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Josh Radnor On Suicide, Pain, and Purpose

Josh Radnor On Suicide, Pain, and Purpose

The actor and musician shares how he finds meaning after tragedy


by Josh Radnor
Lisa DuBois/ Getty Images
Image by IgorBukhlin/ Getty Images

Last year the wife of a dear family friend died by suicide. Then less than three weeks later a friend of mine hanged himself at his childhood home.

I did my best to skirt the seductions of self-pity, of making these deaths somehow about me. My grief over these losses is nothing compared to the acute pain that surely preceded and motivated the acts. Or to the ache that is felt by the parents, spouses, and children left behind. But the shock — and relative closeness — of the acts seemed to demand that I sit for a time with the energy of hopelessness. Not that that hopelessness was mine, or even that it would possibly infect me. But it felt dropped in my lap for examination, as if to say: This is a very real thing from which you cannot avert your eyes.

David Foster Wallace, who ended his life in 2008, described the dilemma of the suicidal as akin to being in a burning building — either jump or burn to death. Both options are dreadful. “Falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors,” he wrote. “It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.”

Days after my friend’s death, I went away with friends to the mountains near Santa Cruz. Beneath a canopy of redwoods something welled up in me that could only be called hope. I suddenly wanted to live long and die old. I wanted my life to be blessed and be a blessing. I wanted to be filled up with the opposite of whatever energy invaded and overtook the people I knew who ended their lives.

I later discovered a poem by Galway Kinnell called “Wait,” which he wrote for one of his students who was contemplating suicide on the heels of a failed relationship. I was very moved by the poem so I wrote a song inspired by it. I think of the song as a collaboration between me and Galway Kinnell (some of the words are his and some are mine.) I recorded it and posted it on YouTube in June — a few days after two high-profile suicides — in the hope that the song might offer comfort to someone in a dark place.


In the early pages of “The Power of Meaning” by Emily Esfahani Smith, she writes about a 2014 study where people in wealthier, developed nations reported higher levels of happiness but lower levels of meaning, whereas people in poorer, less developed countries reported lower levels of happiness but higher levels of meaning. But get this: Suicide rates in wealthier countries are way higher than in poorer countries. According to Smith:

“When [the researchers] crunched the numbers, they discovered a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning — or, more precisely, the lack of it.”

So essentially all the things our culture tells us will make us happy — stuff, status, money, ease, etc. — do little to inoculate us against despair. In fact it seems they can bring on a deeper pain if we’ve not discovered some larger sense of purpose or meaning in our lives.

It’s hard to be alive, it really is. And it’s not all sweat-of-the-brow stuff. Life is emotionally tough. Mentally, psychologically, spiritually tough. It would be unbearable if there weren’t so much else to recommend it. Yes, there is calamity, disease, tragedy, missteps, and regret. But there is also laughter, kindness, goodness, and grace. I find I get into trouble when I demand that life be one thing. I’ve had to surrender to the fact of mess, mishap, and pain, to accept that they are all part of the deal. Struggle is baked into whatever it is we’re doing here.

I need daily reminders of this because the part of my brain that fears and rejects struggle — that somehow believes a frictionless, challenge-free life is the right kind of life — is actively at work in my waking hours.

The question, as I see it, is how to take all that inevitable struggle and transmute it. How are we to bust through a tendency to see this inevitable struggle as meaningless? How to let struggle refine us, grow us, teach us, and awaken us? How are we to make our struggles matter?

There is a point and purpose to life. I believe that deeply. We often can’t see or sense it in our darker moments — it’s hard to comprehend a story when you’re in the middle of the story. That said, I can’t shake a belief that whatever is beating underneath the whole human experience, whatever primordial force called all of this into being, is good. As Richard Rohr has written: “The people who know God well — mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God — always meet a lover, not a dictator.”

When I hook myself into that grand enormous eternal infinite indestructible unnamable whatever-it-is, my ‘problems’ get right-sized, my self-obsession lessens, my longing to be of service grows and deepens. I am roused from the dream state of status, gossip, guilt, anxiety, fear, fantasy, and worldly success. I connect with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. I am here.

I am here.

And it is good.


WAIT

Wait

Wait, for now.

Distrust everything

But trust

Trust the hours

They have carried you to now

Things will be interesting again

Hair and pain and sand and soot and words will be your friend

Out of season buds

Second hand gloves

You’ll find other hands again

Wait.

Don’t go too early

You’re tired. But everyone’s tired

Wait

Wait awhile

And do your best to hear

Music of hair

Music of pain,

All the looms weaving all our loves again

Be there to hear

Be there to hear it

Wait

Wait for now

Let time do its work

And trust

Trust the hours.

They have carried you to now

Things will be lovely again

Leaves and walks and hurt and tears and breath will be your friend

There’s a song playing through you

Nature’s playing

Let it play

Wait

Wait

Make no sudden moves

Trust

In the morning

The light will pour on through

(Thrive Global)

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