Reflections By Dan Clendenin
I-Chun Lin (1964–2002)
Week of Monday, April 15, 2002
This past Sunday as I walked to church I was stunned to meet my friend Othar Hansson on the sidewalk, and hear him tell me that the previous week, on Easter Monday, his wife I-Chun Lin succumbed to a long battle with depression by taking her own life. For those of us privileged to know I-Chun and Othar, this was a horrible shock. Othar and I talked there on the sidewalk for perhaps fifteen minutes, and then I went on to church where I cried for a good portion of the service.
I have very fond memories of I-Chun. She was an attractive woman with a strong personality. Having finished her Stanford PhD a few years ago (sociology), it goes without saying that she was a gifted intellectual. For a significant period of time I-Chun was involved in our ministry to graduate students at Stanford. She attended both local and even national conferences with us. As part of this ministry, I know how generous she was with her time, efforts, skills and financial resources, and how committed she was to Jesus and his kingdom. Othar, in fact, insists that it was I-Chun who put him on the journey with Jesus. I have no doubt whatsoever that today I-Chun knows a place of safety, healing and wholeness that for whatever complex reasons eluded her this side of eternity.
Suicide remains one of the last few social taboos about which we do not and will not talk, when in fact statistics show that it is more common than we would like to admit. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 1999 suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death, even ahead of homicide by a 5:3 ratio. There are also about 8–25 attempted suicides for every completion. There were twice as many deaths from suicide (29,199) as from HIV/AIDS (14,802). Among young people ages 15–24 suicide is the third leading cause of death.1
The church has often done a poor job addressing the matter of suicide. Early church synods refused the bequests of people who committed suicide. Dante placed suicides in the seventh circle of the inferno. The official teaching of the Catholic Church “condemns the act as a most atrocious crime and, in hatred of the sin and to arouse the horror of its children, denies the suicide a Christian burial.”2 Thank God that this has not been the actual practice of the church for a long time.
More informally, what sometimes happens is that well-meaning Christians “exhort” those who suffer to have more faith, pray harder, read more Scripture, and so forth, and that if they would only follow such a prescription then they would find healing. We know from Scripture and experience that this is not true, and that in fact such advice often makes things worse by piling on even more feelings of guilt, inferiority, frustration, and helplessness. In I-Chun's final days, for example, she was going to church more often, not less often, attending Christian discussion groups, thinking about and ministering to others, and, we can be sure, praying a thousand times over to God for help and hope. Somehow, we will never know why, that deliverance did not come to I-Chun, but the failure was not due to her lack of faith or spiritual fervor. The mistake is to construe a medical condition like depression and its attendant symptoms with a moral condition that is reduced (wrongly) to the issue of free will badly used.
The sense of safety, health, wholeness and belonging (the Biblical word for salvation means healing) that I-Chun missed is what we all long for, need and deserve, but it is also precisely what eludes many of us, perhaps to a degree only slightly less than what she experienced. As I wrote in my essay last week, in a world that defines the ideal human as powerful and strong, to admit and deal with our weaknesses—which for all of us can be legion—can be difficult, or in some cases even impossible. Suicide, then, is in some measure an indictment of society and its perverted norms.
Rather than striving to reach these artificial goals of superiority, power and self-importance, which even when they are attained can never bring health and wholeness, and rather than trying to purge myself of every perceived flaw and imperfection, I find myself praying more these days the sentiments expressed by Jean Vanier: “Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”3 Real communion and community with one another, says Vanier, require the willingness to be mutually open and vulnerable to one another instead of hiding behind our many masks.
In the Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom wears a mask to hide his grotesque physical deformity. But as the musical unfolds, it becomes apparent that his true distortion lies within his soul. His self-loathing, and his manipulative and possessive love of Christine, can never eclipse his even stronger longing for inner beauty. The second act opens with a masquerade ball. In a scene rich with irony, everyone is wearing a mask. The chorus begins: “Masquerade! Paper faces on parade...Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you.” In a final scene, Christine addresses the Phantom with genuine compassion and tells him, “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God gave me courage to show you, you are not alone.” Christine then embraces the Phantom and gives him a long, lingering and what I like to think of as a redemptive kiss.
I-Chun was not unique in her inner struggles for beauty and wholeness beyond pain. In the words of Christine, “she is not alone,” for as at the masquerade ball, we too often have our own masks with plastic smiles firmly in place to prevent the world from knowing us. May God grant us courage to move beyond these superficialities to embrace one another, not despite of but including our brokenness, to experience the inner beauty of the love of God that in all its fullness comes to us without conditions or limits.
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2002 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.
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