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Saturday, September 14, 2002

A Youthful Burden

After a three-week absence, I’m still struggling with catch-up—not only with blogs, but with personal affairs. In the meantime, back in Madison, Wisconsin, Jonathan’s year got off to a rocky start. A former team member of his from UW Freshman Crew, who had remained an occasional drinking buddy, was having a round of drinks with his old rowing mates, including Jon. He bought them another round and bid them goodnight.

The next day, he wasn’t seen by anyone, but no one thought anything about it. Another day went by. People assumed the guy was with his girlfriend, but on the third day, she called to ask if anyone had seen him. A roommate went up to the attic of the house and discovered his body swinging from the rafters.

No note, no troubling signs given to anyone. No drugs. No plausible explanations that anyone could offer. This was not the loner profile that you tend to associate with this ultimate act of self-destruction. He and his girlfriend had been making plans to move to New York together to begin their post-collegiate lives.

Jon took it pretty hard. He and his mates are at a loss to understand how something like this could have happened. I explained to him that these inexplicable kinds of suicides seem to be a staple of college life. I asked several people if they could recall similar incidents from their college days. They all could, including myself.

In my case, it was a grad student, a member of my social circle, a regular party guy with a sharp girlfriend, a biochemist with a brilliant career ahead of him. One night, he simply went home, no note, no nothing, and popped some poison which he’d lifted from the lab where he worked.

I told Jon that my theory about this—to the extent that one can theorize such mysteries—is that when you’re young you lack the perspective which older people have about the ups and downs of experience. When you’re mature and feeling really down—down to the point where the feasibility of continuing the struggle of living comes into question, you’re ultimately sustained by the breadth of your experience. It teaches you that feelings are transitory, like the weather. The fact that, today, life seems unsustainable has no ultimate significance. It’s just how you feel today. It won’t last. You’ve been there before. You’re able to trust that, sooner or later, your feelings will start to move northward.

Young people, however, have a particular burden to bear. For them, whatever way that life seems to be today tends to be the yardstick for how life really is--and how it’s going to remain. Result—occasional suicides for no outwardly apparent reason. That’s my theory anyway. It seemed to help Jon a little bit. At least, I hope it did.

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