Everything Fine (when everything may not be fine)

When a person gives no sign to anybody that anything is difficult, that lack of contact and openness can be troubling.

There was a shocking story in the paper recently about a young man who had it all--star athlete, good student, high school class leader, popular and well liked--who went home one day and, without a word to anyone, took his life.

Everybody at school was stunned. What a loss! He was the last person to kill himself, so nice, and with everything going for him. He never talked about any difficulties. This was a guy whose life seemed more like clear sailing through smooth waters that anyone who knew him had ever seen. What could possibly have gone wrong? His family, deep in shock and loss, mentioned one traumatic incident of years earlier, but dismissed it as a long-closed chapter of history. Clearly this mystery would have no solution. All that those who cared about him could do was cherish his memory and grieve.

The story left me deeply troubled--by the tragedy of the loss, but also by the consensus of mysterious unknowability. To me this looked like a death that could have been prevented, a story full of warning signals.

Who has ever heard of a trouble-free adolescence? A lot of young people make their troubles very clear--put them out there in public in ways that we can’t possibly ignore-which is why teenagers get such terrible press. Other lucky ones have found places to take those troubles--religious or other youth groups that provide opportunities to show other parts of oneself than the socially-acceptable ones, peer confidantes, mentors or other grown-ups who have found a way to get in there and care, parents who have been able to stay close and invite the confidences they would rather not know.

What, however, about the young people who have none of these outlets, who just don’t show their troubles? What, in particular, about the ones who have developed such skill in not showing that everyone believes they are trouble free? Where do they go?

I knew what it was like to cause no problems as a teenager. Perhaps I was lucky that, while good at grades I was not skilled or driven enough to star in sports, and too shy to be popular outside my own circle. I was not universally envied as trouble free. But I certainly felt alone with all those things I never talked about.

As I read the story of this young man’s perfect life and wholly unaccountable death, I kept looking for anyone who really knew him. Where was the trusted advisor with whom he was working on life decisions? Where was the friend to whom he confided his worries and uncertainties? Where was the coach who knew his struggles? Where was the religious leader who knew his search? Where was the parent who kept track of the effect of past traumas on his current life?

There was nobody. The aching loneliness implied by that story is heartbreaking, and his death to me is tragic. But it is not mysterious.

There are so many troubles in this world, and we are so overwhelmed by those of our own, that we are not inclined to go out looking for more. A teenager who doesn’t ask for help, and shows no obvious signs of needing it, is seen as a pure blessing. But they deserve more from us that that. They need more from us. They need to be seen. They need to be known. They need to be heard. And when they show nothing but a smooth surface, that may be when they need us the most.