Friday, June 07, 2013

Suicide is unfunny. And I do feel bad. So...

I'm not sure what to say about this very bizarre story. Or precisely how to say it. (You know me well enough to know that I'm going to try.) The short version of the story, for those who don't want to interrupt themselves to read the linked coverage right now, is that a Brooklyn couplea psychotherapist and a motivational speaker who co-hosted a radio show titled The Pursuit of Happinessrecently committed suicide together. Their decomposing corpses were found this past Monday. The deck (subhead) of the Daily News' coverage notes that the twosome "were in the business of telling people how to live." There is no particular tone to those words, but one surmises that the editor who wrote them could not bring himself to avoid hammering home the cynically delicious irony of the grim event. I don't know that I would've written that subhead. Not anymore today. I probably would've just let the juxtapositions of the tragedy speak for themselves.

Some of the regulars, you veteran SHAMbloggers out there, may be surprised at my circumspection and reserve. No doubt you'll recall how I metaphorically tore the Midwest Center a new one after founder Lucinda Bassett's husband David took his life on a Malibu beach a few years back...five years ago today, in fact. Talk about irony.

I just re-read that post, from July 29, 2008, and I especially regret the italicized phrase in the second graph. It's not that I think the phrase is "wrong," exactly. It's that the focus is off. The lesson we learn from these self-help suicides isn't just about irony, and it isn't really about hypocrisy, either. It's about all of the mysterious (and too often tragic) variables and unknowns of the human condition. And the impossibility of trying to concoct a one-size-fits-all regimen that ensures successor even mere survival.

And if that task is really so difficult, then the promises that are made in marketing such regimens...shouldn't be made.

I took a lot of flak for that 2008 post; heard a lot of accusations about my insensitivity and inhumanity and my eagerness to "dance on someone's grave." To this day, long after the fact, every so often I'll open my business inbox and find some fresh chastisement from someone, usually a satisfied Center customer, who's outraged at my handling of the David Bassett suicide. I presume these chastisements to be sincere. But they still miss the point as badly as I then did.

I am told that Cindy Bassett herself was sufficiently disturbed by my remarks, and many of the 140-something comments on the post, that she mentioned me and the blog in her new book, Truth Be Told: A Memoir of Success, Suicide, and Survival. One person tells me that Cindy says my post was part of the inspiration for her to write the book. I've neither read it nor personally verified any of this, so forgive me if I'm basing some of what I say here on a false premise. I am not trying to "inflate my prominence" in Cindy Bassett's life or thoughts.)

(Incidentally, I invite you to explore the website for Lucinda's book/new mission, and here, at the risk of once again being called snarky, I do have to ask, Is there nothing these people won't turn into a marketing op?)

Anyway, words do hurt, and I don't want to hurtreally, I don'teven if I also feel that the person I'm hurting is basically "asking for it" by being selfish and/or venal and/or greedy and/or dishonest. My disinclination to hurt also explains why I let pass the opportunity to comment on the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren's son. Warren most famously wrote The Purpose-Driven Life. The "old Steve" would've penned something like, "Clearly Warren's son, unable to find his purpose, was driven to end his life." It would've been accurate to write thatmanifestly sobut it also would've been sort of sleazy, and sort of wrong, because, again, it misses the larger point in the interest of taking a cheap shot.

What is the larger point? Allow me to digress for a moment to my beloved sport of baseball. Every baseball team has a hitting coach. And some of the most renowned hitting coaches of all time were lousy hitter in their own careers. Arguably the most iconic hitting coach, Charlie Lau, batted .255 for his 11-year Major League career. This is just OK. For the benefit of the uninitiated, a good hitter will bat .300, and a world-class hitter like a Ted Williams (or, nowadays, Miggy Cabrera) will bat more like .340. or .350. So, one might ask, what could Charlie Lau possibly teach other players about hitting? (By the way, the decimalized number represents the percentage of at-bats in which the player hits safely. Lau's .255 average means he got a hit a shade more than 25% of the time.Very mediocre.)

The answer is: a lot. Some of the finest hitters of my generation credit their success to Lau. And any number of students of physics, biomechanics and even human psychology have validated Lau's basic teachings. Now, the guys that Lau helped were generally what we call "good sticks" to begin with, so it wasn't a case of Lau taking a guy who was terrible and making him great. It was more typically a case of Lau taking a guy who was decent and making him much, much better.

So what the hell is your freakin' point, Steve?? My point is this: Charlie Lau knew how to hit. He understood the principles he needed to impart. And he was, by all accounts, skilled at communicating those theories. But it didn't work on everyone. Charlie Lau could not redeem a guy who wasn't already performing at something close to Major League standards.

You know why? Because hitting is hard. Very hard. "The toughest thing to do in all of sports," quoth the great Ted Williams. You can be taught everything you need to know about how to hit well, and still be unable to do it. Physical limitations get in the way. Maybe you're not coordinated enough. Maybe you're not strong/athletic enough. Maybe your peripheral vision is poor. Maybe you're not good at cataloging a pitcher's weaknesses and tendencies. Maybe you get too nervous or, conversely, too amped-up.

So perhaps David Bassett was like Charlie Lau. Perhaps the hosts of that radio show, and Rick Warren's boy, were like Charlie Lau. They probably had some idea of what to do to excel at life. Lord knows they'd been exposed to it enough, and in most of these cases were masters of exposing it to others. Butbecause this stuff is hard; so very hardthey couldn't even apply it to themselves. Personal tics get in the way. Hard-wired counterproductive behaviors get in the way. Circumstances beyond one's control get in the way. (How happy do you think a person can really be in certain parts of Somalia?) Etc. Etc. Etc. And if even a person who has mastered all the theory can't make it work for himself or herself in practice, then what are the odds that such a person can make it work for you, or for all comers? Come to think of it, hitting has certain orthodoxies that pretty much apply across the board, for everyone. What orthodoxies about happiness apply to all? Happiness is an individual thing...and an individual, fluid thing. Many of us think we know what would make us happy but we turn out to be wrong. That thing that was guaranteed to make us happy, once we actually get it, sometimes doesn't make us one bit happy, and comes at terrible cost, to boot.

And yet the all-encompassing message of latter-day self-help is: 

So, again, I'm not out to poke fun at death or dance on anyone's grave. I'm simply saying that if  two people who are savvy enough about happiness to have a radio show about it can't make themselves happy enough to not want to be dead, that tells usipso factothat it's not easy to apply this advice, or that the advice may work very differently in different people, or that the advice may not work at all in people whose underlying maladjustment is so bad that it poisons/undermines everything else they try in hopes of digging themselves out of their rut.

I am sorry that these two people didn't make it. And yes, I am sorry about David Bassett (on this sad anniversary), and Matthew Warren, and our Jessica.


Cosmic Connie said...

I know I've been "away" from SHAMblog for a while (too long!), but it doesn't mean I haven't been reading it, Steve. This is one of your best posts in a long time. In a very compassionate way you have summed up some of the more serious problems with the entire selfish-help industry. Good job.

Jenny said...

This is just an initial thought. What a crappy topic, suicide, and one I am drawn to as well. Perhaps a fitting subtitle for your post could be "Letting the Cat out of the Exit Bag."

Jenny said...

What I meant by "crappy topic" is that it's messy and the smell of it keeps people at a distance. At the same time, it's a reality we all face. Who has not been affected by suicide in some way? Steve, you ended your post by linking to a previous column of yours that details some of your own family grief. I have similar stories in my family.

Something is actually haunting me right now and that is my ineffective support toward a friend of my daughter. She was briefly hospitalized for psychological reasons within the past year and my daughter stood by her through it all. I wanted to be of more help but my husband, for whatever reason (one of them being a series of incidents and conflicts with this friend), was indifferent and discouraged our daughter from getting "too" involved. Mind your own business, he advised our daughter. I know this didn't settle well with her and certainly was not helpful to the troubled friend. He was of the opinion this friend ought to receive help from her own family and we should not be a part of it. I disagreed at the time but because of the animosity between the friend and my husband, I got lumped in with him and thus was no help at all. I recently stopped by her parents' house to bring a graduation gift; the daughter never acknowledged it and I suspect she still blames me for whatever role I did or didn't play when she was going through the whole hospital ordeal.

The thing is, if we don't talk about suicide, we shut ourselves off to healing not only ourselves but to possibly helping others find healing, too.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, thank you. Yeah, I guess I'm at my "best" when I stick to the alleged topic of the blog, huh?

Good to see that pretty (blue) face again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for at least taking a stab at being more compassionate and less snarky, Steve, though I see you couldn't restrain yourself on your "incidental" comment about the Truth Be Told site. Aren't you trying to market opportunistically as well, using your blog and your cynical observations to sell a few last copies of your book before it fades completely from view?

I do appreciate your show of some conscience and I am sorry about your personal loss. I'm not going to identify myself but you would know who I am.

Jenny said...

Oh, come on, tell us who you are, Anonymous! Someone famous? Would your reputation be ruined by revealing yourself?

We're all at risk. I'm not exactly publishing my entire name here either; on the other hand, if someone really wanted to know it wouldn't be too difficult to link my blog details to a real name.

I puzzle over this whole anonymity thing often, actually, and as I recall it was a minor theme in SHAM the book, too. I haven't read the book in awhile but do remember a chapter on 12-step recovery.

Cal said...

I don't have anything to add of substance to the main point of the post. I bought Charley Lau's book on hitting when I was a teenager. And I'm sure that you know Steve that his most famous disciple, George Brett, was just named the interim hitting coach of the K.C. Royals. The team has recently been on a winning streak, but I haven't followed them closely as to whether it's because their hitting has improved.

(I spelled it Charley because his son, Charley Lau, Jr., has a Web site where he teaches the same system with minor adjustments.)

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, I'll take a baseball comment over a suicide comment 8 days a week.

I still get out there and play, btw. Every Sunday morning at 9:30. Or I still try, anyway...