There is an audio-cassette I remember listening to over and over.
By the time I’d outgrown it or lost it I knew much of it by heart. My brother as well.
It was Robin Williams Live at the Met.
My brother and I must have watched every single episode of Live at the Improv (a stand up comedy showcase). In the end, I went into improv semi-professionally and my brother Toby went into stand-up comedy.
Mork and Mindy was one of my favourite shows growing up. And Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King and Dead Poets are three of my favourite movies of all time.
In short, I was a big fan of Robin Williams. And somehow, yesterday, it seems that after decades of struggling with depression and addiction, he took his life.
And heartbreaking how common suicide is becoming.
And of course, there are ways we could easily connect the increase of suicide very directly with marketing.
Much marketing is predicated on creating a feeling of inadequacy (often obliquely, elegantly and subtly) and then selling the thing that (they tell you) will fill that hole (which didn’t exist until they created it). We receive thousands of marketing messages every day. Many of them designed to create this feeling that we’re missing something. And so it is not surprising that many of us grow up feeling inadequate and unworthy. Much of marketing ties into the story of scarcity we tell ourselves while simultaneously crafting the story that we should have no limits at all and that limits are a bad thing. Marketing is all too often the charming ambassador of the worst aspects of capitalism and the modern world.
At a deeper level, it’s not just the ads and TV commercials. It’s the TV shows themselves that market a certain lifestyle. When television is introduced into traditional communities, they often quickly fall apart. Not usually because the ads make them want to buy but because the shows themselves often portray a lifestyle different than theirs and gives them the implied message that what they see on Friends is normal. They think to themselves, ‘my apartment doesn’t look that nice…’, ‘ my wife isn’t that attractive…’, ‘ my husband is so muscular and successful…’
I could further make the connection that marketing is connected to suicide in pointing out that if all of the 10,000 or so people on this email list (healers, life coaches and permaculture practitioners alike) were to have robust, sustainable businesses that there would be a more beautiful world and less suicide. And if we extended that to everyone in the world who is up to good things being successful (the missing component of which is often marketing) that we would see healthier and happier communities and less people choosing to take their own lives.
But, of course, while there is truth in that, it’s a cheap and oversimplified approach that doesn’t honour the depth of what challenges lie before us.
So, this is not a post about marketing.
Marketing all too often is in collusion with all of the forces that can make us feel terrible about ourselves (often, tragically, by giving us the message that we shouldn’t ever feel terrible).
I was first touched by suicide with the loss of one of my dearest friends, Tooker Gomberg who took his life just over 10 years ago and whose birthday was yesterday. Like Robin Williams, he was one of the most powerful forces of creativity I’ve ever met. And in the past few years, so many dear ones have gone the same way – Kylen Groeneveld, Logan Symington, Alex Thomas Haug, Desiree, Louise. They all made this world so much brighter and they are all gone now. As Robin Williams put it, ‘You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” But so many do. And when they do, we all do.
And then, on March 11th on this year, I was witness to a dear man, Mark Carlson, who, after four minutes of conversation on the High Level Bridge, let go and fell as I watched helplessly. Caitlin Klingbeil wrote a very thoughtful article about the experience and the epidemic of suicide here.
Many of us have been touched by friends and family making attempts at their lives.
And we are all left with a wondering of what we can do to make things different in the future. Certainly, there is much we can do to be more gracious and kind to each other. And there is much we need to do move beyond a focus of self care into community care. There are things we can learn about how to be with someone who has just attempted. And we can learn what the warning signs are and the basics of what to say and do if we suspect a friend might be considering taking their life or hurting themselves.
This past year has been the most intense and trying year or my life where much was almost lost as a result of decisions I made. It’s been a year of growing up for me that has left me deeply depleted, suffering occasional anxiety attacks and with a body more full of stress than I had thought. I feel, most often in the evenings when I am tired, the deep effects of the trauma of this past year sitting deep in my bones and feel daunted by the amount of work I know it will take to bring meaningful healing to it. I am exhausted. This year took me to a point where I felt I would truly break and where, for the first time, suicide or hurting myself became, briefly, a possibility. And going there terrified me but also filled me with a deep sense of, ‘I get it now.’ Sometimes the emotional or physical pain is just too much.
So, of course, this is a much larger conversation that just ‘marketing’. There are so many larger things that need to be changed to make any meaningful difference in the rates of suicide. And I’m not just talking about suicide prevention programs, netting and barriers on bridges, addiction treatment programs or peer support programs in schools. Those are all vital but what is fundamentally needed, and is becoming increasingly clear to many, is the tearing down of a culture and economy that makes suicide the likely, if not inevitable, for so many and the rebuilding of a society that feeds the deepest recesses of the human soul and honours our need to die to our old, smaller selves and be born again as adults who can contribute meaningfully to the community. And we need guidance in understanding how our deepest wounds might actually be the most certain doorway into understanding our truest role in the community.
We live in a culture where the soil of the Earth is depleted and so is the soil of our culture. The monoculture of our crops, languages and actual cultures is leaving us more poor. Instead of real sources of strength and nurturance, we are left with toxic mimics: refined sugar, refined salt and processed food instead of real food, pornography instead of a meaningful expression of the erotic impulse, working for the man instead of meaningful work and right livelihood, box stores instead of locally owned businesses. With only the most cursory of examinations, we discover that our lives are full of these toxic mimics. And we see that a culture devoid of myths and genuine heroes will, inevitably, create Hollywood and celebrities.
It is easy to have compassion for the poor, but the rich are just as trapped as anyone by this. Any form of activism that doesn’t also work to redeem the oppressor is ultimately, in my mind, doomed to fail and simply replace them with a dictator of slightly different political stripes – less and opposite and more an opposame. Caroline Casey speaks of this more beautifully than anyone I know.
We so desperately need to move away from empire and back towards the village. We need elders giving medicine, not olders on drugs. We need rituals and markers of initiation from childhood into adulthood. We need places that can hold and encourage the deep levels of grieving that are called for in these times. In short, we need a much different, deeper and more resilient cosmology than the one we currently have. One that tells more accurate and life affirming stories about society and life and one that encourages a deeper collaboration. What is clear is that the distractions and entertainments of our modern day media circus are not making us happy and that something deeper and more sacred would.
“The truth is there are losses you never get over. They break you to pieces and you can never go back to the original shape you once were, and so you will grieve your own death with that of your beloved lost. Your grief is your love, turned inside-out. That is why it is so deep. That is why it is so consuming. When your sadness seems bottomless, it is because your love knows no bounds. Grief teaches us about who we are, and any attempt to crush it, to bury it with the body is an act of vengeance against your own nature. If everyone felt, honoured, respected and trusted their true feelings, this world would be a different place. Instead of reacting, we would respond. Instead of judging, we would see ourselves in everyone. Instead of consuming, we would notice that we cannot fill the gaping wounds inside of us with trinkets.” – Alison Nappi
We need to acknowledge the role that marketing often plays in the propping up of a dying culture and the crippling of our self esteem and yet also become the most eloquent, persuasive and effective storytellers of a different way of living. We need to become as inspiring as Mr. Keating was to his students to urge everyone to give their gifts now. Instead of a marketing based on creating shame, we need a marketing that feeds people the messages that let them know they aren’t alone. We need a marketing based on empathy not exploitation of people’s hot buttons and pain points.
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In Edmonton, I have been working to foster as much conscious community as I can by hosting potlucks and with the creation of The Local Good, Indigo Drinks, The Good Hundred Experiment and, in January, The Social Yogi. There is a deep need for spaces where good people can come together. Bill McKibben, in his book Deep Community, points to the studies done that show that ten times more conversations happen at a Farmer’s Market than at a Safeway. Conversations, community and connections are not luxuries, they’re what keep us human. As Alistair MacLeod said, ‘We’re all better when we’re loved.’
I find myself diving deeper into understanding what it means to move back towards the village idea and diving into the work of Stephen Jenkinson and attending The Art of Mentoring in a few weeks in Ontario. I find myself drawn to reading mythology and old stories for food for my own soul and in hopes that I might find food and medicine worthy of sharing with others (and the ways to share it).
“When the end seems near, ancient and lasting things are also close and waiting to be discovered… What we find at the end are both last things and things that last.” – Michael Meade, Why The World Doesn’t End
Robin Williams death, and every other death, reminds us that life is so incredibly short and yet so many of us die with regrets. Many of us live our lives vacilating between the collapsing of self pity or the over-confident posturing of self importance and so seldom find any real comfort in our own skin. And, for some, that discomfort of being alive becomes far too much and they feel a sort of pain that many of us will never know and the most we will be able to do is believe them when they say it hurts and respect it. Life will break all of us even if we choose not to take our lives. Not everything is going to be okay. But maybe being heartbroken is the only real way to live. Maybe being heartbroken is a blessing. Maybe the only mistake we make is to try to fill the crack in our hearts rather than letting medicine sorely needed for others to flow out of it.
Maybe what is most needed is to come to trust ourselves again. I think this society fosters so much secret self loathing where we are ashamed of everything that is real about us – our bodies, our gender, our sexual orientation, our feelings, our needs and our desires. And I think there are other ways we can look at life that are more real and life affirming.
And perhaps, by speaking of our own struggles, we can make it more normal to do so and thus help people feel less alone.
Perhaps what is most needed is some deep compassion for ourselves and how flawed even our best efforts inevitably are.
Of all the things that feel true about the world today (and many of our personal lives) is that we, our communities and our planet are being pushed right to the edge and watching, helplessly, as so much comes apart and to an end. In his remarkable book Why the World Doesn’t End: Tales of Renewal for Times of Loss, Michael Meade speaks eloquently to the importance of the these intense times where it feels like everything is falling apart and ending in our lives,
‘The meaning of the word “end” might seem obvious and conclusive; yet root meanings reveal “tailings” and “remnants” and “that which is left over”… [it] carries the sense that the current state cannot continue and that it is too late for things to simply be repaired. In order for things to change in a meaningful way, many things must come to and end. As archetype of radical change, [it] presents a pattern in which a shattering of forms occurs before the world as we know it can be reconstituted. In the cosmic turn around if enough endings can be found, things can begin again… When the end seems near, ancient and lasting things are also close and waiting to be discovered… What we find at the end are both last things and things that last… Chaos not only describes the way that things fall apart at the end, but also the original state from which all creation continually arises… In the end, all we can offer the world is the life we came here to live and the gifts our soul would have us give. When the end seems near, genuine security can only be found in taking the kind of risks that lead to a greater sense of life and a more encompassing way of being in the world… Great crises and impossible demands often provoke hidden resources and reveal hints of the hidden wholeness and unity of life. The threat of collapse and utter loss can provoke a deeper sense of wholeness where nothing but total involvement and whole-heartedness will work… this capacity for great vision and imagination tends to awaken only after other approaches have failed.”
The Shattered Stone of Loss & The Terrible Gift of Suicide
Our community has experienced so many suicides recently.
But it’s not a very good gift. It is terrible in a few ways. The first way it’s terrible is the most obvious – we have lost someone we deeply care about and our hearts are broken wide open. The second way it’s terrible is not as obvious.
When people suffer, it is like a stone in their heart. And, over time, this stone grows and grows. Every kind word, from themselves or others, washes some of it away. And every unkind word, from themselves or others, makes it grow. By the time people take their lives, the stone has become so impossibly heavy that they can’t carry it anymore. This is the stone of their unexpressed grief.
And this is culture that has no real idea of how to deal with the inevitable, unstoppable and overwhelming force of grief.
“You will lose everything. Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories. Your looks will go. Loved ones will die. Your body will fall apart. Everything that seems permanent is impermanent and will be smashed. Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away. But right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realizing this is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. This may sound trivial, obvious, like nothing, but really it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence. Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude. Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.” – Jeff Foster
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What we’re meant to do is to come together again as a community to build something beautiful in the praise of life with these stones of our loss. The heaviest stones are the foundation. They are the corner stones and hold the place of most honour. We are supposed to come together to build something so beautiful that others see it and the love of life is sparked in them again. We are not supposed to carry them around by ourselves for the rest of our lives. No one is strong enough for that.
And what we so profoundly lack as a culture are rituals and understandings of how to do that.
“There will be much celebration, in the coming weeks and months, of Robin Williams’ life and career. But perhaps the best tribute to him would be if we all reached out to the troubled people in our lives and let them know that we are here for them. Because Robin Williams was there for us.” – Paul F. Tompkins