Shakespeare writes about suicide, in fact focuses on it in Hamlet. Hamlet, the protagonist, suffers the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother to his father’s brother — the one who murdered old Hamlet. Hamlet’s first words in private are these: “O, that this too solid flesh would melt…/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (I.1.130–132). He wants to die or kill himself because he has lost his father and then his mother to a hasty, questionable marriage to her brother-in-law. Hamlet has lost joy to the point of wanting to die — not good.
Shakespeare remains popular because his work looks into the human psyche in profound ways. Suicide plagues America today in profound ways, more deeply than I was aware of. Here are some facts that surprised me.
According to some studies, I live in the worst city in the United States when it comes to homicides. We have all sorts of laws and debates and social response to such violence, including gun control. A little over 19,000 people were murdered in the U.S. in 2016.
About 45,000 people committed suicide. Shocked? I was. Reports of murder garner media and legislative attention, yet suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10–34, and the fourth for 35–54. Well over twice as many people die every year from suicide as homicide, and 51% of those suicides are performed with a gun.
Did you know that the cost of suicide to the economy has been estimated at $69 billion per year, or that for every suicide, at least 25 other people attempt it? (Source: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/)
We tend to pay more attention to issues when high profile people commit suicide: Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain. It’s sad. So is murder. In reality, though, many more survivors are affected by suicide than murder.
Why? Many say it’s such a waste of human life. I wouldn’t say that. I would say suicide is a phenomenon characterized by the concept of loss, the loss of a number of things.
Loss characterizes suicide; loss establishes the conditions necessary for it. It begins with the loss of a sense of Self. How can we tell if we are losing Self? Shakespeare explores this.
What is a symptom of suffering the loss of the vision and value of Self? Hamlet says, “How weary stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.1.l33–134). Having no interest in life, feeling no enthusiasm, or seeing no good in anything should set off an alarm in us, one blaring like a tornado warning siren, prolonged, insistent.
Respond to that warning. Call a trusted friend to help evaluate what’s going on. I think it’s important to every one of us who has suffered any depression, or worse, to have a friend or two designated for times like this, because when we are feeling like Hamlet, we think no one wants to hear or help us. Put someone in your mind and maybe even mention it to them — today.
Just a few months ago — it seems longer than that — a friend of mine and many other people took his life. No details here, but even his closest friends had absolutely no idea that this thirty-something, likable, humorous, hardworking, loving, devoted dad and husband was suffering. After his death, his closest friend has made it a point to follow up whenever he asks any of us how we are. “Great!” we reply. “No, really, how are you?” That’s the kind of friend I’m talking about. (Thanks, Shannon!)
In the play Hamlet, Shakespeare further examines suicide. Hamlet tells his childhood friends, who are not true friends, that he finds no delight, no joy, no happiness in the glory of nature or the marvels of humans. Then, in the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet debates taking the final step. He thinks everyone and everything is against him. He sees no value in himself.
Losing self initiates the spiral that may lead to suicide. When we lose that vital, healthy sense of the life force that constitutes each of us, we need help.
Becoming aware of little signs like not enjoying things we have in the past, not laughing or even desiring to laugh, not valuing others, not seeing the majesty of nature, having no enthusiasm for life, or other symptoms should trigger a text or call to a friend, one who will understand that you are reaching out for help, the kind of help that will call you back to the reality of the greatness, power, and creativity you are.
We need to guard the preciousness that is Self. We are simply worth too much to lose.
Make no mistake; I’m not a mental health provider. I’m only seeking to raise self-awareness here. If anyone reads this and can’t bring themselves to reach out to anyone they trust, please call a help line and/or a professional counselor.
(1–800–273–8255 — National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
June 5, 2018
My birthday triggers many emotions and memories: fun, melancholy, nostalgia, sadness, hope, light, love, and joy. My fourteenth birthday will never be forgotten, as long as I have a memory. It was the year that we received notice that my grandfather had another serious stroke, and he died a few days later. It was the year I graduated from 8th grade. It was the year that I received a new baseball glove and a Swiss Army knife on June 5. It was the year my mom invited a few friends over—Al, Kathy, Ricky, and even a few of my sister’s friends—and we had a sweet-smelling, buttercream icing-rich sheet cake and Hawaiian Punch.
Oh, and it was the year that all of that, even though I hold it in my memory, pales in comparison to the news I heard when my clock radio woke me up that morning: Robert Kennedy had been shot. I was the first one up, and I went to my parents’ bedroom and just started talking, not really even bothering to wake them up. My mom thought I must have heard something wrong. She arose, and we listened to my radio. Bobby Kennedy died the next day. Ever since that birthday—one in which I matured more markedly than perhaps any birthday, even though I had and maybe still have a lot of childish playfulness and folly in me—this day intertwines my birthday with the shooting of Robert Kennedy.
Fifty years ago. (Yes, that’s how old I am.) Perhaps it’s the anniversary year of that awful day. Perhaps it’s that I still feel a twinge of guilt for even being happy and celebrating later on that day. I remember crying with my mom that morning, although I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of it then. I remember my dad being distraught and lamenting, which represented a powerful response from Dad.
Why did his reaction affect me so? Dad was super-conservative, but he spoke knowledgeably about Bobby Kennedy and reflected some on JFK. He thought Bobby was more honest and more capable than John. He thought that their assassinations were both tragedies and inexcusable. In fact, he welcomed dialog and debate on ideologies and practices in governance. Not that he had any real influence on many others, but he did on me. I saw his honesty because he could speak with insight and appreciation for those with whom he disagreed. He valued honesty in those who he would normally never have voted for. He valued honesty to such an extent that he told me he had actually voted for a Democrat, “The buck stops here” Harry Truman.
Did it matter that Mom and I wept or that Dad could appreciate and lament the Kennedy’s? As I said, our responses contained no major impact on a political or national scene; however, Bobby Kennedy would have appreciated it. He would have known we mattered. He said this:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
No, neither my parents nor I have bent history in terms of popular perception. However, I know that I have stood up for ideals, for others, and against injustice. I also know some people would say I have not made the wisest choices, not represented their ideals or met their expectations.
That is neither my nor Bobby Kennedy’s point. I must shine in the energy of who I am, not apologizing nor seeking to please. Those who make the biggest ripples just do their thing in kindness, compassion, love, and enthusiasm. That level of engagement ripples hope, justice, mutual good, and freedom.
Today, I celebrate my birth. I am filled with gratitude for all the memories, the events, and the relationships of my life—including the ones that have not seemed so auspicious, favorable, or beneficial, ones which I helped to create in some way or another.
As I celebrate and remember, I have a few thoughts about reflections. Learning and growth are not usually instantaneous. I need to have distance, space, and time to make meaning. Some people are much faster at this than I am. Today, I reflect on the memories of my parents, my sister, friends, and that birthday of fifty years ago, the one on which Bobby Kennedy was shot.
I think of the Supreme Court decision of yesterday that gave vindication to bigotry in the name of religious rights. That baker in Colorado was not being prohibited from expressing his beliefs, of even preaching the gospel to the two men who requested to buy his cake. He could have done that. He could have told them personally and quietly that he wasn’t comfortable with their lifestyle that expresses their sexual orientation. He could have done many things within the exercise of his religion, but he didn’t. He, along with a large, significant percentage of Americans, believes he is right and that makes everyone else wrong, or even worse, sinners. Therefore, in the opinion of such people, those who disagree don't have a right to live their truth publicly.
RFK had something to say about this extreme, right-leaning energy sweeping across the nation, the energy that embraces some mythical America, that says we annihilate or relegate to convenient shelves those who disagree with us, this energy of totalitarianism and intolerance:
“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
People can voice, stand for, and promote their cause, but when expressions become about silencing those who see things differently, freedom is forfeited, dictatorial authoritarianism is established, and everyone but a select few suffer. Of course, many who support dictators and oligarchs believe they profit in some form or fashion. They label the masses as opponents to “truth,” and they seek to nullify them.
Lest anyone reading this believes America isn’t moving in such a direction today, read Rudy Giuliani’s quotes from the last few days or Trump’s statements about pardoning himself. As I said, such thinkers are dangerous. Oh, RFK said it first. These people wish to return to something that never was, to keep things from changing.
Once again, Bobby Kennedy has words of encouragement. Speaking of moral courage, he says, “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” A president has no immunity for criminal action, this nation was never originally white European, and kindness and human decency don’t take second place to the economy or imagined rights, the kind that say “We get to do what we want, but they don’t.”
My mom’s and dad’s responses to the shooting and death of Robert F. Kennedy illustrate we don’t have to agree with those who hold different views in order to care, truly care, about one another. My parents showed me that day that political beliefs and personal ideologies don’t give anyone the right to do what they want at the expense of “the common good.” The common good isn’t what a dictator and his followers say it is.
We may disagree on immigration policy and quotas, and we may work to establish our beliefs through voting, speaking, writing, or dozens of other ways. But we don’t get to be heartless about separating families in the name of the law and change the law or interpret law to live in personal convenience and wealth over others, oppressing others, disregarding others so we get what we want. The same is true about the environment, treatment of all minorities, economic policy, and scores of social and political issues—ooh, education, I don’t want to forget education.
On my birthday, I choose to reflect not only on my life and my memories but also on the words and life of Robert F. Kennedy. I could just keep sharing and commenting on his words, but I will leave here with these words of his:
“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
If I forget this, curse me. If you do, I will not curse you, but I will bless as most powerfully as possible those who are not treated as sisters and brothers, those who are withheld from living their lives in purpose and happiness.
Blessings to you on my birthday!
(All Kennedy quotes from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/98221.Robert_F_Kennedy)
In this last personification that Maya employs, people hear the “speaking of the tree.” What people? Twenty different groups who experienced prejudice, bigotry, racism, and other forms of ostracism and oppression. I don’t have the time to do those justice. The variety is enough to show the scope of oppression around this globe, the mindless, needless, Ego-fueled fears, jealousies, misunderstandings, and disrespect.
Once again, the transition into the voice of the tree is seamless. Why? It indicates the voices of Nature, the testimony of Spirit and Heart-energy surround us, speak to us, and reinforce the messages of blessing, wisdom, kindness, compassion, and love — a clear contrast to the primary energies most of humanity too often lives.
The tree invites all to “Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.” Before the tree gives the reason, however, a significant and long parenthesis is added: “Each of you, descendant of some passed on / Traveller, has been paid for.” The implication here takes the form of a debt that required settlement, a debt incurred by Ego, which we allowed to lift us in defiance of the laws of Nature, laws that illustrate how we can relate to the Universe. Nature gives examples of Spirit in all things, the same Spirit that is Heart in each of us. It can guide us into the higher frequencies of life, those that tend to peace, love, creativity, innovation, purpose, happiness.
The tree continues as she calls on Indigenous People who named all the trees but were driven from their lands by Ego-controllers, by the same sort who claim that the almighty quest for wealth and power trumps everything: “You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, / You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, / Then forced on bloody feet…” Yet all of us have been paid for. We have Heart within by which we can now operate.
Who abused the Indigenous People, and why did they do it? Again, a number of ethnicities are listed, but the why is the most significant fact. The tribes forced to leave opened the way for those “Desperate for gain, starving for gold.” Ego doesn’t hesitate to destroy, abuse, or even kill for those things that have nothing to do with the deepest yearnings of us all, those qualities that we ultimately desire. Sometimes, egotists maintain they do what they do for peace, love, and the common good. Their avarice, ours, produces a debt, so the tree says these named groups arrived “on a nightmare / Praying for a dream.” The ends never justify the means.
At times, things that seem positive, like seeking wealth and being highly motivated to pray for some dream, can become a nightmare if the motive force is Ego. Exploring, discovering, and knowing who we are as Heart will shape the dreams and prevent nightmares.
Once again the tree offers the invitation: “root yourselves beside me. / I am the tree planted by the river, / Which will not be moved.” Heart-energies, highest frequencies don’t change, don’t give out when times are tough. Nature reflects that.
Then, the three elements of Nature here harmonize in their testimony to those seeking to know Self: “I, the rock, I the river, I the tree / I am yours…” Ego will sow discord, and sometimes we need discord to shake things up. However, when we recognize it and need to discover Self, we will not find false witness in Nature.
In fact, they say, once again, “your passages have been paid.” Passages, journeys from our history painted mostly by Ego, in both personal and corporate operation, have cost us. Heart in us waits to be discovered, invited, and engaged to be our operating system, one that will set beauty, love, light, peace, creativity, and progress on a solid footing, nurtured and flowing with the right energy. Heart in us is the payment.
We need not be bogged down: “Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need / For this bright morning dawning…” Discovering Self and creating Purpose to pursue those things yielding happiness, fullness, significance give us hope.This hope isn’t vague.
It’s personal — “for you.” Heart allows us to explore our own past and view and evaluate it in truth: “History, despite its wrenching pain, / Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, / Need not be lived again.” Don’t deny. Accept. Release it. Allow Heart to lead onward and upward.
When that discovery has been made, we can dream again, good dreams, dreams that become purpose and vision and health, dreams that become personal yet benefits, blesses, and works together for all. Maya, I think you agree with that, don’t you?
Yes! “Give birth again to the dream. / Women, children, men, / Take it into the palms of your hands. / Mold it into the shape of your most / Private need. Sculpt it into / The image of your most public self.” All have Heart-essence. All may have a dream. None need ascribe to anyone else’s dream or their so-called truth. Being true to Self and living it will work together for a new history, a new way of writing history, a new definition of history. Discovering Self is not selfish; it benefits all.
The past pall of Ego over our history dissipates in the light of Heart: “Do not be wedded forever / To fear, yoked eternally / To brutishness.” The propensity to accept war and destruction as natural is a lie. It does NOT have to be that way, and scheming, duplicitous political and governmental dealings for personal gain, even national, at the cost of others’ freedoms is brutishness — against Nature.
How do we break free from those things which seem inevitable in an Ego-mindset? “The horizon leans forward, / Offering you space to place new steps of change.” Change for peace, equality, and a new history. Change that redefines Ego-led lives with Heart-energy. Redefines history. Redefines values. Redefines relationships. Reform won’t do it, because trying to reform something inferior caused by bad clay from the beginning won’t change anything: “Sculpt it..” Heart provides new material with which to work.
Do we buy these ideas? Believe them? Why do we fear? Is it all too drastic? Listen: “You may have the courage to look up and out upon me, / The rock, the river, the tree, your country.” Anyone can: “No less to Midas than the mendicant.” Equality enjoyed in terms of opportunity and freedom to choose regardless of socioeconomic status or regardless of history: “No less to you now than the mastodon then.”
How does it start, though? How could a new energy change the course of the history being created today and being defined by Ego ever be changed? The rock, the river, and the tree say, “…look up and out / And into your sister’s eyes, / Into your brother’s face, your country” Recognize that a nation, other nations, governments, institutions, corporations, or any aggregate of people are made up of individuals to be treated and related to as such. Valued.
Therefore, the change, the redefinitions begin with you, with me, individuals. Is this too complicated? No, it’s choosing Heart over Ego to operate our lives. And that does not take much, really. Look into one another’s faces, knowing who we are, and “say simply, / Very simply / With hope / Good morning.”
As I continue with this poem of Maya Angelou’s, so reminiscent of Walt Whitman and British Romantics in many ways, I am floored by the message this poem conveys, still applicable, now more than ever. The choice to personify elements of Nature like “the Rock, the River, the Tree” reveals Spirit-essence in all. The energies of life beating, vibrating, emitting from all in this Universe waits to be tapped. We raise our minds, souls, and bodies to perceive these frequencies by choosing to hear Heart, discover Self, and create Purpose. Here is my response and thoughts to you, Dr. Angelou, of your profound words of love and light.
From the Rock’s testimony of the past, pronouncements and observations of the present, and prophecy of the future, Maya seamlessly slides into the voice of the River: “Across the wall of the world, / A river sings a beautiful song…” The River offers a place of reflection on her shores, a place to consider her song.
Not many of us consider the unnatural boundaries humanity has traced on the face of globes, those shapes and entities defined by us as nations. Quite often, rivers demarcate the borders: “Each of you a bordered country…” One of the functions of Ego is to isolate. The existence of nations indicates Ego-energy. In my opinion, their existence shows people, mostly men, who deliberately chose Ego and denied Heart.
Strong statement? The river would agree, wouldn’t it, Maya? The river’s estimate of nations recognizes that they are “delicate and strangely made proud…” Why “strangely made proud?” Because they are artificial, they are weak, “delicate.” They rise and fall, sometimes overnight — no cause for pride.
Oh, yes, this is River’s intended message — no doubting: the nations are “thrusting perpetually under siege.” The unbridled expressions of hyper-nationalism seen both now and throughout history in many countries might make egotists think they are powerful, but they’re not. Truly strong nations would not have to fight endlessly. Of course, examples of such nations are hard to come by.
Why? The ability to wage and win wars — the only possible result of Ego-fueled nationalism — is certainly not based on Heart-energy. Rather, this penchant for flexing muscles derives from this: “Your armed struggles for profit / Have left collars of waste upon / My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.”
Nature ravaged by the Ego-choices of humanity, the unabashed dash for wealth, power, and control, results in death and destruction. River has witnessed war from the inception of nations from its unique vantage point of being a border.
How can we learn such deep wisdom? “If you will study war no more.” But what about them? What about the threats? What about those who won’t give us what we want? What about…? Keep asking the questions. The answer is the same: “Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs…” They are songs of peace, harmony, and natural order, the natural laws in place from the beginning “when I / And the tree and the stone were one.”
These are the tenets, the precepts, to which the founders of America were attuned, even though the reality of much of the Natural Law escaped them in practice. However, Heart-energy discerns these laws, always has. Those in the fellowship of the Heart perceive Ego and know that individuals must have the opportunity to discover Self and create Purpose.
When were these laws enacted? “Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow / And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.” No Ego arguments, no rationalizations, no alarmist fears, no hubris and pounding of chests. River, in its ever-flowing course, has a song to sing to us of peace, harmony, and natural law, a song of Heart-energy, Spirit.
There is no virtue in knowing everything, all the political stances, always being right, or whenever superior knowledge is touted as desirable, because no one knows everything except those who know they do not. Omniscience is Ego’s feeble attempt to control our world.
The evidence of Heart within each of us is found here with the River: “There is a true yearning to respond to / The singing river and the wise rock.” The fact that we, many of us, long for a swift end to foolish Ego hostilities and learn from Nature shows Heart-energy operates in us and longs for productive peace. Hope.
Maya Angelou observes the state of humanity and responds to it through the natural elements of “A Rock, A River, A Tree.”
Why would she do this? It’s a literary tradition, but that’s not the reason. The reason it’s a literary tradition is the reason. Nature is the reason. Our intimate connection and relationship with Nature is the reason.
Because of that relationship, the Romantics often used Nature to reflect the inner emotional state of humans, especially, as Maya does here, to expose the conditions of society or simply illustrate them, the aggregate expression of individuals. We are often slow to learn.
The first eight lines lay out the Rock, River, and Tree as observers of history for eons, since the beginning of this whole ball of wax known as Earth. They witnessed the life, approaching doom, and extinction of the mastodon.
And the Rock, River, and Tree point out that while we may see the dry bones of dinosaurs like this, what we have failed, Failed, FAILED to see — to perceive, to intuit, to conclude — is the “broad alarm of their hastening doom” because no artifacts of that remain — but we should know.
Therefore, they will tell us, and we may learn, we may be warned, rise to respond to the alarm, of all the alarms around us now.
“[T]he Rock cries out to us” by offering a vantage point. We are invited to stand upon its back, its solid, sure, unshakable back. For what reason? What purpose would that serve? Rock tells us it is so that we “may stand upon [his] / Back and face [our] distant destiny.” We can see, know, perceive, and respond — if we would use Nature for the learning.
What might that imply? The Rock has a purpose that has not changed: it is solid, firm, unmoving, and collects evidence of history. Rock asks us, in essence, what our purpose is.
We have the ability to reason, a scale of creation “only a little lower than / The angels.” Our natural state here is one of peace, acceptance, kindness and compassion in the face of difficulties, and the ability to work through challenges and resolve conflicts to the end of freedom, freedom to love one another, to live in light, and create as divinity.
The alarm of our doom, as the mastodon’s did, billows around us, joining that dust of ages past. We “have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness, / Have lain too long / Face down in ignorance.”
In the ignorance of Ego, we have forsaken Heart-energy of love, light, peace, creative enthusiasm, empathy, compassion, and all those emotions and qualities of the higher frequencies of life. The Rock tells us we should recognize the approach of our doom in the warlike atmosphere that grips the nations of Earth: “Your mouths spelling words / Armed for slaughter.”
War, destruction, and hatred are Ego-energies. We have Ego, and it helps form us; however, we have Heart, eternal Spirit as the mature operating system, one we came to live. We have the ability to think, explore, and discover; war, hatred, and bullying, bravado, boastful power are Ego-energies we may rise above through toggling to the Heart Operating System.
The Rock tells us we can gain a vantage point to discern all this, and it willingly offers itself to us. The warning, though, is we have no right to hide under it, to continue living in the low vibrations of Ego and claim it’s human nature. It’s not. It’s a choice.
Questions to consider:
How many times have you asked yourself or simply thought about the following questions?
Who am I, really?
What is my truth?
How do my actions reveal what I really feel and believe?
What would I do with my life if I could do anything?
What is my passion?
Why am I here?
How can I discover answers to any of these questions?
If you have considered any of these questions, I hope that my experiences and writing will give you some guidance. Please read my blog and comment and share your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!