Monday, March 3, 2014

Youth Suicide and the Pressure to Be "Perfect"

“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…”    
--“Anthem”, by Leonard Cohen

His name was Roee Grutman, and he was a 17 year old junior in high school from Newton, Massachusetts.  On February 6th of this year, he took his own life and thus became the third Newton high school student to commit suicide since last October. I cannot imagine a worse nightmare for parents or a family or peers or a community than a young person getting to a point in life where they feel so down, so despondent, so trapped, and so bleak that the only way they see out is death.  

Always there is the lingering question of “why?” Much of the time this has no clear or immediate answer.  Suicide happens for a host of reasons: mental illness, life circumstances, substance abuse, trauma. Suicide among the young is also a “hidden in plain sight” public health epidemic across the United States. It is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 24. Every day in the U.S. 5,400 middle and high school young people attempt suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.” There are no simple nor obvious answers to the question of what moves a young person to take their own life. 

But in reading a recent Boston Globe article about Roee and his life and death, it was these sentences which most caught my heart, and then broke my heart.  “[Roee’s] family, who moved here 14 years ago from Israel, believes the stress of an overwhelming course load and an American obsession with elite universities contributed to his death, though they recognize there could have been additional — still unknown — factors.  In the aftermath of the suicides, other parents in town have also begun to question the culture of a high-achieving school community that routinely sends numerous graduates to elite colleges.”   Said his Mom, Galit Grutman, “I really didn’t know that it was not OK to take five AP and honors classes. I blame myself for that.”

Is this overwhelming cultural pressure to succeed, to be “perfect”, a contributing factor to youth suicide, as Roee’s family so poignantly and hauntingly wonders? I really don’t know. But I do know if I had one message I could directly say to the young people I work with as pastor and teacher, the young people I love so fiercely as Uncle and Godfather and friend, it would be that you do not have to be perfect in this life. Ever. 

That your worth as a young person is already there, within you, regardless of any external measurements of so called “success”.  That you are already “perfect” in fact, in your imperfection, your God made human goodness from the moment you came into this world. You are good, great, amazing just as you are, first string, second string, or bench warmer.  You are good, great, amazing, whether you get into Harvard or Holyoke Community College or the military. You are good, great, amazing not because of SAT scores or your number of Facebook friends or your outward appearance, but because God shaped you into a child of God.  Nothing else really matters than this one undeniable truth and fact.    

Roee’s death and the deaths of his two other Newton classmates-- Karen Douglas, 18, and Katie Stack, 15—have made me examine much more critically all the ways in which our over achieving world can so insidiously, temptingly try to convince people of all ages, that we really only matter if we are forever striving for perfection, to get ahead, to be “the best”. Perfect weight. Perfect looks. Perfect grades.  Perfect careers.  A perfect life. 

Turn on the TV, or read a magazine with its glossy ads or watch a movie with its oh so gorgeous actors and actresses and pay attention to the impossible standards of success we far too often worship as a people.  But the truth? All of us are “cracked”, filled with imperfections, traits and temperaments and personalities and quirks that make us who we are.  Already good. Already whole. Already worthy of love, no matter what the world might say or depict as “perfect”.

So this day I hope we can all say a prayer for the youth in our lives and then go beyond prayer and let them know every single day, just how amazing they already are and how much we love them, perfection be damned. 

We’re all imperfect. And that’s ok.





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