Posts Tagged ‘Suicide’


I know David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech is old news (5 plus years old news), but I’ve only recently read it. It’s a beautiful speech. DFW’s honesty–he presses himself right up against his words. You can almost hear his heart beat through them, urgent and (still) bright.

I’ll leave you to his speech, if you should choose to read it (please do!), but I want to reference one paragraph there at the end.

He wrote:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you …Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The notion of inevitable worship is intrinsic.

David Foster Wallace:

On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.

I learned it in Sunday School. Humans are meant (made) to worship. Of course, these Sunday sermons were a little more black and white. You can either worship God or, er, the other guy; and that other guy comes in many forms, so don’t be fooled.


There is no such thing as not worshiping.

This is where I want to take off.

The danger is thinking that truth stops.

Let’s consider the word:


If you want to embrace this idea that everyone worships something (be it idea, ideal, person, place, or thing) you have to expand your definition of the word.

Obviously, people don’t build alters, sing hymns, bow, or kneel to their bank accounts. (At least, I don’t think they do)

What if this verb, “To Worship” expresses an action that exists on a scale? And because I like to imagine my scales as circular, let’s do so together:


I was never very good at Paintbrush.

Yes, I’m suggesting that maybe respect is a form of worship, as is admiration, desire, appreciation, and love.

And suddenly, a rigid and potentially dark truth open up. It flowers into something close to joy. These little acts of worship (admiration, prioritizing, love) can save you, too.

Worship. I like the word. It’s soft and feels holy. It is an act that bestows worthiness. (Worthiness. I like that word, too.) Worship can bestow worthiness in tiny ways, big ways, in inconsequential ways, in ways that can lead to disaster or salvation.

I arrive at the place I started. If I have to worship, if everyone is worshiping, if there is truly no such thing as not worshiping, how joyfully insignificant and small our acts of worship (and bestowing worthiness) can be.

A negative example: A woman denies herself food. This is her small (and most likely unconscious) act of worship of beauty (or control or power or invisibility).

A positive example: My son, Henry, stomps in a puddle. He splashes his feet, spins in a circle, lifts his face up to the sky and laughs. He examines the expanding rings the rain drops make. He touches his small finger to the water’s surface. Is this a small act of worship of God? Of rain? Of the earth? Of play? Of another kind of beauty, altogether? And is my patience with him (we stood out in that wetness for an hour) a small act of worship, too? Was this holy? Who and what was worthy?

These moments save me. Henry was worthy of my time (and soggy shoes). The puddle was worthy of Henry’s joy. My life is filled with worthiness, and may we always worship, may we truly never stop worshiping.


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Nicholas Hughes is the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.  This past Sunday, March 22, 2009, Nicholas Hughes hung himself.

I’m not sure how to land with precision on what I want to say, so as with most things, I will circle that unsaid thing in widening and shrinking rings (like a falcon, like a storm, like an unfinished song).

Most people–whether or not they read poetry–have heard of Sylvia Plath.  They’ve heard about her infamous oven.  Maybe they’ve even heard about her brutal, exquisite poems.

I read The Bell Jar when I was thirteen years old.  I was a freshmen in high school and very unhappy.  I recall the poignant and secret excitement of discovering a voice (her voice) in which I could relate and settle.  The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a young, intelligent women who externally appears to excel.  She is in college.  She interns at a women’s magazine in New York City, and yet she remains imprisoned by her own sorrow and discontent.  When she attempts suicide, she finds herself institutionalized.

One year after reading The Bell Jar, I too, experienced a severe indifference to life and living that landed me in Acadia Mental Hospital. (Ironically, 11 years ago to the day, I walked those vacuous halls)  Although my stay would last months, I carried very little with me. Among these few items:  The King James Bible, my journal, and the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

Plath left her stay at the mental hospital to study poetry at Cambridge, where she met and married poet, Ted Hughes.  The couple had two children, Nicholas and his sister Freida.  In 1962, when Ted had an affair, he and Sylvia separated.  Sylvia took the children, and in that cold winter proceeding, after putting Nicholas and Freida to bed, she turned on her gas stove and fell asleep inside it.

After my stay in the hospital, I returned to high school where I learned about women writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf–women who are so often linked together and viewed as victims of a male chauvinistic society.

The tragedy of Plath’s death resounded across our collective consciousness as a result of a woman writer struggling inside a male dominated culture forcing her to conform as mother and wife. I was taught by  numerous teachers and texts to view Plath as a victim and because of my enduring identification with Plath, I began to view myself as a victim, as well.

In college, I discovered other heroes and mentors–strong, uncompromising women who found the label of “victim” to be offensive and demeaning.  To victimize yourself is to give up your power.  (This is not to write that Sylvia Plath sought the title of victim, but rather that this is the title the world forced onto her, posthumously)  My infatuations with Plath receded into the background of my personal history.

Recently, while eating lunch at work, a coworker sat down beside me.  She withdrew The Bell Jar from her purse and set it down beside her. I ogled the book as I would ogle a ghost.

“I’d better stay away from that,” I said, laughing even as my hand moved over my pregnant belly.

“Stay away from what?” She asked.

“That book,” I said, still laughing, but not really.  “Not the best thing to read in my condition.”

She looked at me quizzically. (She was not yet through the first chapter) She looked at my belly and I said nothing more.

So, she she’s been on my mind:  Sylvia Plath.  Her faded face has resubmerged into my present–and there she is–Ariel, Lady Lazarus, defiant, beautiful, immediate and raw.  “Dying/Is an art,” she claimed, but what she failed to realize is that you can’t hold death without also holding life and vice versa; and so the dual sided coin flips over and over itself, again and again.

Nicholas Hughes was her son.  He was not a poet.  He was a fisheries biologist.  He wandered over the wild nature of Alaska on field studies. The New York Times quotes one graduate student from the University of Fairbanks as saying that Mr. Hughes would often “seek out a larch tree in a forest of spruce,” and marvel with childish wonder.  As someone who has spent some time in the Alaska arctic, I can understand this impulse, this desire to find the more lush and gracious larch amidst the sickly and barren spruce typical of the arctic tundra.

When his sister, Frieda announced his tragic death, she is reported to have elaborated on Nicholas’s long struggle with depression.  He was forty seven years old.

The tragedy of Nicholas Hughe’s suicide is completely distinct from–is a completely separate even from that of his mother’s suicide 45 years prior; and yet, the memory of her suicide is, without doubt, aroused.

Suddenly, to blame anyone, anything for his death, for her death feels very naive, futile and stupid.

We create our lives daily.  We perceive how we choose to perceive–and see what we are able.  We base our decisions and actions on what we perceive and then walk away with our conclusions and impressions.  We weave these elaborate tapestries that become our selves and our lives.  There are hundreds of thousands of billions of threads that make up these tapestries, and to indicate one fact as culpable of pushing someone to choose to end their lives is nothing more than simple minded.

Contemporary psychologists would say that depression lies in the brain in the form of a chemical imbalance.  Psychoanalysts would say its roots lie in the unconscious.  I imagine that the brain/body/chemical influences the mind/ego/consciousness just as much as the mind influences the brain.  It’s that coin again–two things that appear separate, that really cannot be separated–two things that seem like two things when really they are one.

People get sad.  They can look for larch amidst spruce, and maybe they don’t find enough of them.  They make decisions that others may not understand or find reprehensible.  Today, as I grieve Mr. Hughes’s suicide, I forget myself as a woman and remember myself as a human being–and from this day on, when I think of Sylvia Plath’s fate, I will do the same.

Surly, Plath struggled as a woman caught in a male dominated world and art form, but the largeness of the sorrow that led her to that oven was not solely that of her womanhood–it was rooted in her humanness.  She was a human–and as humans, even with all our differences, we are all in this together.

My thoughts go to Frieda Hughes at this time.

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