A friend, a high school teacher, recently told me about a bad week in his school. A sophomore girl committed suicide. Whatever reasons she may have had seemed inadequate to her friends and family who were left behind to pick up the pieces. The teachers were depressed, the kids were frazzled and confused.
I remembered a kid named Mark, the first person I knew to attempt suicide. At the age fourteen, despondent over the breakup from his first girlfriend, he started a car in a closed garage and sat behind the wheel, waiting for the end. Fortunately, someone came along, opened the door, shut off the car, and got help. For a few months, he disappeared from school. I never found out what he had been thinking or feeling. To me what he did remained a curiosity.
A few years later, midway through my first year as a neurosurgery resident I got a stat call to the emergency room to take care of the victim of a motorcycle accident. By this time, I was already inured to trauma. Tragedies happened every week, and the victims were often complicit in their demise. The car accident victims had often been drinking; the motorcycle riders rarely wore helmets. And most fatalities were well over the speed limit as they approached their final crash.
So I wasn’t surprised to find a twenty-one-year-old man with a gut full of cheap wine and a head split open by a telephone pole. As I worked alongside the rest of the ER crew trying to save his life, more details of the accident flowed in. He had hit the pole at the bottom of the hill at a T-intersection in West Haven. Every intern and resident knew the intersection because it was on the route to the VA hospital where all of us took some of our rotations.
I tried to imagine how the motorcycle could get up to a high speed and miss everything soft to hit that pole, and started wondering if this was truly an accident. Then one of the nurses looked at the patient’s name and said the story seemed familiar. She pulled the records and found that his brother had hit the same pole with his motorcycle on the same day two years earlier.
Little doubt remained. This was no accident.
I have a brother who is a year older than me. We both rode motorcycles. Since I knew the corner and the pole, had a brother, and rode a motorcycle, I couldn’t help but envision the accident, and try to understand why he had made the decision he did. I couldn’t. So I worked hard with the rest of the team to save his life so he could have a second chance like my friend Mark. But he died within twenty-four hours, and I was left to wonder.
I didn’t understand. Because up until then, I had never experienced true despair.
Then, a few years later, in the months and years following my wife and oldest son’s cancer diagnoses, I faced the certainty of mortality for the first time–not as an idea, but as a gut-true reality. Every one I loved would die, maybe soon, maybe years later, but their death and my death was certain. Any accomplishments and experiences of ours were temporary and nebulous. Existence seemed meaningless. I began to wonder not why people committed suicide, but why people didn’t. When I came up against the reality of death and the inevitability of chaos, I found it impossible to turn away. Only ties of love to my family and my duties to my patients kept me from complete despair.
Then, one Good Friday, I sat in my back yard and smoked a cigarette (a little suicide, I called it) and observed that this was the day that even the church recognized death as inevitable. Because the only thing certain in life are death and taxes. Then I asked myself what other things were certain, in other words, what composed reality.
I came up with time and space and matter. The first two were infinite, the last is not currently comprehensible, our theories of physics taking us into smaller and smaller particles or waves all behaving under the odd rules of quantum theory, and the more recent the untestable hypothesis of string theory. And all three, time–space–matter, are interchangeable by Einstein’s equation. I was overwhelmed by the vastness and complexity of the universe and my tiny part in it.
Then the thought came to me (I like to think of this as a vision from God) that all of this incomprehensible but orderly universe was a manifestation of the mind of God. And though my part is small, I am a thought in the mind of God. I am created, I am part of the magnificent whole, I am not forgotten.
After Jesus got baptized and spent forty days being tempted in the wilderness, he moved to Capernaum and started preaching His primary message, the one subsequently referred to as “The Good News.” Crowds gathered to hear this message which is summarized as: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matt. 4:17, NIV)
When I read this I thought repent meant to stop sinning, so the passage seemed to say stop sinning or you’ll be punished, a message that is obvious and what religious people and parents have preached to the rest of us since before the beginning of history. I couldn’t understand why this was either “good” or “news.”
But repent means something much simpler that makes the passage much more complicated (and surprising). It means turn away.
But turning away from the reality of chaos, pain and death is difficult. That reality is so overwhelming that it seems there is no other choice but to accept the inevitability of darkness.
But there is a separate reality, just as real, that involves order, healing and life. This is the kingdom of heaven.
The Good News is that you can turn away from chaos, pain and death–the kingdom of darkness–and choose to believe in the kingdom of heaven–the kingdom of light and life. It’s right here, right before your eyes, an arm’s length away. Just turn around. You can choose life.