A week ago, a prominent gay rights lawyer and environmental activist killed himself in Prospect Park (a ten minute walk from my house). He set himself on fire using gasoline as a symbol of the fossil fuels that are essentially burning up our planet. He wrote an email to the New York Times saying, “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
I’ve been there. I have been thisclose to killing myself because I was so full of pain at the destruction of our beautiful earth, destruction that’s coming from hands of my fellow humans, including myself. I couldn’t bear the weight of my complicity coupled with the weight of the sadness and despair.
Some online conversation I saw about this man’s suicide suicide was sympathetic, but people simply chalked it up to mental illness. I used to think I was mentally ill, too. I used to be numb with depression and I thought it was merely a chemical imbalance because, looking at my own life, things looked good. It was when I looked at all of the awful things going on in the word, I felt crushed by despair. I knew that I could never not be complicit in the destruction of the Earth. Everything looked hopeless.
Somehow, at my darkest moment, I saw the light of an indescribable realization of my interconnectedness. My heartbreak was the way that I became one with everything – well, become aware of my already-existing oneness with everything. Once my heart had been cracked open and was flowing forth with the pure love that comes with the suffering with (i.e. compassion), I then had the capacity to also feel the joy present in all of creation.
Experiencing oneness doesn’t equal everlasting bliss. It simply means being able to stay present to the simultaneous experience of both the sorrow and joy, the pain and the delight of existence. In my experience, this has meant that my capacity to hold it all has grown. It’s not that I no longer suffer or feel the world’s suffering. It’s that I no longer feel like it’s going to weigh so heavily on me to the point of suicide.
We have to stop treating mental illness as something isolated to the brain, somehow disconnected from the horrors we witness and feel on this planet on an almost daily basis, somehow disconnected from the extreme isolation folks report experiencing in the age of social media, somehow disconnected from the go-go-go lifestyles most Americans lead (highlighting the burnout culture of activism that this man was most likely a part of), somehow disconnected from spiritual deficiency.
If it’s crazy to kill yourself over ecological grief, it almost must be crazy to be aware of our interconnection with every creature and plant and element of this planet. If more of us were aware of this undeniable truth, maybe more of us would be killing ourselves out of grief for the death of so much life and guilt at our complicity. I mean, we’re killing ourselves anyway.
So, it doesn’t really surprise me that this man was so overcome with grief and despair that he decided to kill himself. I have a feeling that many of us are unconsciously tuned into the pain and trauma of this planet we inhabit. No wonder anxiety and depression levels in this country are through the roof. We should all be freaking out, we should all be sad! Sometimes, it’s simply too much to bear.
Some of us truly need medication to survive this mental anguish. But, I challenge all of us – including myself – to practice being present with the pain of existence and not simply self-medicate with alcohol, weed, Netflix, Insta (don’t get me wrong, I do love relaxing with a glass of wine and my favorite show!). The more we can tune in to the reality of our situation and be with the feelings of sorrow and anger, the more we can also tune in to the pure joy of being alive, and the more we can respond to this critical time with radical love and compassion.