It always comes as a punch to the gut to hear about someone taking their own life. That punch sometimes feels harder and deeper when it is a member of the clergy, and I don’t think that shock is just for those in “the business”. When someone with a vocation takes their life because they don’t feel they can cope any longer it unsettles everybody.
Part of that unsettling flows from the myth that if anyone knows how to cope with the darkness of stress it would be a priest. There is the cozy stereotype of the blissed out person who just can’t believe they get to do what they love and get paid for it and after all they only work for an hour one day a week and they’re so helpful and nice and gracious and they are free from the petty squabbles and troubles of “real life”.
Of course, clergy exist in real life and are not immune from all the foibles that seem to define human life. They are not superhuman, super capable or super strong. They have money troubles, relationship troubles, family troubles, they do the work of several people, have long hours, self doubt, conflict in the workplace and sometimes a nagging feeling they might be happier if they had pursued another career.
Clergy stress is not greater or more special than anyone else’s. But it is not always recognised as a reality. As it is for others, this stress gets kept under wraps and those who suffer it refrain from telling spouses, bosses, friends or parishioners. “I’m the one everyone is relying on to keep it all together” says the inner dialogue.
The real fear is that if you are unable to cope then others will doubt you. Doubt leads to lack of confidence. Lack of confidence leads to replacement.
Remember Gazza’s tears in the 1990 World Cup? Paul Gascoigne received a booking in the semi final between England and Germany which meant if England won, he would not be able to play in the final. His reaction? He cried. It has now become a national “Awwww” moment as he was overwhelmed with a feeling for having failed himself and his team mates.
However, the other iconic image is the England captain, Gary Lineker, signalling to the sidelines to get a sub ready because he didn’t think Gazza could carry on.
We are all afraid of that pragmatic message being sent to the sidelines about us.
Why? Because while we want to be supportive of those who suffer mental illness, there is a still a powerful cultural myth that mental illness is really just a bad choice when faced by hard times or it means you are dangerously wired up. Social media has been a powerful way to keep this myth alive as you can see in these two photos:
Our culture fears perceived weakness and failure. Our current government makes policy on the basis that someone in need is more likely to be a scrounger than a worthy recipient of our care. The Wayne Dyer quote on the left encourages us to believe that we live in a vacuum untouched by the choices of others, of systems and situations of limited choices. Katie Hopkins….well don’t get me started.
In the face of this, scripture tells us a different story. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God is most powerful when we are weak and devoid of our superhero complex. He writes in other places that it is assumed that we will crumble and stumble which is why it is better to be brothers and sisters together rather than to be alone and isolated.
As Christians we need to remember to put aside our labels (lay and ordained) and our acceptance of the false myth about our power to change the world and ourselves by just trying really hard. We need to stamp out our own tendency to judge others who struggle.
Instead, we are called to journey together and bear each other’s burdens.
And maybe it looks like this. On that eventful World Cup evening, the game went to penalties. Gazza was still distraught but look at the response of the England manager Bobby Robson. He could have berated Gazza for his error. He could have kept him from taking a penalty because his mind wasn’t in the game. Instead he put his arm around Gazza and offered himself. The language may not be recommended therapeutic words, but the attitude is spot on.
In my darkest times, it has not been the wise words of others that saw me through. It was the love, inclusion and the care they had for me even when I felt unloveable, incapable and bewildered.
We are here for each other. You are not alone.