Chased by Ghosts: Suicide and the First New Episode of ‘Doctor Who’

[SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing details of series 10’s first episode. If you want to see it for yourself first, then stop here. You have been warned.]

Like so many others, I was beside myself to finally see a new episode of Doctor Who, after an entire year of absence from the small screen, save for the annual Christmas special. And the first episode of the new series did not disappoint.

In it, we see the return of Peter Capaldi, in his final season as the Doctor, along with the cheeky Nardole, who we have come to know from the last two Christmas specials. We also meet Bill Potts, the new companion played by Pearl Mackie.

In this episode, we meet Bill, who works in the university cafeteria. In addition to being inexplicably drawn to the Doctor’s lectures at the university, she also develops a crush on the enigmatic, but seemingly sad, Heather.

All Heather wants is to get away from everything. She sees herself as ‘defective’ and acts withdrawn toward everyone. Heather’s one place of solace is a mysterious puddle in a back alley on campus. She spends time staring into it, trying to figure out why her reflection doesn’t look quite right.

Eventually, the puddle (which turns out to be something else entirely) consumes Heather and leaves a ghost-like entity in her place. What follows are some delightfully scary encounters in the tradition of Japanese horror films like Ringu.

Heather wanted to get away, and she got her wish by becoming ‘the pilot’ of a liquid alien spaceship, but at the cost of her humanity. Her pursuit (haunting) of Bill is driven by her last conscious thought, a promise to not leave without Bill herself.

What the episode stirred up for me are memories of being a suicide survivor. For those unaware of the term, suicide survivors are the loved ones of those who take their lives. We are the ones who get left behind when someone decides that this world isn’t worth living on anymore.

I have known several such people, but the one who stands out most prominently is my college roommate, Rob, who took his own life in March of 2001, during my junior year at Appalachian State University.

The suicide of a loved one is a wound that never fully heals. With time and good inner work, it stops bleeding and becomes a scar, but the mark abides and the absence is felt forever. In a figurative sense, Rob’s ghost follows me across space and time.

Release only comes for Bill when she stops running, turns to face Heather’s ghost, and finally lets her go with the words, “I really liked you.”

Those of us who get left behind by suicide live with that same kind of haunting presence. I really liked Rob. Was I not a good-enough friend? What could/should I have said on that last weekend together, when he looked so pale and gaunt, but I dismissed it as a weight-loss routine? What questions should I have asked on the night he died, when we chatted via Instant Messenger, and I prattled on and on about my latest personal drama? I will never know.

All I remember is the next day, when Rob’s campus minister met me outside our dorm and told me that Rob was dead. Later that week, I attended my first Roman Catholic mass and began to fall in love with liturgical worship. I started going to mass regularly after that. Even though I never converted to Roman Catholicism, that journey has now led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am beginning the confirmation process and hope to pursue ordination to the priesthood. I’m grateful for that experience, but it still doesn’t redeem Rob’s death. I carry that scar with me to this day.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that suicide is a worse crime than murder. “The man who kills a man,” Chesterton writes, “kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 5)

Now, let me be perfectly clear that I reject any notion of the belief that all suicide victims are necessarily condemned to hell for eternity. Such theology is indefensible from a moral or biblical standpoint. Rob was overcome by his bipolar disorder when he refused to take his medication. He failed to manage his disease, so it raged out of control and left the rest of us with a permanent scar.

None of that is fair. It was unfair that Rob had to live with bipolar disorder. It was unfair that he chose to go off his meds. It is unfair that his loved ones have to deal with the consequences forever.

But this unfair situation cannot be dealt with by assigning blame and running away from the ‘evil’ that is haunting us.

As the Doctor so keenly observes in the episode, “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. And hunger looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.”

The situation only finds resolution when Bill stops running and turns to face Heather’s ghost. In a moment of tenderness for the monster, she reaches out, takes her hand, and says, “I really liked you.” Then she let Heather go.

If I had one more face-to-face encounter with Rob, that’s all I would say to him.

If you are like me and Bill, suicide survivors, don’t waste your time with the blame game, which has no winners. That ghost will haunt you from here to the other side of the universe. The whole thing is patently unfair, but we can’t demand “a life for a life” when the life lost is the one that was taken to begin with. We have to forgive, to let go, in order to move on. With time, grace, and care, the bleeding will stop and the wound will become a scar. But scars are stories and can be useful in the healing of others.

If you are like Heather, wanting to end your suffering by running away from this world, I urge you to reach out and seek help before it is too late. Don’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are more who love you than you realize. Don’t outsource your suffering onto others by becoming a ghost. In the words of Scripture, “There are more for you than there are against you.” There are people, some of them even strangers, who would rush to your aide if they knew how dire the situation was. Seek them out.

Start here:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255

For Those Left Behind…

I’m a suicide survivor.

For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it means that someone I love committed suicide.  It was my college roommate, Rob De Toro (1980-2001).  I’ve spent years dealing with it.  The mark it leaves on your soul is permanent.  For about five years after his death, I would panic whenever a friend disappeared for more than a day or so.

I’ve made progress since then, the wound isn’t still bleeding, but the scar is permanent.

Here’s a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

And here’s a very well-made video from another suicide survivor:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O17aK8tkp9U#at=278%5D

It Gets Better

Today’s Sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  We celebrated Ascension Sunday and Youth Sunday.  Today also happens to be More Light Sunday for some churches in the PC(USA).  Visit www.mlp.org to find out more.

My text is Ephesians 1:15-23.

Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Harrison Chase Brown, Raymond Chase, Felix Sacco, and Caleb Nolt.  These nine names belong to nine teenagers who took their own lives during the month of September 2010.  Nine youths in a single month.  What’s even more shocking is that each one of these nine people were driven to suicide by the same thing: each of them was being bullied and tormented by classmates, roommates, and peers because of their sexual orientation.

This rash of suicides last fall received a lot of attention in the media.  Many people were wondering what caused such a sudden spike in such tragedy.  Personally, I wonder if it was happening around us all along, but we just weren’t paying attention until then.  Whatever the case, the events of last September caught the attention of a journalist named Dan Savage who decided to do something about it.  He launched a video campaign on YouTube to reach out toward other teenagers who might be considering suicide for the same reason.

Dan wanted to send a message of hope to these kids.  He wanted them to see videos of adults who persevered through the bullying and went on to find happiness, health, success, and love in their lives.  The message of the project is that, no matter how hard life might seem right now, it gets better.  In fact, that’s what the project is called: ‘It Gets Better’.

‘It Gets Better’ has been a huge success.  200 volunteers had uploaded videos by the end of the first week, telling their stories and offering their lives as an example of hope.  By the end of the second week, they had already reached the 650 video limit imposed by YouTube, so they had to open their own website.  Since then, over 10,000 videos have been produced and submitted.

Most of the videos are posted by regular people who have firsthand experience with being bullied for their orientation; others come from people who simply want to voice support as allies.  People from all walks of life have contributed: students, artists, police officers, soldiers, clergy (including the pastor of this church).  Pretty soon even community organizations and churches were jumping on board.  There are several famous household names who have volunteered as well: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, the Boston Red Sox, Dane Cook, Tom Hanks, Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, even the President of the United States contributed a video!

The message of ‘It Gets Better’ is all about hope, which is the same thing we’re talking about today, on Ascension Sunday.  The Ascension is not just a neat magic trick that Jesus did once.  It’s an event that has significance for us all.  Whenever we recite the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds together, we affirm that the resurrected Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

In today’s epistle reading from the book of Ephesians, the author talks a lot about what the Ascension of Christ means for believers today.  It starts with a prayer.  The author prays that God will give people “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that, with “the eyes of [our] heart enlightened”, we might come to believe in the power of hope.

The author looks to Christ’s Ascension as the basis for that hope.  By virtue of the Ascension, Christ holds dominion “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  In other words, all of the powers-that-be in this world bow down to Christ as the Ruler of the Universe.  This would be incredible good news for Christians in the first century.

As many of us already know, Christians were hunted and killed during the first centuries of their existence.  The Roman Empire branded Christians as terrorists (because they refused to worship the emperor) and atheists (because they had no statues of gods).  It was a dangerous thing to “come out of the closet” as a Christian in those days because one could face the death penalty for doing so.  It seemed like the powerful Roman Empire was bound to eliminate this radical new Christian movement from the face of the earth.  The situation was utterly hopeless.

But the author of Ephesians has a different perspective on the matter.  All the guts and the glory of the Roman Empire was like a drop in the bucket.  As an international superpower, Rome was one of the “powers that be” in the world system of that day.  All “authority, power, and dominion” led back to Rome (and the house of Caesar).  But Ephesians sees Rome as just another pawn in God’s big chess-game of the universe.  According to Ephesians, the entire Roman Empire existed “under [Christ’s] feet.” Even the great Rome was accountable to a higher authority.

This means that Rome would not have the last laugh.  They could hunt Christians all day long (which they did), but they would be unable to bring a stop to the work of redemption that God completed in Christ.  The bad guys could not win.  The battle was already won.

The problem is that it didn’t look that way to the average person in the street.  For them, the Empire looked stronger than ever and was stepping up its ferocity in hunting believers.  Any logical analysis of the situation would lead a rational person to believe that the Christian church at that time was on its way out of existence and would amount to a footnote in some distant history book.

You and I, as people who live on this end of history, know full well that this didn’t happen.  In fact, it was the Roman Empire that faded away while the Christian Church has survived and thrived in almost every part of the world.  But how, we might ask, could the author of Ephesians be so sure that this would be the future of the Church?

The answer, of course, is that the author didn’t know for sure.  The power of hope is something that can’t be proved.  It has to be believed in.  So, when it comes to inspiring hope in these persecuted Christians, the author doesn’t construct a rational argument, but instead prays that “the eyes of [their] heart [would be] enlightened”.

That’s how hope works.  I have days sometimes when I feel really bitter and cynical about my life or the world.  What brings me out of that funk is usually some story or song that speaks to my heart more than my head.  There’s this inner voice that speaks without words from somewhere between the notes of the music.  When it happens, it feels like a hunch or a gut instinct.  If I were to try and put the voice into actual words, they would probably sound something like this: “It’s okay.  You’re going to be alright.  You’re not alone.”  Personally, I believe that’s the voice of God, speaking light into the darkness of my heart and inspiring hope.  I try to hold onto that feeling, even though I might not have a logical reason for believing in the power of hope.  I believe this is what it means in Ephesians when it says,

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.

This kind of hope is what the contributors to the ‘It Gets Better’ project are trying to inspire in the hearts of bullied teenagers who might feel so frustrated with their circumstances that they’re considering suicide, which is really just a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  As they make these videos, they’re praying that maybe some teenager who already has one hand on that gun, that bottle of pills, or that rope might stumble across one of these videos online and sense the eyes of their heart being enlightened by the power of hope.  And maybe they’ll put down that gun, those pills, or that rope and decide to live.

“Hope” is what comes to my mind when I say that I believe in the risen Christ, who ascended to the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion”.  To me it means that the power of hope inspired by Jesus is stronger than all the powers that be in this world.  Stronger than the forces of injustice and inequality.  Stronger than hate.  Stronger than the bullies.  Stronger than that voice inside your head that says, “You’re no good” and “Nobody loves you” and “Life isn’t worth living”.

I don’t know your circumstances this morning.  Maybe you too are being bullied because of your sexual orientation.  Maybe you’re facing a crisis in your job, family, or relationship.  Maybe the headlines of TV news are making you feel cynical about the future.  Maybe you’re even considering a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  The still, small voice of hope might just sound like a silly little hunch or whisper, but listen to it!  Believe in it!  That voice has the power to transform your world.  It’s the voice of the Creator God, speaking again into the darkness and chaos, saying, “Let there be light”, “I love you”, and “It gets better”.

This is a video of the choir at Immanuel Presbyterian Church performing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles for the ‘It Gets Better’ project:

This video is my humble contribution to ‘It Gets Better’: