Preaching From the Shore
Jaunty Irish-spring green banners line the main street of my small rural town with inspirational expressions like “Laugh It Off,” “Just Smile,” ”Choose Joy.”
I watch a young girl walking home from school pass under those banners, alone, her head down, books held tight to her chest. Watching from my car as she walks across the street, I wonder if she is one of the 42% percent of students in our county who seriously considered suicide in the past year—or one of the almost 34% who made plans or the 30% who attempted suicide at least once (Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Drugs and Alcohol Programs, Pennsylvania Department of Education , 2021 ) .
I also wonder if the joy-themed banners she walks under make her feel better or worse.
Recently I attended a women’s business conference, the first since the pandemic, seeking the kind of hugs and ugly cries and tribal validation that come with sacred sisterhood. The speakers were professional women whom I admire. But no one mentioned the massive mental health crises or addiction or kids without parents or parents without kids.
For a moment I felt that I must be the only one who felt they no longer belonged in this obsolete normalcy. But I know too much, and I know too many. I know the 27-year-old who took his life after begging for help at a veteran’s hospital. I know the 23-year-old whose unchecked addiction is so terrifying to those around him, his family and even his church sought protection orders. I know the 22-year-old who overdosed in January, following in his father’s footsteps just a few years before. I know the 19-year-old who doesn’t know how to fill out his college FASFA because his drug-addicted mother is now dead and didn’t bother to file taxes. I know the woman who still wakes up screaming after being hunted and attacked by her once-beloved husband, psychotic from drugs. I don’t know of these things—I know them intimately; they or their families are all within my circle.
It is difficult to believe that this sacred sisterhood has gone untouched; rather, it seems more likely that we are sweeping such experiences under the rug, or perhaps not talking about them due to grief, shame, or embarrassment. Maybe we don’t know how to talk about them.
Across town, a trendy podcaster with a slick personal brand preaches the commandments of success—this generation’s evangelist. Headsets and a practiced coolness to dropping a cheap f bomb replace the sweated frenzy of the holy spirit, blurred backgrounds the new tent revival smoke and mirrors. Focus and goals and mindset and scaling are the new gospel—some might call it toxic positivity.
Things that worked well—in 2019.
Before we had a global pandemic that triggered rampant mental illness, loss, and addiction. A brain suffering from acute trauma can’t just change their mindset. You can’t focus addiction away—not for yourself, not for someone else. Setting goals alone won’t help the fastest growing homeless population in our rural county: unaccompanied children and young adults.
There is a startling disconnect between those who are drowning in this “second pandemic” and those who are not. It’s a new dimension of diversity. Well-meaning people offer rational advice for irrational circumstances, like telling someone to walk a straight line through a rushing river.
The signs and speeches and business advice feel tone deaf to those who are drowning. There is too much to explain about life here in the drowning - the financials and insurance and lawyers and evidence and protection orders, caring for traumatized children, making decisions with no good or morally solid options, mowing the lawn, figuring out passwords of those no longer here, and doing chores while dealing with PTSD. Sometimes in the drowning, you can’t remember how to do laundry. The dirty clothes, Tide pods, and washing machine yawn before you, yet how those things come together to produce better-smelling clothes eludes you. That is the drowning. And it is rampant.
Teachers and students are drowning. Rehabs are drowning. Nurses are drowning. Counselors are drowning. Police are drowning. District attorneys and public defenders are drowning. Officers and inmates are drowning. Veterans and those who serve them are drowning.
We cannot reach a drowning community by preaching from the shore.
So what is my advise? If you wouldn’t say it a funeral, don’t say it now.
Some alternate banners might read:
Sometimes you just need to get through the next five minutes.
What do you need?
You are loved.
Do what matters today. Forget everything else.
Go back to bed. The laundry can wait.
We need you.
Your voice belongs here.
Give yourself time.
Be gentle with yourself.
That’s what I would like our message to be to that young girl walking under jaunty banners, alone, her head down, books held tight to her chest, while considering suicide.
Because we can’t tell her to just laugh it off.