Beyond a Life in the Red

Photo by Flickr user sunriseOdyssey. Link to photo license.

Content warning: This article discusses suicide.

I.

A student took his life last June. All that I could find was a traffic report noting that the “incident” shut down several lanes of the highway. That was it.

Even in the absence of information, my mind circled back to a question I ask whenever a person—young or old, anonymous or famous—takes his or her life: What made the person feel that life was no longer worth living?

As far as I know, the student didn’t leave a note. Even if he had, it wouldn’t be enough to answer that question. A whole biography wouldn’t be enough because, fact is, we never know the universe that exists behind the eyes of the living or dead. No words can capture it.

It’s an impossible question, then, one that I shouldn’t attempt to answer for that student or anyone else. But, I can gesture at one answer drawn from my own experience.

A few years ago, I was in a doctoral program where I was, by all accounts, a failure. What I thought were deep ideas had proven to be unscholarly. What I thought were good questions didn’t fit into academic conversations. I wrote myself into knots trying to fit in to academia. I disappointed mentors when I failed to fit.

My life outside of classes was also a mess. Relationships failed. I saw the love of my life move on to a life without me. My dad was withering away on the opposite coast. I was broke.

For a time, I found life in social activism. I went to rallies. I put down books and made protest signs. I marched with students, workers, and activists against budget cuts and institutional racism, against Wall Street and corrupt politicians. It helped. The collective energy reinvigorated me. I felt alive, felt I had something to fight for. But it didn’t last. Frustration and fatigue set in when I saw that our protests did little to change the status quo. Corrupt people and institutions continued to be corrupt. Even when they capitulated, their solutions merely rebranded the problem.

Likewise, activism didn’t advance my life. Instead, it put me in the red. Writing signs wasn’t writing articles. Attending rallies wasn’t attending academic conferences. Activism, it turns out, had no value on the market. One side of me said it was sensible to step away, get back on track. Another side said find the next rally. The former side won out; the latter called me a sellout.

I don’t know when I realized it, maybe looking in the mirror. I was categorically worthless. I had failed as an academic, as a boyfriend, son, activist. This realization rippled through me. I got panic attacks when people spoke to me. I wondered if they saw through my façade. I lost weight, felt chest pains, developed a lump in my throat. I went to doctors, shrugged when they said I was fine. I put off therapy, felt better for a time, and sank lower.

Each morning, I woke to my failings. It reminded me of a prayer card on my dad’s fridge about a person who couldn’t face the day, who gripped his sheets, unable to rise. The prayer had a bright side, but I dismissed that as rubbish.

A thought began to take shape: It’d be easier if…

I held onto that thought. I felt its contours before, as a teenager. This time, I filled in the ellipse with all kinds of daydreams as I walked over highways and hiked cliffs. I felt a strange mix of guilt and pleasure, repulsion and longing, when such thoughts arose.

This is my story of how I arrived back at suicidal thoughts.

As I look back on it, I know I wasn’t a failure. I wasn’t worthless. I felt that way, but that feeling became my reality. It’s easy to say now, impossible then.

And I was someone who “should not” have been at risk. I grew up in a loving family. We weren’t rich, but we always had brown bag lunches and food in the fridge. I had caring friends. I had the privileges associated with my social position as a straight, “able”-bodied man, with papers that marked me as “legal.” Even still, the thoughts arose. Why?

Again, I can only gesture at one answer.

For me, the thought grew out of social standards that I was trained to accept as a measure of my success.

On my individual path, everything around me told me that success equated to making a name for myself. It meant personal growth, being well-balanced, gathering things that proved my worth: good grades, a lucrative job, a soulmate, a big house. I was trained to stay that course, to avoid hobbies and occupations that blocked me. I was trained to make myself marketable.

On the collective path, success also had to be measurable. As a student activist, I moved with others, against people and institutions in the hopes that we could tilt the scales of justice back in our direction. Otherwise it was all for naught.

These standards set me up for failure. When I didn’t reach them, I was defeated.

What my social training never taught me was to put my “failure” in perspective. I was rarely told that growth requires failure, that the most genuine paths open from it, that the deepest wisdom comes out of it. When I was told these things, it was usually by a novel or movie that I was compelled to write about for grades that overshadowed its wisdom.

Instead, the loudest voices told me that failure was not an option. They told me, at least implicitly, that the failed life was not worth living.

I’m not surprised if students arrive at similar feelings of failure or thoughts of suicide. They have complex histories. They wrestle with realities as hard, or harder, than mine. They suffer losses and defeats as heavy, or heavier, than mine. Many are marked by worse stigmas than me. And even if the facts of their lives don’t meet some standard of “hard” or “heavy” life still feels, to them, unbearable.

This generation of students also faces an accelerated drive to succeed that is bound to lead to a crash. In big research universities, they are oriented toward a singular goal: achievement. Achievement measured through a 4.0 GPA, a top-tier internship, marketable data points. To gain these markers, they are told to pass through the gates, to outpace their peers, to avoid activities that slow the course. This often means taking 20 or more units and sacrificing a social life. It means stifling one’s passions for pragmatic goals. It means regurgitating what “experts” say rather than deepening one’s perspective and learning how to show others those depths.

What becomes clear, for many who pass the gates, is that they were sold on fictitious destinations. When they graduate, they confront a hard truth: Forget finding a prestigious job or one that fulfills their passions. Forget becoming the next entrepreneur or innovator. Those jobs are reserved for one in ten-thousand. Most can barely find a job, even a soulless one, to pay back student loans. Even those who “make it” often feel unfulfilled.

I wonder, when they fail to reach their prescribed destinations, will their thoughts be akin to mine: What was it all for? Was it worth it? What am I worth? Not just nothing; less than nothing: a life in the red.

It sounds hopeless, I know, but I managed to find hope. A hope grounded in reality, in the firm soil upon which we stand, rather than a hope that keeps us reaching for some impossibly perfect version of ourselves or society. I’ll tell you all about it. I promise. But before I do, I must confess my complicity, my willingness to mark a life as worthless, as unworthy of life.

II.

The thought that life isn’t worth living doesn’t always fade as we grow older, especially if one chooses a life guided by non-market values. In fact, time and age can coarsen its edges, make the thought sharper, more penetrating.

Case in point: my 78-year-old father.

My da, as I call him, is a reflection of me. We both chose paths that weren’t lucrative. I chose teaching. He was a missionary priest until he met my mother. After being defrocked, he struggled to find work. He did odd jobs, janitorial work, finally becoming a counselor for a drug rehab community. As you can imagine, none of this earned him big bucks or accolades.

A year ago, my wife and I moved da a block away from our apartment. He could no longer take care of himself. So, in between our teaching jobs, we took care of him. We cooked his meals, bathed him, took him for walks, put out his meds. Most draining of all, we waded through the sea of paperwork to get resources for people in his situation, people who have nothing material to show for a life lived.

This is not the life we wanted. On optimistic days, I paraphrase the Stones and tell myself it’s the life we need. Most times I’m convinced, but not always. Especially trying are those days when he—and the whole mess of paperwork surrounding him—set off the policeman in me: I focus only on rules. I see da only as a potential rulebreaker.

Here’s a snapshot of one of those days:

I get to da’s place at 6:00 a.m. I cook breakfast, draw insulin, prepare lunch. I make sure he has my directions straight. I have time to spare, so I sort through his pile of healthcare paperwork. I can’t make heads or tails of it, so I call customer service. I’m bounced from menu to menu. When I get a person, they can’t talk to me; they need to speak to him. He’s confused when I put the phone to his ear. It takes the three of us—da, me (whispering to him), and the distrustful stranger—too long to get things straight. We’re all frustrated by the end.

Afterward, I rush to campus to grade and teach. I read student essays, fill out rubrics with as much sentiment as I can muster. Between papers, I glance at Facebook: A new baby is born. Anthony Bourdain is dead. Children and parents are separated at the border. I respond with the appropriate emojis—heart, sad face, angry face—but my blank expression doesn’t change.

After teaching, I dash for the car. I hit traffic delays on Interstate 5 and think about the student who took his life. I think of Anthony Bourdain too. They’re calling me to write, but when will I have the time? I get back just in time. I discover da has failed with my directions again. His blood pressure is sky high after watching hours of CNN coverage on the family separations. On top of that, he’s forgotten to take his insulin. For him, this could mean death.

I slam dishes around. “Ah, what’s wrong with you?” he asks annoyed.

“What’s wrong with me? You can’t follow simple instructions!”

He rises, the way he did when I was a kid, except he’s shrunk and I’ve grown. “I’m doing my best. I deserve some credit for that!”

He forgets that his best landed him in the hospital twice, landed us with hospital bills that will require more calls. I slam down my trump card:

“Your best? You’ve left this all to me. Worthless!”

And there it is. I’ve become a warden in the prison-house of failure.

I know as soon as I say the word. I’ve won. Da musters up a pathetic comeback, but ultimately he slouches in defeat. We both know that, by all measurable accounts, I’m right. On paper, he has no money, no property, no accolades. His is a life in the red.

And I can see he feels it, his failure.

In my complicity with an unforgiving system, I’ve missed important things: the worn postcard in da’s Bible, written by a man dying of AIDS, who da visited and embraced when others wouldn’t enter the hospital room. I miss the pictures of da dressed in his white soutane, surrounded by barrio kids who had a place to play and pray because of da’s organizing. I miss things he’s squirrelled away in boxes labeled “Save” and “Important”: my book reports from elementary school, poems I forgot I wrote, receipts of loans he took to get me through college. I miss other invisible things: the people, out there, who still remember da’s name even if his waning memory has lost theirs.

In short, I miss all the unmeasurable things that vastly exceed what he adds up to “on paper.”

Isn’t this precisely what our society misses, what it fails to value? If I—his son and caregiver—can’t honor these things, then who will? No one.

But in this moment, these things are lost to me. I dig in more. I tell him I have to put him in a nursing home if he can’t do things right. He dreads the idea. I know this, but I say it anyway. He hunches more, then says something that should break my heart:

“I hope God takes me fast. This isn’t worth it. For you. Or, for me.”

III.

Dark clouds precipitate. I’m failing da. I’m failing the kids at the border by not paying attention. I’m failing that anonymous student by writing shitty drafts about his suicide.

A close friend calls me out on that last point, criticizes a hastily written first draft of this essay. “Where are you in this essay,” he asks? “You’re breaking all the rules you tell your students.”

He’s right. I’m not there in the draft. I’m not there in life.

Still, I get annoyed with his feedback. I scrap the draft in frustration, scrap writing all together. I take a Facebook hiatus, turn off the news, tell my friends I can’t talk. I beat a retreat to nowhere with my old copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

It’s funny. I’d been carrying the book for weeks, reading smatterings in between teaching and caregiving. But I wasn’t really reading it. I was reading it mechanically, trying to get through it. That’s my training. It’s hard to break.

But now, after retreating from society and friends, I’m finally reading Thoreau. It’s as if he’s alive, speaking directly to me. He tells me:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see that I could learn what it had to teach me and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

In my copy of the book, this section is underlined by my younger hand. I read it in graduate school, around the time when I felt a failure. It’s strange. I don’t remember underlining this passage, and I don’t remember being as struck by the words then as I am now.

I do remember retreating around that time. I went to the desert, not by myself, but with close friends and friends-to-be. For a good part of the night, we sat under the stars in silence.

What I saw out there, what I think my friends saw, is what Thoreau saw at Walden Pond. It wasn’t the mediated life—the life on paper, on Facebook, or the news. It wasn’t the life that society compelled me to chase. I saw something that stood behind all the deadlines and papers, behind my failures, behind our collective failures.

It was just life, simplified.

I saw the night’s canopy emerge for the first time, the layers of stardust and constellations that inspired people to tell stories before stories were written. It swirled around me and, for a time, I felt myself the center of it all (just as you are). That sky became a mirror: I felt life’s joy, everything that was out there, burning at my core (just as it burns in you and in all things).

What I gained out there, in the desert, was the perspective of our “infinite life,” as Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson calls it in an eye-opening essay. And that perspective belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. It’s common to us, for the infinite life that gave rise to me also gave rise to you. It gives us breath. When we breathe our last, we return back to it, rich and poor alike, anonymous and renowned; our atoms continue their long ride.

What did I do with that perspective a few years ago, when I was at a low?

I went back to the university freed from the constraints I had internalized. My failure appeared for what it was: not the character of my life, but a feeling conjured by social standards and imperatives I’d mistaken as life. That feeling passed, for another day. What remained was life—unfolding and ecstatic—never wholly contained by the words, laws, and algorithms we use to order it. Freed from these constraints, I began to write, teach, and live from a more genuine place. And if my life and work didn’t sell, so be it. That was no longer the point.

And what can I do with this perspective now?

I can return to society. I can rejoin Facebook as more than my numb avatar. I can be fully there for da, more forgiving of disagreeable friends. I can be forgiving of myself, too, when I fail to be fully there, when I fail to forgive, when I fail.

In short, I can live life while I’m alive.

And, if I choose, I can live life disobediently. Disobedient of beliefs and practices not in unison with life. Disobedient of marketplaces that cheapen our work and devalue our immeasurable achievements. Disobedient of social structures that isolate people and set them apart, that lock them into their failure or very real cages. Disobedient of my own complicity in these structures. And these structures will change, if enough of us refuse to live within their narrow corridors, if enough of us look beyond their walls and watchtowers—to see, through the prism of our imperfect lives, the more perfect union that was there all along.

Of course, I will forget all this, again. I’ll mistake the life on paper as life. I’ll mistake my feelings as fact. I’ll forget going into the desert. When I do, life will call me back, compel me to beat a retreat. Responsibilities probably won’t let me go to the actual woods or desert, but that’s okay. I’ve been given tools to get to the oldest-growth forests, the most secluded deserts, without moving an inch. I got those tools from teachers, living and dead, some of whom I’ve only met on the page or screen. They’re good company.

And, if you’re like me—as I was before—have faith that you’ll find your own tools, or they’ll find you. For now, just be patient. Give yourself time—time away from screens; time away from paper trails; time away from the stories we tell about what life was, is, should be. Give yourself time to cut away all that is not life. Take in—really take in—what’s left.

Then, decide what’s next.

Niall Twohig has a Ph.D. in Literature from UC San Diego. He teaches in the Analytical Writing Program at UCSD. He dedicates this essay to his teachers, especially his da, Fr. Padraig Joseph Twohig: Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum.

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