Thoughts about a suicide, life and Yom Kippur

André died the day before Rosh Hashana. He wasn’t Jewish, but an American of Hispanic descent, born Catholic; although he delighted in displaying insider knowledge of the tribe.

I found out about his death on Facebook. It was a terrible déjà vu. About two years ago a childhood friend who had reconnected with me on the ubiquitous site died naturally and inexplicably, midway through her first pregnancy and deeply in love with her husband. The blunt message from her brother on her wall left me gaping, and then sobbing for days. I was angry at Facebook for making a terrible death seem so cold – until I realized I ought to thank Facebook for bringing us back together in the first place.

André and I got back in touch years after we left the polling firm where we were starting analysts together. By 2008 when we saw each other again, we were both independent polling consultants, and both of us were deeply committed to the political and social mission of our work.

André’s death will never be explained by medical science. In the early morning hours of September 27th, he jumped off a high bridge in Pasadena, California where he lived with his wife, who is equally socially committed, politically active and a professional star – not to mention sweet and beautiful.

Even if science could reveal chemical imbalances or faulty wiring of hormones and neurons in his brain, it will never be enough.

I’m not religious enough to say that God took André, and I’m not atheist enough to say there is no meaning in it.

So in the quiet days of holiday time turned sad, my mind cast about in crazy directions. I invented scenarios to make sense of the death. Pithy notions about life arose in my mind, like the self-help stuff I normally loathe. Feeling far away from the old contacts who knew him, I trolled his Facebook page regularly to find any scrap of information.

There was no clue. But the posts that just kept pouring out in those first few days did provide me some comfort. They were remarkably consistent: first shock, then overflowing words about his kind soul, his giving nature, his compassionate and supportive ear and his ongoing, daily connections with seemingly everyone.

You are a gift to all of us André. You are so missed…You were a brilliant and a beautiful soul that changed the world for the better, forever.

when I brought up how I loved guitar, you sent me about five links about guitar players that you liked. I miss that, and I miss you so much, everyday.

André filled all of us with happiness and inspiration.

…You left me with some kind words that I have never forgotten. So heart-breaking that your very interesting and purposeful life has come to a close. Reading these posts and seeing how much you have touched so many lives with your exceptional talent and generous spirit since is stunning.

You were always my sunshine and wise counsel …

He was a brilliant political mind but above all else, an incredible friend. He was the kind of person who would offer to help even before he knew you, which is in fact, how we met. I feel incredibly lucky and honored to have been his friend.

I’m still numb, from the news of my friend André’s death. He was one of the most thoughtful and caring persons I’ve ever had the opportunity to know and be friends with.

I added my own, explaining the word “lefargen,’ – joyous and active support for another – as the best description for André. The posts filled pages and pages. Eventually, one of the gloomier internal monologues that arose in my head was the question of whether the same could be said about me. I hated my own egocentric nature which drove me to wonder if could I ever symbolize so much goodness to so many, alive or (has ve’shalom) dead?

Sadly, I think the answer is no. I resolved to think about how to do more, to be better, not for the sake of my legacy but for the sake of my reality. It’s not entirely simple: Doing something for someone just out of guilt or fear of having an empty FB wall when you die is not the right reason, nor will it make the recipient feel very good; giving has to be whole-hearted and selfless.

But total selfless giving can also turn sinister, become self-effacing or even dangerous, as I learned from a sensitive and profound New York Times article about over-givers, that appeared a few days later:

Yet the spectral empaths will express no desires of their own. “They try to hide their needs or deny their needs or pretend their needs don’t exist,” Dr. Bachner-Melman went on. “They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.” They apologize for themselves, for the hated, hollow self, by giving, ceaselessly giving.”

I don’t have the answer yet, but I know that I must never stop looking for the ways to be better and give more. The inspiration of André and his community renewed my commitment to that search. I wish and pray that André knew how powerful his impact was in life and that he didn’t need the outpouring triggered by his death to prove it.

Then late one humid night, a friend of mine made a comment that stuck. She had heard somewhere that one thing even the strongest people can’t live with is shame. That made me sad too – I fervently hope André did not die of shame.

But with Yom Kippur approaching, I began to wonder about this terrible feeling that kills, even if it had nothing to do with this specific case. I, of course, know shame.

I decided it is tragic and wrong for people to feel shame about something they can’t control, like a disease. But I think the thing that most commonly causes shame, is sin. And in my mind, the only kind of sin worth being ashamed of is hurting someone, which everyone on earth has done at some point. Moral relativism is bull – we all know when we are hurting someone. That knowledge is universal, no one can convince me otherwise.

We know that when we hurt someone, we hurt ourselves. That too is universal, no one can convince me otherwise.

Maybe there two ways to keep the pain we cause others from hurting ourselves mortally. One is to believe in religious absolution. Most faiths have a mechanism for forgiving sin – we Jews do it this evening and tomorrow. The other is to protect ourselves from the pain of hurting others – by destroying ourselves. Call it Dorian Gray’s way. Salman Rushdie provides the most fearsome description of how shame kills, in his eponymous book:

…the fire was just gathering its strength…on the day of reckoning the judges are not exempt from judgment…the power of the Beast of shame cannot be held for long within any one frame of flesh and blood, because it grows, it feeds and swells, until the vessel bursts.”

Is this our fate, for those of us who are less than perfect believers? I’m secular, which means not that I don’t believe, but that I choose what to believe (and I accept the contradiction). I have always been skeptical that some kind of god I can’t really fathom is forgiving me. I fast on Yom Kippur more out of respect for my people, traditions and history, and I harbor an instinctive fear that ritualized repentance can shift imperceptibly from absolution to a permissive lowering of moral standards. Sin as you like – you can wipe it out one day a year, or in the confessional booth.

So when Leonard Cohen sang “When they said repent, repent, repent, repent I wonder what they meant,” I wonder what Leonard Cohen meant. The repetition of “repent” reminds me of “kadosh kadosh kadosh” (holy holy holy) in Jewish prayers, as one stands on his toes three times in search of the divine. Is repentance a holy step towards god? Do sin and justification live together in the moment of redemption, as Martin Luther believed: Simul justus et peccator?

Again, I’m stymied. But I guess I want to believe that shame has a purpose within life too, and is not just a cause of death. Maybe shame, in small dosages, can remind us to avoid doing harm or to do good works elsewhere to make up for the harm we inevitably will do sometimes, despite our efforts.

So as I think about Yom Kippur and a death for which I need to find meaning, I know I will never escape the things that have gone wrong up to now. The only way to save my spirit is to spend my life considering how not to repeat acts that hurt people, how to take responsibility once having done them, while doing good things wherever I can  – while identifying and annulling shame over something that truly wasn’t my fault. I believe that people have the capacity to know the difference.

Since religion is public, I offer this thought to my communities, my friends, enemies (there’s no denying that they exist), and my chosen country too: deep down, we know exactly when we hurt people, including ourselves. Let’s not use Yom Kippur to repent only for the things we decide to notice, while denying the wrongs that are harder for us to admit. We cannot fool our own souls, we can only erase them. Yom Kippur is not just the end of a year of flaws but the beginning of a year of teshuva and tikkun – and I choose to believe in that.

Dedicated to André Pineda, 1965-2011