On the suicide of celebrities

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

That kind of fame and fortune is no protection. It may be more of a burden. The private world of public people is always abused by fame, more now than any time in my memory. Their lives do not seem to be their own and we are obsessed with them. 

Our own lives might deserve more attention, certainly our inner lives, but we hunger for the details of the rich and famous and expressly known.

I started a group called Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) and another called No Shanda (shame in Yiddish). Shalvah is given to issues occasioned by drug and alcohol abuse, and No Shanda around mental health. We are familiar with suicide and whenever the subject comes up it tends to take over the meetings. 

Each meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

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I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at our table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing, one eye crying as we often say.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise. 

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily. We call it a daily reprieve. 

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I may not know what is in a person’s heart but I do believe suicides die alone. At the moment before it becomes irreversible, he or she didn’t call someone. Their beloveds will suffer from that for a long time. 

We don’t have an antidote. We have a program. We have each other. I know lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We have guidelines. We have teachings. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a spiritual response to the challenges of living. It’s a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We have today, and for many of us that becomes enough. 

We end each meeting by remembering those who are no longer with us. I make a kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense: every person’s death diminishes all of us. My heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman is founder of Shalvah (http://bit.ly/shalvah-stl), a group focused on alcohol and drug addiction, and No Shanda (http://bit.ly/JAMI-STL), focused on mental health.