I was contacted recently by a dear friend who serves on the board of a college where students have died of drug overdoses. I've also spoken with people from colleges where several student suicides have occurred. They asked if I would write something for them.
The death of a college student brought on by an addiction or suicide brings with it a corrosive mix of sadness and fear. The sadness is a natural response to the death of anyone we know and may even have loved. The fear comes from deep bewilderment.
How could someone with all the tickets to a good life tear them up for nothing? How could someone at the peak of life not want any more life? How could someone whose blessings far exceed his or her burdens simply decide that it's the other way around?
The fear we feel stems from the realization that if the most privileged among us, with the most to live for, can just give up, what protects us on our darkest, most vulnerable days?
The simplest answer is that we stubbornly cling to what eluded them: hope.
None of us can ever really know why the dead students lost hope and chose suicide or addiction. The human soul resists easy answers to such life-and-death questions. I won't tarnish their memories or pretend to grasp the depth of their pain. I won't give a facile answer to why a person loses hope. All I can strive to know is why people cling to hope and how hope sustains us.
So let me tell you what I know about hope.
I know that hope dies last. I learned this from reading the work of the great Chicago journalist Studs Turkel. "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times" was among his last books. He took the title from an interview with Jesse de la Cruz, one of the first women to work with Cesar Chavez organizing farm workers. She said to Studs, "Whenever things are bleak and seem hopeless, we have a saying in Spanish, 'La esperanza muere al ultimo.' Hope dies last."
How you keep hope from dying is the greatest human mystery. Some people have kept hope alive during war, slavery and genocide, while others have lost hope in the finest schools in the world's richest land. Faith sustains my hope, but I also know hopeful atheists and religious people who've lost hope.
So if you know someone whose hope is dying, embrace them fiercely and lovingly until their hope revives, yet knowing that there's ultimately nothing you can do, no medicine you can give, to positively prevent the death of hope. Trying to stop it from happening is all you can do. Everything else, as T.S. Eliot wrote, is just not your business.
I also know that hope is about roots. I learned this from reading the biblical Book of Job. For Job, the supreme metaphor for hope was a cutdown tree, "For there is hope of a tree, that if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and its tender branches will not die. If its roots are old in the earth, even if the trunk dies in the ground, at the first scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant." (Job: 14:7-9). People have roots, too.
Those roots may be the teaching of a parent or grandparent. They may be a faith that overcomes death and sin.
Whatever their origin, roots all have a common purpose - to ground us and remind us that we're not here just for ourselves. We're here to preserve something from the past and bequeath it to the future through service to others.
I also know that hope comes from animals. My Stupid Idea of the Week is to give all college freshman a dog or cat to care for during their time in school. I've seen animals give hope to lonely old people and frightened prisoners. I think it would work for college kids, too, even though groundskeepers would surely oppose it.
I pray for the souls of the students who died but whose souls, I believe with a rooted faith, have arrived in a world to come filled with eternal hope and conveying the simple message that eluded them in life: "You are loved."