Tag Archives: suicide

Revisiting “The Burden of the Sentinels”

Carol A. Hand

Reflecting about some of the places I have been where people were harmed reminded me of another one of my first posts. It seems fitting to share it again when I feel the need to remember how important it is for us all to listen to the voices of sentinels among us.

*

***

Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards.

Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefited from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.

It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home again to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause.

The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.

We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.

************

By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.

***

***

 

Ballad of Suicide

Cheryl A. Bates

I saved a self-destructive friend, escaped from a predatory friend and regretfully,

had to leave a truly kindred “friend” behind.

Bruised, battered, and in need of repair, I escaped from the burdens my kindred friend continuously bared.

Selfishly, I isolate my wounds from those I think don’t care.

While she gives her spirit so generous and loving; masking a secret so deep with despair.

With nothing left for anyone or myself, somehow she always showed me she cared.

I promised her I would return. Just hang on my dear, that day draws near.

She taught me to love and laugh at the simple treasures we shared.

A memory, an escapade, a trip to into the lake.

Dripping and squishing we’d dance on the bank.

A loud crack of the ice, a wide eyed stare, she’d giggle at my inexperienced scare.

Grab the net, a fish to snare; rip goes my pants, she’d fall into fits of hysteria.

Her laughter and care taught me to not take myself so serious.

Polar Bear Plunge, Oshkosh, WI 2012

(Photo credit: Author/ Polar Bear Plunge, Oshkosh, WI 2011)

My car, packed and ready for the trip, slightly earlier than our long ago plan.

One last phone call, I finished grading early, we can share more time and make more fond memories.

She hesitated and said “No, I have it all arranged, you should come as we’d planned.”

So, I agreed, and waited.

 The day before I was to leave,

a ring of a telephone shattered my heart and buckled my knees.

“She gone” I remember the speaker said to me, “She’s really gone.”

The words were like a foggy dream, never did I realize, she’d hidden from me,

a plan of her own.

My heart bleeding; my mind searching for meaning, I drove two days without seeing.

Country western played on the radio, a moment of clarity, that’s one of her favorites.

A moment of relief quickly replaced with disbelief, she’s gone, she’s really gone?

Relief didn’t come until I saw her, body cold and lifeless,

yet, so peaceful.

Gone to what is beyond; her love, her laughter, her mischief, her joyous heart.

Seven-eleven, death is freedom, obtained with one sure fired bullet.

Her despair ended, her spirit freed

to know what peace there can be for a tortured soul.

Horse Creek, Cherokee National Forest, TN

(Photo Credit: Author/ Horse Creek, Cherokee National Forest)

Though I am still broken and my heart still aches,

the darkness around me, slowly lifts toward the dawn.

When I am unsure, her gentle nudges remind me of my strength.

Her presence is around me, whispering to me through the wind in the trees.

I hear her laughter in the bubbling creek, and  I feel happy.

I feel her smiles, imagine her deep blue eyes – I don’t feel so alone.

She knows now what we all seek to know, that which is eternal and free.

So, just hang on, my dear,

I promise I will join you again someday.

Copyright Notice: © Cheryl A. Bates and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cheryl A. Bates and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In Remberance of a Dear Friend

Cardinal

Photo Credit: Clip Art

Cheryl A. Bates

The beauty of your spirit will always be in my heart.

Like the joy a rose brings to a sullen mind,

your love and friendship brought out the joy in mine.

No longer are you bound by earthly toils.

Thus, I pray you soar now upon lofty wings

resolving your quest towards the freedom you so desired.

Sing to me of your happiness through the cardinal’s song

and I will sing you mine as you left me behind.

Although I know nothing about writing poetry, I wrote this poem about a dear friend I lost to suicide.

A few years ago I was very excited to accept my first social work faculty appointment at a mid-west university where they claimed to embrace and welcome diversity. It didn’t take long for me to realize that what the university and department said about diversity and how they behaved were two very different things. Although the university had just opened up an LGBT resource center and had active faculty and student support groups, the sexual minority community on campus suffered from competing loyalties, conflicts, and cliquishness, which I did not find particularly welcoming or supportive. My department, like the university and community still held strong anti-gay prejudices. Although I was assured during the interview that my openness about being gay was an important contribution to the diversity of the department, my colleagues were not particularly welcoming and remained distant.

They never reached out to include me in events, never stopped by to visit me in my office, and were always too busy to talk when I asked for assistance. Some were rather blatant. One Saturday I dropped by my office to do some tasks and ran into another colleague who had her daughter there with her. It was apparent that the child was familiar with the office setting and curiously said, “Who is the new professor?” This prompted me to introduce myself and engage in age-appropriate conversation with the child. However, when my colleague discovered who her child was talking to she immediately cut off the interaction and gently but forcefully moved the child towards the door and out of the office despite the child’s reluctance to abruptly end her conversation.

Unable to connect within the university setting, I looked to the local community for support and socialization. Through word of mouth, I found a “gay-friendly” bar where I could meet and socialize with other gay people. It wasn’t a particularly friendly place but I thought as time went on I might connect and begin to build a social life.

It was there that I met my friend. When she walked through the door and saw a new face, she came over and sat down, introduced herself, and began to share stories about herself, her husband, her family, growing up in the area, hunting, fishing, and on and on. Over the next four years, she shared her world with me in such a generous, genuine, and loving way.

As I endured increasingly isolating and hostile conditions at my job, my friend and her family provided a sanctuary for me. They made me feel welcomed and through their kindness and acceptance I experienced the best of the mid-west and learned how to have fun even during the long cold winters. Together we generated a lifetime of joyful memories — from funny camping escapades, fishing, four-wheeling, and even a polar bear plunge!

For her, I was a non-judgmental and supportive friend. Often she would drop in for coffee and seek refuge from the ever increasing challenges of attending to the demands of her family, a drinking husband, and delinquent son. She had been laid off from work she loved due to the company downsizing during a failing economy. Instead of doing a job she performed with pride and a sense of accomplishment, her days were now filled with countless errands, providing transportation for someone, providing care for someone, and always finishing up with dinner on the table.

She was unique in that she pushed against the boundaries of gender and sexuality. She was close to her father and learned to love the outdoors and hunting from him. For her, a visit from a cardinal was her father checking on her and sending his love. She played softball and was in three different leagues at the same time for most of her adult life. She struggled for both personal and public acceptance of her sexual identity. After a deeply romantic relationship with a woman she desperately longed for a connection within the gay community but was shunned because financially she was unable to break free from an unfulfilled, abusive marriage.

She loved country music and the words from a Rascall Flatts song expresses her situation more clearly: “I’ve lived in this place and I know all the faces. Each one is different but they’re always the same. They mean me no harm but it’s time that I face it, they’ll never allow me to change.”

Although I continually process my grief over her untimely death, I find consolation knowing that she has finally found freedom and escaped the bonds of her psychic pain. I grieve that the world lost someone who was truly giving to others even though she didn’t have much herself.  And although she only had a high school education and perhaps some learning challenges, she was gifted with people. She understood people and knew how to engage them with kindness, courtesy, and respect. She was creative with the words known to her and would often speak at funerals for friends when their voices were silenced by grief. Her pain was so deep and yet she was viewed by others in the community as refreshing, funny, and engaging. No one was a stranger to her.

I would like to think that in that last moment when she walked from the garage to the basement where she ended her life, that she was making a conscious decision. That thought fills me with pain and anger only because it is a selfish thought centered how the emotions I feel over her death cause me deep hurt and sadness. But when I think about it from her point of view, I am exhilarated knowing that she no longer suffers as she did for such a very long time. She ended her life in the best way she knew how at that moment in time.

Who’s to say that someone who takes his/her own life is a coward, weak, or selfish? I have heard it said that suicide is a selfish act and in some ignorant way I bought into this way of thinking until my friend’s suicide. This July will be the second anniversary of her death and although I still struggle daily with the loss, I am a better person because of having known her.

***

The Burden of the Sentinels

Carol A. Hand

Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards. Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefitted from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.

************

It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause. The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us. We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.

************

By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.

images

Photo credit: flickriver (Dec. 7, 2003)

Another Partial Success — Silent Sentinels of the Avebury

***