My friend of more than thirty years, J.W., took his own life three weeks ago, at which point I felt I had stepped into a nightmare…and simultaneously into a Psych 101 textbook.
At first, I distanced myself from the misery I felt building in my heart by telling myself it was “just” a tragedy, just an example of someone standing at the epicenter of the kind of perfect storm of baneful vectors that no one could possibly have resisted successfully. According to this initial analysis, his death was no one’s fault at all: not J.’s and certainly not mine, but also not anybody’s. It was thus a tragedy that just happened, something like an unpredicted tsunami or a sudden earthquake. That approach was satisfying briefly, but it quickly lost its luster and I soon moved on—remarkably, just like the textbooks say is the case for so many—to anger. Since the whole world is about me, how could this also not be about me? And how could my friend do this to me, making me feel so terrible and leaving me with one less friend in the world when I already have so few pals left from those happy, carefree years when Joan and I were first married and still living on the Upper West Side? Sure, his problems may be over, I told myself, but mine…who was going to help me come to terms with this loss, so unnecessary and so theoretically preventable but also so devastating? I find it embarrassing now even to have written that last sentence out, but I did spend a few days in just that place. And then, fortunately, I moved on from wallowing in that kind of self-referential ridiculousness and moved directly into the third stage of grappling with this kind of loss, the stage of self-recrimination.
And now we get to the heart of the matter. My friend, ten years my junior exactly, suffered from alcoholism and, I believe, depression his whole adult life. We met when I was twenty-eight and a newly minted Ph.D. teaching in the Seminary’s undergraduate program and he was an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Friendship came later, but, in the end, I knew him for thirty-two years, more than half even of my life and well over half of his, and the tragic elements in his personality were visible, even if just barely, from the start. But it was only years later that I gained the experience and insight fully to understand just how potentially destructive those dark features of his inmost nature could become, and did become, later on.
As the years passed, J. followed two paths at the same time.
He went on to rabbinical school and was ordained a rabbi, teacher, and preacher in Israel. He served congregations in New York State, then in Florida, then, after he lost his job in Florida because of a series of very poor decisions rooted in the fundamental problems that served as the soil in which all the rest of his disastrous choices grew, in Kentucky. The thing that bears saying the most in this regard is that he wasn’t a man who couldn’t succeed because of his troubles, that he was a man who was enormously successful despite his difficulties. He was a fabulous rabbi, at his best one of the greats. He was funny and engaging, learned and smart. He spoke forcefully and inspiringly from the bimah, inviting his congregation to join him on the great spiritual journey through life that he himself had chosen to follow. He had a sharp wit, but (as is surely not the case for all) that sharpness lacked any edge of cruelty or nastiness. Instead, he allowed his charm and his well-honed sense of humor to serve as a vehicle for his message…and, because he was also handsome and had a lovely wife (also once one of my students) and three beautiful children, he presented himself for as long as he could not merely as a successful rabbi, but as the very model of the kind of learned clergyperson and likable family man that any congregation would naturally want at its helm.
But there was another path too that J. followed, a darker one that led away from professional success, away from successful family life, and away from the very spiritual goals that he was attempting to travel towards on the other path he was traveling. He was, therefore, not merely undertaking two journeys at the same time, but two that led in diametrically different directions. It was thus not a journey that only a select few of the very best and most brave could manage, but one that no one could ever successfully undertake: if you want or need to travel north and east at the same time, you can try setting off in a northeasterly direction and see where that takes you…but none can travel east and west at the same time, not even the most clever or talented travelers among us. But that was exactly what J. was trying to do. Eventually, that riddle came to rest at the center of J.’s life—the insoluble riddle of how to be two people at the same time, how to travel at once down two roads that lead in opposite directions, how to lead a congregation upwards towards lofty goals while simultaneously being personally dragged along, slowly but perhaps inexorably, on the road to perdition. Eventually, his marriage ended. Lonely and unhappy, he made a new life for himself in a different state and eventually remarried. (He ended up losing that job as well and was trying to re-invent himself in Colorado when he died.) He leaves behind, in addition to his wife and his three older children, a one-year-old daughter. And he leaves behind his first wife as well, who stuck with him for as long as anyone rationally could have and only played her last card when it truly was the only one left in her hand to play.
And so I turn to the next-to-last stage in the series I began by mentioning, the stage of self-recrimination. Like everybody who knew J. as a friend, I moved on—once I abandoned the stage of righteous self-absorption in which I ridiculously attempted to find comfort by casting myself as the victim in the story—to asking the questions that rest at the center of anyone’s effort to come to terms with suicide, with loss on this scale and of this specific variety. Did I do enough? Did I do anything that mattered? When I finally told him I didn’t wish him to call me when he was drunk, was I being helpful by creating a reward that he could conceivably have wanted badly enough to turn away from liquor to get? Or was I myself surrendering to an embarrassingly over-inflated view of my own role in his life to imagine that the possibility of talking on the telephone to me could outweigh a lifetime of addictive reliance on a drug as potent as any of the others that enslave the soul? Was I being kind and thoughtful by creating a context in which a reward—even as inconsequential a one as talking to me on the phone—might possibly have inspired better behavior? Or was I behaving like the idiot who notes someone floundering helplessly in the water and responds by suggesting swimming lessons?
Perhaps nothing could have helped. I realize that it would be helpful, even therapeutic, for me to come to that conclusion. There are a million details to this story I haven’t revealed. There are, no doubt, another million even I don’t know. I know that there are many people in the world who have learned to live with various forms of addiction and to master their problems rather than granting those problems ultimate control over their lives. Can everybody do it? We don’t blame people who, after giving their all to the struggle, finally succumb to cancer or heart disease. We certainly don’t blame people who are in terrible airplane accidents because they could just as easily have bought a ticket for a different flight! You play with the cards you are dealt. You fly the airline that Expedia or Travelocity offered you the best price to buy a ticket on. You wrestle with the genetic heritage you are bequeathed even if it is unfair that others receive a different basket of heritable goodies from their ancestors. Some people struggle their whole lives with depression and alcoholism (and different forms of substance abuse) and find themselves able to wrestle their problems to the ground. Others simply lack—not the courage or the principled willingness, but the simple ability—to do that. And, in my heart, that is what I think happened to my friend.
Jewish tradition has a deeply ambivalent approach to suicide. On the one hand, we teach that life is a gift from God and that suicide, the overt rejection of that gift, is thus primarily a statement of ingratitude and should be condemned as such. Ancient books discuss whether normal mourning rites should follow the burial of a suicide, even whether the death of such a person should be announced in public. And, yet, accompanying those remarks come a cavalcade of individuals and groups who chose to take their own lives and whom Jewish tradition lauds, even valorizes. Samson. King Saul. The last freedom fighters atop Masada. The martyrs of York in 1190. Even the man I personally consider the greatest hero, Janusz Korczak…did he not consciously choose death over life by getting aboard that train to Treblinka with the children in his charge when the alternative could have been safety for himself even if not for them? But all of those people were of sound mind and made a principled choice to die as martyrs al kiddush ha-Shem. The same could not be said for J.W., my friend of thirty-plus years. He died neither as a martyr nor as a hero, but as a man weighed down by sadness so intense that, in the end, it smothered him to the extent that he could no longer breathe. And so, in the manner of people who cannot breathe, he died…not arrogant, not ungrateful, not choosing Treblinka over freedom as a gesture of ultimate contempt for the banality of evil and its inability to prevent good people from acting righteously and kindly. He died, I think, simply because he could breathe no more. And what happened to him is what happens to all people who cannot breathe.
A number of my colleagues spoke beautifully and movingly at his funeral, but if it had fallen to me to speak over his casket to the people assembled I would have said that here lies a man who struggled against demons named and unnamed for half a century but who, in the end, did good in the world and leaves behind a legacy of righteous deeds. He also leaves behind a list of missteps and errors of judgment that led him ultimately to where he ended up. Coffee has to be either hot or cold. So does tea. But the legacy of a man does not have to be good or bad. It can accommodate all sorts of details that feel like they shouldn’t all be part of the same story, yet are. The J. I personally knew was like that. He was in many ways his own worst enemy, but above all he was kind and generous…and good to the core of his soul. I will miss my friend for the rest of my life.