When Life Gives You Lemons . . .
posted at 2:07 pm on October 2, 2010 by The Other McCain
. . . jump off the George Washington Bridge.
At least that’s the message young people are getting from media coverage of the death of Tyler Clementi, which portrays the 18-year-old’s suicide as a sort of martyrdom:
A moment of silence will be held before the nationally televised Rutgers University football game today to mourn Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after he was allegedly taped by his roommate during a sexual encounter with another man.
But at Rutgers, where Clementi had been a student for only a month, a public outpouring for the 18-year-old was already under way.
Many of the school’s students had already paid homage to Clementi with a makeshift memorial in the middle of school’s New Brunswick, N.J., campus. . . .
This glorification of Clementi’s suicide violates what my Old School editors taught me back in the pre-Internet age of medieval journalism when ink and paper were still relevant: Suicide is not front-page news.
If suicides were reported at all, they were relegated to the back pages, usually only in the roundup of police-blotter items. And the reason suicides were treated this way, my Old School editors explained, was that if people ever got the idea they could get a front-page headline by killing themselves, we’d have people blowing their brains out in the middle of Main Street every day.
Old School editors weren’t indifferent to the pain of others, but a newspaper publisher has a responsibility to the community. Turning someone’s act of despair into front-page news is an abdication of that responsibility, as it tends to encourage other despairing souls to emulate such acts.
There are tens of millions of your friends and neighbors suffering silently from feelings of hopelessness and humiliation:
Nearly one in 10 Americans is depressed, and one in 30 meet the criteria for major depression, with the rate higher among the unemployed and those who can’t work, a study said Thursday.
Every day, people fail. Every day, people suffer because of other people’s failures, or from circumstances beyond anyone’s control. People go bankrupt, they get divorced, they flunk out of school, they are teased and tormented, they get fired from jobs, they lose their homes, they are diagnosed with terminal illness.
Should all of these people throw themselves off bridges, thereby earning themselves a spot on the evening news and a makeshift memorial where people can pay homage to them?
To ask such a question in our hypersensitive age is to invite the accusation of callousness toward whatever “cause” the suicide celebrity is supposed to symbolize. In this case, of course, those who refuse to join the pilgrims worshipping at the shrine to Tyler Clementi are accused of bigotry toward homosexuals — or perhaps sympathy toward college freshmen who think it’s cute to secretly video their roommates’ private sexual acts.
That these accusations are baseless was brought home quite vividly by my Twitter friend Sooper Trev, who wrote a blog post explaining that he had also once been a college student with an embarrassing secret:
[W]hen I broke down and told my straight college roommate that I was attracted to men, specifically him, and that I couldn’t take my infatuation with him anymore . . . he held me. It was something he’d never done before nor wanted to. He assured me of his steadfast friendship. He bought me lunch, listened to me, and prayed with me too. . . .
You can read that whole thing, and probably should, but the upshot of it was that Sooper Trev — who still struggles every day with his sexuality — found hope in the idea of human dignity.
Every human life is infinitely precious to the Creator of life, and the destruction of life is always a tragedy, perhaps never more so than when promising young people are the conscious agents of their own death. Yet it happens every day in America, and every day some newspaper editor of the Old School tradition lives up to his responsibility to the community he serves by relegating that tragedy to a three-sentence item in the police roundup. It is not a pleasant duty, but a duty nonetheless.
There is no school like the Old School, and often I remember the late Paul Miles, who was editor of The Calhoun (Ga.) Times when I was the young sports editor of that twice-weekly newspaper nearly a quarter-century ago. Mr. Miles had suffered polio as a child and limped around with a heavy steel brace on his withered leg. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and would be the first to tell you that if you’re looking for sympathy, you can find it on the same page of the dictionary as syphilis.
Mr. Miles had begun his career in journalism as a teenage copy boy at the newspaper in Columbus, Ga., during World War II when nearby Fort Benning was (at it remains) the most important training facility for U.S. Army combat troups. While the Infantry School at Fort Benning is still in operation, however, it no longer provides training for paratroopers, as it did during World War II.
Mr. Miles once explained — I’ve forgotten the context — that during the war, soldiers died in training accidents at Fort Benning as a matter of routine. “Chute didn’t open, and that was it,” he said.
And those deaths were never more than a two-paragraph blurb in the local newspaper.
Think about that for a minute. Here were young men in the prime of life, preparing to serve their country in the greatest war of all human history, killed by circumstances beyond their control. Think how those soldiers’ families felt when they got the telegram informing them that not only was Johnny never coming home again, but that he had died without even getting a chance to fight the enemy.
No big headlines. It happened every day.
None of those soldiers were recognized with a moment of silence before a nationally televised football game. The only homage they received was from their relatives and hometown neighbors. Their makeshift shrines were a picture on the mantle and a gold star in the window.
When you think of things like that, it puts your own minor troubles in perspective. You can be like Rick Sanchez and blame our Zionist Media Overlords, or you can be like Tyler Clementi and throw yourself off a bridge. Either way, the most influential voices in American culture will say it was not your fault. What Christopher Lasch described three decades as therapeutic morality absolves us of responsibility, inviting us to imagine ourselves helpless to shape our own destinies, to embrace our victimhood:
Good mental health is characterized by optimism and a sense of agency — that is to say, the belief that we are ultimately in control of our own lives. The sense of agency is critical to success and happiness in every area of life, in large part because it is necessary to self-improvement and problem-solving.
Everyone encounters failure and disappointment, but a person who believes that his life is within his own control will respond to such setbacks in a positive, constructive way — analyzing the cause of the failure, seeking ways to improve, determing to work harder to overcome disadvantages and remedy personal deficiencies. A psychologically healthy person therefore must accept responsibility for his failures and shortcomings just as willingly as he accepts reward for his successes and abilities.
While it is true that other people sometimes contribute to our failures by undermining our efforts, it is also true that our successes generally require the assistance of others. Factors which are genuinely beyond our control tend to even out over time. In a free and prosperous society, few people are so disastrously disadvantaged as to have no hope whatsoever of improving their lot in life.
Thus, it is psychologically unhealthy to blame others whenever things go wrong in our lives, but this is exactly what “therapeutic morality” encourages.
Attempting to comfort people by flattering their sense of blamelessness — “It’s not your fault” — therapeutic morality ultimately undermines the vital sense of agency, in effect telling people that they are neither culpable nor competent. It promotes the notion of innocent victimhood, the blameless self, and encourages people to avoid responsibility for their failures by wallowing in self-pitying rationalizations.
It is perhaps ironic that our Narcissist-in-Chief feels the need to tell his dispirited supporters to “buck up,” even as he leads them toward an apparent political catastrophe that is now only a month away. (Blame those gosh-darn bloggers!)
Political suicide is one thing — about which I expect to be laughing loudly on Nov. 3 – but actual suicide is not a joke. Nor should suicide be exploited for political purposes, as Pam Spaulding has done by using Tyler Clementi’s death as a weapon to attack the Republican attorney general of Michigan. Before you object to Spaulding’s non sequitur, however, be warned that calling attention to the nature of this political hijacking will cause liberals to accuse you of striving “to preserve the climate that made it possible for Mr. Clementi’s humiliation to be so powerful.”
The folly of liberalism is one of those misery-inducing factors that would seem to be beyond our control. We can only point out the folly and urge others to reject it, perhaps by supporting the campaigns of Charles Lollar, Sean Bielat, Ruth McClung and Morgan Griffith.
However, even if the political results of liberal folly are beyond our control — even if we are the ones who become Election Day laughingstocks as the result of a Democratic mid-term miracle — there is certainly no reason that we should accept liberalism’s invitation to embrace victimhood as the narrative of our personal lives. Each of us is given a choice, and we make that choice every day.
As I remarked in a gloomy jest Friday, it’s just a four-hour drive from my house to the George Washington Bridge. But I didn’t make that drive, nor will I ever. Neither would I dream of encouraging anyone else to emulate the tragic example of Tyler Clementi.
It is in our darkest hours, when everything seems to be going against us and the future appears to promise only further failure and humiliation, that we should pause to consider the source of human dignity. A great man who experienced no small measure of failure in his famous life once said, “It is history that teaches us to hope.” Reflecting on that lesson two years ago, I said, “If God wishes to destroy us, nothing can save us. Yet if God wishes to save us, nothing can destroy us.”
So when you find yourself broken, humiliated and hopeless, when pain and shame and failure are piled upon you, know this: Survival is victory.
Decide to live, and tomorrow becomes a triumph. Each day you decide to live, you defeat death. And with every breath you can laugh at those who those who would welcome your destruction.
Your choice is yours, as my choice is mine, and I’m still just a four-hour drive from that bridge.
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life . . .”
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