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The Linguistics of Suicide

Suicide-WarrenOn Friday, April 5, Michael Warren, the 27-year-old son of Rick Warren, a well-known evangelical Christian pastor and author, committed suicide.  You may have heard of Rick Warren.  He’s the author of the best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, which has been purchased by more than 30 million people worldwide.

Rick Warren is also the founder and pastor of Saddleback Church, which is located in Lake Forest, California.  Saddleback Church is the eighth-largest church in the United States and has over 30,000 members.

Michael Warren was the youngest of Rick and Kay Warren’s three children.  After Michael died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Rick wrote an emotional letter to the members of his church.  In his letter, he asked for “love and prayers,” and said that his son had suffered from years of “mental illness resulting in a deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”

“In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.  Today, after a fun evening with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life,” Warren wrote.  The letter was subsequently released to the media the day after Michael’s death.

Within hours of the news being reported on the Internet, hundreds of people posted vicious and hate-filled comments on numerous news-reporting websites.  Most of the comments were directed at Rick Warren personally and vilified him for his opposition to gay marriage.  Some of the comments taunted him by stating that his son was now burning in hell, while others mocked him because the God he believed in had failed to save his son.

Warren’s formal opposition to gay marriage dates back to 2004, when prior to the U.S. general election in November of that year, he sent a letter to Saddleback Church members stating that gay marriage was one of the five “nonnegotiable” issues that had to be considered when voting.

In 2008, Warren formally endorsed California Proposition 8, which was coming up for a vote in the general election.  Proposition 8 called for the elimination of the right of same-sex couples to marry by amending the California Constitution to state that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”   Proposition 8 passed after a majority of California citizens voted in its favor.

On Sunday, April 7, Rick Warren reacted to the vicious attacks when he tweeted to his church members, “Grieving is hard.  Grieving as public figures, harder.  Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest.  Your notes sustained us.”  On Monday, April 8, Warren tweeted, “You’re most like Jesus when you pray for those who hurt you.  ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.’”

There’s one thing worse than losing a child to an accidental death, and that’s losing a child to suicide.

There was a man, Lyndon Duke (1941 – 2004), who took it upon himself to analyze suicide notes for linguistic clues that could be used to predict and prevent suicidal behavior.  After completing two doctoral programs and then teaching classes at the university level, Duke retired from teaching so he could study human behavior and provide assistance to those who were in need of help.

Duke discovered a commonality among the suicide notes that had been written by young people who had killed themselves: They felt as though their lives had no meaning, and to them “meaning” meant the difference a person makes.  He subsequently worked with several young people who had suicidal tendencies and found that if he could get them to a point where they were making a difference (and knew they were making a difference), their lives took on new meaning.  It didn’t matter how big of a difference they were making for their lives to change.  Even small differences gave them new meaning.

Duke found that most young people who are suicidal feel overwhelmed.  At one time they had big dreams, but were unable to follow through because the tasks required to achieve their dreams were too monumental.  Because of their overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, they became paralyzed and their dreams turned to despair.

When Duke worked with young people who were suicidal, he told them that they had a special gift — the gift of creation.  They had the ability to create meaning in their lives by making a difference.  The way they could make a difference was by developing simple routines.  If Duke could get them to adopt just one simple routine, they would feel as though they were making a difference.  (One example of a simple routine would be for a person to spend the first 20 minutes of every day cleaning his or her room.)

The question Duke would often ask people who needed his help was, “How can you make a difference?”  The question was not, “How can you become a better person?” or “What needs to happen for you to be happy?” or “What do you need to do to feel worthy?”  The question was, “How can you make a difference?”  Once he got an answer, Duke would then work with the person to start creating simple routines to help get the person to the point where he or she was making a difference.

I have no way of knowing whether any of Lyndon Duke’s methods would have kept Michael Warren from killing himself.  I do, however, know that Duke’s methods could be used by you and me to become better and holier individuals.  The question to ask would be, “What new routines could I develop that would make a difference in the spiritual lives of my family members, friends, and neighbors?”  Some simple routines might include a daily prayer for certain individuals, a weekly visit to an elderly person, a weekly “date” with one of your children, or a daily 10-minute walk with your spouse.

We were put on this Earth to know, love, and serve God.  But how can we do that?

One way is by making a difference in the lives of others.

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5 Responses to “The Linguistics of Suicide”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Dear Harry and Georgette –
    Your today’s article is destined to assist lots of persons, both young and older, to help themselves or another through any agonizing situation – be it a tendency toward suicide or just plain depression.
    Thank you once again! Your thoughts that find their way to the written page are God-inspired! Love, Sister Roberta

  2. Ann Confort Says:

    Making a difference or serving others – pretty much what Jesus taught, wouldn’t you say? We just need to be reminded or to remind ourselves.

  3. Harry Says:

    Good to hear from you Ann.
    Yes, we were each created to make a difference by serving God and others. It’s a fairly simple formula for achieving significance while we are on this Earth.
    Take care,

  4. Alex Duke Says:

    I would greatly appreciate it if you could refrain from making assumptions about what it was my father was trying to teach others. He was a deeply spiritual man, but his work was grounded in simply saving lives and comforting those who had lost loved ones. Please don’t make his work into a sort of clarion call to a specific thing.

  5. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Harry, I just read the comments above.
    I’m happy to see other comments, like mine, that have picked up your true message – to follow what Jesus taught us, by assisting anyone, young or old, along life’s way, wherever and however it can be done.
    You do this well. Keep up God’s work! Love, Sister Roberta

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