the deep agony, work frustration, and overall despondency he faced with each artistic endeavor.

What hope can we find in our own dark moments, when work is less than stellar, when life seems to rot, and we hear those voices from the shadows? Let’s be real real. Most of us are moved by Robin’s tragic story because the psychological tremors hit too close to home, echoing into the depth of our own souls, homes, and workplaces. We all have our own moments and voices that whisper diabolical thoughts in the face of our agony.

Courageously recall, there is indeed an unseen battle. Some will accuse me of over-simplifying, but we dare not miss the essential power of prayer in putting on God’s protective armor (Saint Paul, Ephesians 6:10-20). The biblical leader of workers, master wall builder, Nehemiah, handled his own opposition from critics, the taunting voices, would-be distractions, and impending despair. He replied, “I am doing a great work, so I cannot come down . . .” And then he passionately prayed, “Strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6)

C. Neal Johnson, calling for vigilance in spiritual warfare related to our work-a-day business, asserts:

“There is also a form of prayer called inner healing prayer (IHP). It is an approach to prayer in which an individual can identify and resolve deep-seated emotional issues that have plagued his or her attempts at healthy living . . . Both research data and anecdotal testimonies evidence significant long-term, deep, inner healing as a result . . . Training in how to conduct IHP is highly recommended in order to be effective and to avoid unscriptural activities.”[2]

Let us pray fervently for the Williams’ family and close friends, for peace and strength, hope and comfort. Let us pray for one another, for deep healing in our daily work’s agony and ecstasy.

And by all means, Carpe diem. With Christ’s strength and for his glory, let us make our lives extraordinary!

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[1]Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo. (Doubleday and Company, 1961).

[2]C. Neal Johnson, Business As Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. (IVP, 2009), 450-51.