In a couple of hours my colleagues and I will depart our office, walk to the parking lot and get in my car for a brief, sobering ride to St. Albert the Great Catholic Church. We will sit in a pew and partake in a Mass of Christian burial for a friend named Steve who died last week.
Ours was a very comfortable and pleasant relationship. We ran into each other perhaps every other month or so during my tenure at the University of Dayton School of Law, an institution of which he was a devoted alumnus. In each encounter, planned or accidental, Steve was upbeat, enthusiastic and full of energy. He was quick to listen and very supportive of my work and the work of my peers at the school. I don’t recall ever seeing him in a foul or even pensive mood. If asked to supply adjectives to describe him, I’d use “outgoing,” “humble,” “generous,” “ebullient” and “thoughtful.” He was the sort of guy you wish the world had in larger numbers.
Still, I can’t honestly say we were “close”—our friendship was north of “acquaintanceship,” certainly, but also a good deal south of “intimate.” Our one-on-one conversations were rare; I have never been to his home, nor had he been to mine. Sadly, if I should speak with Steve’s wife today it will be for the first time ever, though I feel I do know her a bit as he almost always spoke of her (and always in glowing terms) when he and I ran into each other. He obviously loved her deeply and, in his typical self-deprecating fashion, often communicated his opinion that she got the short end of the matrimonial stick. He also leaves behind two college-aged children, a son and a daughter, and I wouldn’t know them, either, if I bumped into them on the UD campus.
But that’s OK. We all accept the reality that there is limited time, energy and emotional “space” in our individual universes. We don’t have the resources to know intimately more than a handful of people. There are some stretches where I’m not even aware enough of what my own wife and children are doing, thinking and feeling, much less trying to keep up with the inner worlds of others.
Yet, I have this thorn in my heart today when I think about Steve. Our last conversation took place at a Christmas party in December. “How are you doing, Steve?” I asked him, somewhat perfunctorily.
“Oh, great, Tim! Just great. I am so blessed,” he replied. “Kids are loving UD, Mo [his wife Maureen] is doing fantastic. Life couldn’t be better.” He smiled and shook his head, as if he simply couldn’t believe his great lot in life. We talked for a few more minutes in the buffet line, exchanging stories about our families and our work, shook hands and parted ways. I remember distinctly thinking to myself how much I appreciated his joie de vivre and talent for making a person feel valued and heard.
Then last week I received the news that Steve had taken his own life. Word spread, naturally, and sent tremors through the entire law school and Dayton legal communities. The response from my cohorts was one of uniform, abject confusion and shock. None of us could quite believe it initially. As the bitter, disorienting truth settled in our brains, the predictable (and vulgar?) questions arose: When? Where? How?
I don’t know when, precisely. I don’t know where. I don’t know how. I suppose those details will gradually filter out. Or maybe not. If they do, I’m not sure that they’d reveal anything helpful, anything truly informative. Do we seek such information for reasons that transcend morbid curiosity?
Albert Camus famously wrote “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering [this] fundamental question of philosophy.” Maybe.
Now the rest of us must wrestle with a fundamental question: Why’d he do it? Oh, and one other riddle, one that haunts, one that can keep you up at night: Was there anything, anything at all, we might have done to prevent it?
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.