Yesterday a friend of mine, JW Harrington, jumped from a bridge and died. He was the Executive Director of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He had been seriously ill for several months, unable to work. He was fifty years old.
We weren’t close friends. Most of our conversations were about business or the weather or the health and well-being of other sangha members. But I have the warmest feelings for him. He was incredibly efficient, but never officious or impersonal. His efficiency seemed very Zen-like, a by-product of complete attention and deep compassion. He was always patient and kind. And now he is gone, and I understand from the manner of his death that there was something about JW I never saw, something sad and lonely and desperate.
Several months ago I found myself briefly, but seriously, considering suicide. I felt that my life had no purpose, that I might as well kill myself. I instantly perceived what that would do to Margaret, how it would shatter her for a very long time, perhaps the rest of her life, and I knew that I could not cause her such pain. And there arose in my mind the faces of the people I love and who love me, all of whom would be devastated should I take my own life. At first I was only thinking about people who live near-by, people I see often, but by the time my imagination had rippled out east and west to both coasts and south to the Gulf and flown over the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, I understood: love gives life purpose and meaning.
How could JW not have known that? He had been a student of Zen for thirty years. He had a wife and a mother and literally thousands of friends. On Saturday, JW came to the Buddha’s Birthday celebration at the Providence Zen Center--just four days before he jumped from that bridge. Everybody was so happy to see him. And yet somehow he could not feel our love, our profound connection. He could not experience himself as part of the vast human network. This must be what every suicide feels, completely and hopelessly alone.
I read somewhere that every person who has survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge reports the same thing: once they were falling they realized they had made a terrible mistake. I can’t help but suppose that successful suicides also experience that urgent regret as they hurtle through space. And I can’t stop wondering about JW: in the seconds before he hit the water did he get it? Did he understand that his life had meaning no matter how sick he felt or depressed or discouraged?
We all die alone, but the solitude of the suicide is almost beyond imagination.