A few days before Labor Day last year, as I was sitting at Ivano’s Restaurant in Sandpoint, Idaho, my smartphone told me I had an email. I opened the email to read that a man I knew and loved, a man who had been in my circle of close friends since I was born, had committed suicide.
He was in a Southwestern city, alone and dejected about his health, his loneliness, but above all, about his penury. This man, who had been a wealthy fellow by most standards for much of his life, was deeply in debt and had literally no means of making a living.
He committed suicide as his options dwindled to genuine poverty or death — or so he thought. He would obviously never again have the chance to have a Bentley or a Hawker, as he once did.
The suicide of this man has burned through my brain like a brush fire that never goes out, and here are some of the thoughts I have about it.
First, this man asked me for money many times before he died. I almost always gave him a few thousand here or a few thousand there, sometimes more and sometimes less. Obviously, I wish I had given him much more now.
But I had been terribly burned some years before when two close relatives in a mountainous region of the East asked me for money to survive. I was in the chips then in a major way (by my small, writer’s standards) and I gave them, over a period of years, a decent six-figure amount. When they died, it turned out they had close to half a million in cash in safe-deposit boxes.
They left it to (drum roll, please . . .) their favorite waiters and waitresses at their favorite Chinese restaurant. I didn’t even get a thank you in the will.
So, I was burned on that subject. I have often supported men and women close to me, and I rarely get a thank you. So, I was leery about the man who killed himself. For all I knew he had millions in the bank stashed away somewhere. My mistake. I should have been willing to take the gamble that I would get ripped off another time. (But I have by no means unlimited means and have my own self and my wife and son and his family to support.)
The second thought that rips through my soul about the man who shot himself is that he did not see the world plain. Even with his very small means, he could have lived in a tiny apartment or public Section 8 housing somewhere. He would not have been in South Sudan being massacred for his ethnicity. He would not have been in Auschwitz. He would have had access to all of the glories of literature for nothing at his local library.
He saw that he did not have enough to be the man of means he wanted to be and that, by itself, made his life unbearable. In a word, his life was about envy and not about gratitude.
Third, he saw his life as being only about what he could have and in no way about what he could give to others. I belong to a spiritual program that tells us that if we follow that program, no matter how much our status has fallen, we can use our experience to teach others to have a better life.
I emphasize that I see in our meetings every day men who don’t have two nickels to rub together who can teach young people to stay off alcohol and drugs. Their misfortune and self-inflicted wounds have been the universities in which they have learned life lessons that are invaluable for all of the rest of us. (May I add that I fall extremely short in this regard. I often feel suicidal when fairly small bad things happen to me. My own spiritual condition is often pitifully anemic.)
But there is an overarching final story here. The man who shot himself did not believe in God. He believed his life was worthwhile based on his bank statement and his form 1040.
He did not believe that God had put him here on this earth and that therefore he had a right to be here whether he was rich or poor. I find few men who believe in God who take their own lives.
Or, maybe it’s not up to me, and it was his life and maybe he just wanted to stop hurting so much and have peace. Maybe he wanted to go home.
I just know that I miss him. Too many of my friends are dying, and I am getting to feel lonely myself.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, and lawyer, who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes cast him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.
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