The title of this post is a reference to the song more commonly known as the theme song to M*A*S*H*, Suicide Is Painless.
I have held back in really talking about the darker side of the moment that changed everything and launched my new life in running. I have told the story again and again, about the post-Disney energy high, and the desire to do something before I turned 40 to take charge of my health, vowing never to see sumo-level numbers on a scale again.
All of that is true, and accurate.
However, as I have delved into an honest assessment about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I believe I am going (not always the same as where I hope to be going), the deeper motivations that affected me have come into focus. As much as I was motivated by the positive possibilities of a better life with my family, I am also motivated by fear of death, grief and loss. Welcome to humanity, of course. But we so rarely ever give voice to the darker motivations. We don’t talk about the paths we fear. I don’t want to dwell on them, but they are real. And they are as motivating as the cheering finish line high.
When I went out the door in the rain on Dec 1, 2010 to run for the first time as an adult, I was not talking about this, but I was very affected by three deaths.
My father-in-law, May 18, 2010. My children lost a grandfather, my wife lost her father. Though I’ve been part of the comfort process for many a grieving family, I was honestly at a loss as to how to be there for my own family, and in the interest of being totally honest with that which I bring up on this blog: I was pretty selfish for a lot of that summer.
A member of my parish. Roger lived until January of 2011, but by mid-November, we knew he was dying. In fact, the night before our family left for Disneyworld in October 2010, I spent time with the whole extended Snyder family in the nursing home as we did a service together. I left town unsure if I would see him again. When I actually did begin to run, I often stopped to see Roger after, and he was the first person from church who was in on my new secret.
The suicide of this young man became national, in fact, international news. He was a student at Midd-West High School, I did not know him, but I knew a number of his friends, as well as some extended family. Brandon was a kind, creative, musical, sensitive young man who did not fit in with the narrow neanderthal version of masculinity in Snyder County PA. He suffered chronic bullying at school. In the pre-dawn hours of November 5, 2010, he left the house, walked several miles down route 104 to route 15, and jumped in front of a passing 18-wheeler.
I do not want to be one of those people who turns someone else’s tragedy into something about myself. I’ve avoided connecting my journey to his for this reason, but as his story has become part of a worldwide movement to bring attention to bullying, I think it honors him to talk openly about this.
I got a phone call on that morning from a colleague who told me that there was a student death overnight, and that clergy and counselors were requested at the school. I made my way there immediately. The kids were allowed to come to the library to talk, and throughout the morning, the details were few, the rumors changed, but eventually the picture became clear. I remember it vividly: the moment I realized that this was a suicide, and then learned about what Brandon’s experience was at the school.
I started to get angry. So angry in fact, that I knew I would soon become unhelpful in my role there, so I left. I was angry at a lot of things, at a lot of people. Some of them were in the room with me. It was not fair of me to be mad with them at all. At the time, I saw them as representatives of the churches in our area that fuel the problem by preaching an intolerance of anyone who falls outside their narrow norms.
Brandon did not identify himself as gay. And as an outspoken activist I met from the Liverpool area was right in pointing out in his website and podcast, that is not relevant. It’s not as if we have to keep appealing to his taunters after the fact, pleading for them to realize he was undeserving of this particular kind of hate. The point is that NO ONE deserves this hate. It doesn’t matter what their actual or perceived orientation is. They are precious human beings, period.
That said, the particular flavor of the bullying that came Brandon’s way was the special kind reserved for young men who don’t conform to the norms of aggression and culturally-defined masculinity. I have so much to say about this small-minded, anti-intellectual, fear-based, ignorant mess of redneck stupidity, but much more articulate sources than myself have tracked this nonsense methodically for years.
I visited Brandon’s Mom at home. I had no idea what to say, or whether my knock on the door would even be welcomed. I had nothing to offer but the words I’m sorry. I felt like a guilty conspirator who endorsed this social dysfunction by my previous silence. “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train,” said the late great populist historian Howard Zinn. I met him and shook his hand at Bucknell years ago. He sure as hell would not have been proud of my silence over the first 12 years of my ministry. Gay and lesbian persons in my life knew privately of my support, but I had not had the courage to say very much out loud. I was proud that my wife was a voting member to our 2009 Churchwide Assembly, where the ELCA voted for full inclusion of gay clergy. The decision caused many to leave. But I believe it was the right decision. I regret that until I had official institutional backing, I did nothing bold to publicly proclaim the simple message that should be obvious, but has been obscured by the poltically driven, reactionary, regressive factions of the church.
Watching this tragedy play out as a touchstone for gender-identity based bullying, it became clearer to me that I had failed by silence.
That Sunday was All Saints’ Sunday, a day when the Church remembers those lost in the last year. I didn’t care whether Brandon’s name appeared on the roster of a Christian congregation, I would remember his name that day as we mourned the loss of a child of God.
But I wasn’t going to let that be all. I wrote a full script of a sermon so that I got every word exactly as I wanted it, and I preached this on Nov 7, 2010. There is nothing that should be considered all that controversial, but this is Snyder County. My own congregations reacted very well, save for one family that left over it.
I received commentary from far and wide about how great this was to preach publicly and how brave it was. That was kind of them to say, but there was nothing brave about waiting 12 years into my first call to finally say this from the pulpit. They say it’s never too late to do the right thing. True enough, but better to stop living out of fear and do the right thing before it’s so easy and obvious, it’s no risk.
That week, I attended Brandon’s funeral. I went to the graveside service as well. I heard his friends talk about how the school was not listening to them. I still felt like part of the problem. I decided to open our sanctuary for a public forum for the students. I advertised it with flyers, on facebook, and called our local news station. We didn’t have a huge turnout, but the folks who came had a real interest in seeing things change.
The reporter who covered the public forum interviewed me about why I thought this was important. For some reason, she felt it important to ask me “are you gay?” I said, “no, I’m a heterosexual man, married for 16 years with two children.” I went on to say “why is that relevant? I’m not a woman, but I am against violence toward women. I’m not African-American but I am against racism.” In the paper, the article had what I thought to be an odd wording “Weaver, who claims he is not gay….” Clearly even the enlightened professional media still think it’s a relevant question, and will play up the issue in any way possible to make it more interesting. It may have been an attempt to see if I would rise to the bait and play the stereotypical straight-guy fear card and fiercely defend my “normal-ness.” That would reinforce the narrative that the worst thing you can call a straight man is gay. I just gave a matter-of-fact answer, and hoped to move on to the question at hand: is the school administration listening to students who are talking about the realities of bullying in their schools?
I believed then, and still believe, that the answer is a resounding NO. The public comments of our superintendent were horrifying in their coldness and callousness. My issues with him could fill another blog page.
By mid-late November, the national attention was growing for Brandon’s story. The local attention on me was very small, but I was dealing with it in my parish. I wondered how long I would have to be in the same place before I’d have to guts to say something that really ought to be easy to say, but for some reason, up to that point, was not. I received a phone call from an AP reporter who found my sermon post, and we spent nearly two hours on the phone talking about the situation here and nationwide. Just being a person with a collar in a rural area positioning yourself as gay-friendly was apparently newsworthy. It shouldn’t be. It should be commonplace. I think that even two years later, it is moreso than before. Yet none of this would ever bring back the life of a bright, talented youth from our community who took his own life. Nor does the improving situation mean that there isn’t still a tremendous gap in privilege in America today. And as news of a hate crime near Stonewall in NYC is still fresh, clearly It Gets Better is still a message of hope for the future. Is it getting better right now? Easy for straight white man here to say “yes.” By what degrees? I can’t begin to try to speak accurately to that.
So this is how I have made Brandon’s story about me today. In watching the community reactions, I wanted to be a better leader. I wanted to be a stronger voice. I wanted to be the person that a teenager would think of when asking “all these Christians seem to hate me for who I am. Is there anyone in their club who doesn’t?” I always thought of myself as someone who fits the bill. But a secret ally isn’t much of an ally. If you support someone in the forest, but no one publicly hears it, does it make a sound? Does it make a difference?
Yes, I began to run for all the reasons I cite in the standard my-kids-are-my-inspiration story. But in hindsight, I see that my drive to become something better than I had been was also borne of my failings to be bold, to take a stand, to take the really small risk of (gasp!) having some people not like me. Silly and trivial as it sounds to me now, that was really a major character flaw that held me back most of my life. While to many, I have always appeared to be a fearless, opinionated, verbose, grand standing guy, it was mostly a front, put-on, and illusion. If I was really going to fulfill that role in a way that made a difference to people who needed an advocate and voice in the office I inhabit, I had to do it for real.
Running and setting goals were the way I began to find confidence outside my comfort zone. Taking to the road was a way to clear my head while mulling all of these concerns of things I could not change, but could influence. How do we stay true to ourselves even when we’re tilting at windmills, at systems that chew up and spit out individuals? We focus,. and do what we can, letting go of what we can’t. Many a runner has found the clarity to discern which is which, while engaged in the simple, primal act of bipedal movement.
I still struggle with it, and the more I can do it, the more I want to do it. I take a baby step and I want to jump to the moon. I’m not talking about going from a 5k to an ultramarathon. That’s all just a simulation for the stuff that really counts in life. I mean, I want to become the guy who doesn’t just wait until consensus finally comes around enough that the risk is low. I want to be the guy who leads before we’re comfortable with being led. By my expectations, I’m not there yet. But I think I have a sense where I’m going.
WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS NOW?
I started this piece talking about the death of three people, two men and a boy. Each of their deaths stirred a different anxiety in me that served to move me in a direction of change. In 2011, the New Bloomfield 5K donated the proceeds to the Fire Company, in the name of William Grindle. I ran that race. In 2012, I helped to establish the Roger Snyder Memorial 5k, which has been run twice, and raised over $15000 for preschool scholarships. And Saturday, it was my honor to hop on my bike with my wife, and ride 15 miles to McAlisterville so we could run the TDB Memorial 5K, which raised nearly $6000 for the Brandon Bitner Memorial Scholarship at Susquehanna University.
The race was a senior project done by Jordan Kerstetter of McAlisterville. There were two other victims of suicide whose names make up the TDB acronym. Their stories are on the site. Jordan did a great job, covering all aspects of a race, and promoting it well, with many sponsors. Check out that site for resources on suicide prevention.
Bill, Roger, Brandon. None of their stories are about me. But in my story, I took some comfort in honoring all their memories through running.
Bullying and suicide are not a simple equation. Not all who are bullied commit suicide. Not all suicides were bullied. But the relationship in this case was so strong, it warranted the attention that has come. Madonna showed Brandon’s picture on stage for an entire tour. His name is being remembered as a touchstone for many others with similar stories.
I have been to too many funerals of suicides. Jeff. Amy. Brandon. Dave. Again, check that race page for resources on suicide prevention. It’s not simple, and we are all left with a “what could I have done?” guilt. Do not let that angst keep you from learning more about what we can do.
When I bike my course for the Doughboy 5168, I ride by the site of Brandon’s death, as well as his home. When my running mix shuffles to an Evanescence track, I think of him. Sometimes when my daughter picks up her violin, I remember that he was an accomplished violinist. And when my little 6-year-old son wants to do something off-beat and whimsical that doesn’t fit the tractors-and-guns template of what it means to be a boy in Mt Pleasant Mills, I simultaneously get excited, and worried. I grieve that I have to prepare him (and his sister) for a world that is often cruel to the delightful nonconformist. We’re already facing that struggle in 3rd grade. But with Girls on the Run, and our family commitment to challenging each other with odd projects and activities, I hope that we’re building some defenses against the dark arts. There’s no magic formula or predictor for these tragedies. All we can do is be authentic and hope it is enough.
Please visit the Brandon Bitner Memorial Page to learn more about this young man. Remembering his name may be a part of preventing the next tragedy.
And for all you fellow endurance athletes, let us be the kind of people who take the confidence and growth we gain in these hobbies, and use it for good. May we take this energy and not only focus on ourselves, but project that confidence and purpose outward in service to others. What good is a PR or an Ironman medal if you have no positive effect on those around you?
Last week, I read this Biblical passage at a funeral, by request of the deceased. You will recognize it from 95% of weddings you’ve attended. It is definitely appropriate for both those occasions, indeed, for any day we are fortunate to draw breath.
I Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.