A change of heart heals heartbroken community

Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 2:14 AM

It is Election Day as I write this. Here in the Four Corners we are a community with disparate concerns, different ideas, and differing ways of going at dealing with our common life. This election no doubt will highlight that.

And still we are a community – community that wants good lives for our kids. We are also a community who in recent weeks has had three of our young members die by suicide.

Take a minute from the post-election fallout and sit with that. Two of our young people who, even if only in the moment of their action, felt their life was so without hope that they took their own lives. As a community that must give us pause.

Teen suicide is not unique to us in the Four Corners. It is on the rise across our nation. Those who study such things are busy parsing the possible contributing factors. And while they do that, more children are dying. They are dying because they cannot see a future for themselves in which they can imagine that they would ever be happy.

Happiness is a simple emotion built on a complex matrix of factors. Threaded through all of those factors has to be one common experience, and it has nothing to do with economic status or material possessions. It has to do with the people around us, whether or not we are connected to them, and whether or not we can trust that they will be kind to us and to one another.

Right here I could jump to the argument that children’s hopelessness would be improved by a return to religion. I won’t do that though, because I don’t believe it is that simple. I know plenty of nonreligious people who contribute to an environment in which children thrive and flourish, and sadly I know of too many religious people who do the opposite. So, since this is a religion column, what I will do is argue that it is time for us religious types to engage in some serious self-reflection.

Trying to “fix” others whom we imagine are somehow making life so bad for our kids is not going to be helpful, mainly because it won’t work. It is the transformation of our entire social ethos to one of kindness, compassion, and mutual caring that needs to happen. And that will come about only as the result of the internal work through which each of our hearts is changed.

Then, and only then, will we create a world in which all our young people will feel safe, valued, and cared for. Only then will they be able to find hope for their futures.

We can “do” all the right things, and most often do. But kids can tell if our actions are pasted on – if they are facades covering hearts that are rife with discontent, frustration and looming anger. They know if the kindness they may experience in the moment is at risk of evaporating, revealing an underlying pool of emotion that can erupt into discord or violence at any time. They know if our behaviors are the expressions of hearts that are at peace or not.

It is an environmental shift that needs to happen – a shift than can take place only within a culture of mutual self-giving. And that self-giving won’t exist outside the foundational belief that we all are one. “Taking care” of those who are in need, when done from any other perspective, is paternalistic and reveals a mindset of superiority that is the ground of division.

I won’t assume to speak here for how that shift happens in the secular world, which is not to say that it doesn’t. I do know that, at its best, Christianity (and probably other religions for which I will also not attempt to speak) holds self-giving as a foundational tenet. We are all in this thing called life together. And to the extent that we are open to having our hearts changed, we will care for one another as we would hope others would care for us.

It really is that straight-forward ...

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or