A high school friend of mine committed suicide this weekend. He hanged himself in one of UChicago’s research buildings. We hadn’t been close in the last few years and I found out through a mutual friend’s Facebook status update. John was important to me in a way I can’t fully articulate. But I am going to try to anyway because I am upset and feel this is necessary, this public articulation of sadness. I can’t cry anymore, so I must write as if to document the feeling before it disappears altogether. But also, because this is grief and grief does not have to be well-put or logical.
John was one of my closest friends in high school. Probably my closest friend. I had many acquaintances but few friends, few people I wanted to be around when things got complicated. We were the weirdos, the ones who didn’t fit in. This had everything do with us being gay, but we didn’t know it at the time. We had an inkling we were different. But because we were close and spent all of our time together, everyone thought we were a couple, so they spared us some harassment. He was my prom date and a fantastic date he was. He went through great pains to find a shirt the same color of red that my hair was dyed at the time, a deep shade of crimson. He was the only one who laughed at my “one of you will betray me” joke while I broke bread at dinner before the dance. And because we weren’t actually a couple, we could dance as terribly and crazily as we wanted. He exposed me to the worst of hip-hop and I tried to get him to like punk. On this front, we both failed each other.
We took American Sign Language together, worked at these ridiculous PGA golf outings in Dearborn to make extra money for band camp, and were in a terrible emo band together. He drummed, which was hilarious because he couldn’t drum at all. And his cover of “Smells like Teen Spirit” was deafening, but every time I hear that song I think of John. During one of our high school talent show performances, we came out and performed an absolutely horrid version of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.” I had never heard the song before him and now won’t ever be able to hear it because of him. A class trip to teach social studies to students in a small frontier-esque town nestled in the Cascade mountains would have been a nightmare without him. We were each other’s beards. I loved him because he reminded me that I wasn’t alone and I think on some level the same was true for him. I loved him for his willingness to be nothing less than who he was. Any fondness I have toward my high school years, I owed to him.
We talked periodically during our college years. I remember when he came out to me over lunch one day. I simply said, “I know and I am too.” We just sat there, relieved. Coming out can sometimes just be a confirmation of the obvious. But in that moment, we confirmed, I think, what we were to one another in high school. But as happens in life, we grew apart. I never loved or respected him less. I assumed that, for the time being, we didn’t have a place in each other’s lives. You grow up, go figure yourself out, and maybe grow apart. We shared a mutual friend, a friend through whom I learned of John’s adventures and successes. John was brilliant and I had no doubt he would become a famous scientist. I looked forward to seeing his magnificent self on something like The Colbert Report, waxing hilariously but intelligently about climate change and evolution, rocking an incredible, bedazzled Louis Vution man clutch. I looked forward to saying I knew him when we were in a shit emo band together, when he wore anime t-shirts and pretended to drum by violently beating on toms.
Now, without the fame, I just knew him and am deeply saddened by his loss. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to have know him. Just last week he sent me a note asking for advice about transitioning from the academy to agency life. He seemed upbeat, albeit burnt out, but looking for options. I didn’t respond immediately because I wanted to craft a thoughtful response to a serious question; I wanted to give him the advice that I wish someone had given me. Now it’s too late. Now his note sits in my Facebook inbox, dated five days before he decided to give it up. It’s arrogant of me to think that a prompt response would have made a difference. But were there other unanswered notes? In aggregate, would it have made a difference? Maybe that’s a point in itself: in aggregate we matter to one another, we impact one another? I don’t know but I am cursing myself all the same.
So now I am staring at my bookshelf, waiting for some dead philosopher to come and help me find solace, understanding in John’s decision. It seems all too easy to say that suicide is a selfish act, a permanent response to a temporary state of being. I believe in human agency. I believe that as actors we have the right to determine the course of our lives, the terms with which we will act, love and ultimately leave our lives. I see suicide as an extension of this agency. I suppose that on some level I think we are fundamentally selfish creatures. But herein lies a great irony, that in as much as we can be selfish about our decision to live or not live, we too are selfish in our desire to force a desire for life onto to those we love. Almost as if to say, if you can’t live for yourself, live for me. That the act of living for another may help you find a reason to live for yourself when despair is all you see. Whereas some might be inclined to turn this into a moral quandary, I’d rather leave the point at the level of irony. Moral debate or not, someone that meant something to me is now gone and a discussion of morality will not change that very real fact.
I want to believe that whatever suffering John was feeling has been alleviated. But it’s the aftermath of your search for grace (maybe?) that is the hard part, John. It’s erasure. It’s dissonance. We have your Facebook page, now a public grieving post, a central point of collective remembering. But everything seems so inane now: posts about falafel sandwiches and crappy christmas songs on Spotify in between a digital stream of grief. So now I’ll turn to a passage in Adorno’s Minima Moralia that helped me get through the hell of graduate school, that helped me find hope on days when I thought it was impossible. Each time I read this passage, I realize that I don’t fully understand the entirety of what Adorno is saying in it. Still, I find comfort in it and think I get closer to comprehension after each reading:
The only philosophy which would still be accountable in the face of despair, would be the attempt to consider all things, as they would be portrayed from the standpoint of redemption. Cognition has no other light than that which shines from redemption out upon the world; all else exhausts itself in post-construction and remains a piece of technics. Perspectives must be produced which set the world beside itself, alienated from itself, revealing its cracks and fissures, as needy and distorted as it will one day lay there in the messianic light. To win such perspectives without caprice or violence, wholly by the feel for objects, this alone is what thinking is all about. It is the simplest of all things, because the condition irrefutably call for such cognitions, indeed because completed negativity, once it comes fully into view, shoots [zusammenschiesst] into the mirror-writing of its opposite. But it is also that which is totally impossible, because it presupposes a standpoint at a remove, were it even the tiniest bit, from the bane [Bannkreis] of the existent; meanwhile every possible cognition must not only be wrested from that which is, in order to be binding, but for that very reason is stricken with the same distortedness and neediness which it intends to escape. The more passionately thought seals itself off from its conditional being for the sake of what is unconditional, the more unconsciously, and thereby catastrophically, it falls into the world. It must comprehend even its own impossibility for the sake of possibility. In relation to the demand thereby imposed on it, the question concerning the reality or non-reality of redemption is however almost inconsequential.