It is hard to believe that the holiday season is once again before us. At this time of year there is always a renewed sense of gratitude and a deeper willingness to reach out to others. The holidays seem to bring out the best in people. People are more willing to think beyond themselves and think about others in need. This time of year there is an energy that seems to inspire even those among us who are struggling, to move beyond ourselves on behalf of others.
Recently I was in the South in an airport that had a huge giving tree in the center waiting area. On this giving tree there were wonderful tags that had been made by local elementary school children. On each tag was a description of a desired gift and the age of a child. These tags are for children from two local homeless shelters for families. The local school children are appealing to travelers to consider buying gifts and leaving them under the tree or making a monetary donation so that the gifts can be purchased for the children living in the shelters.
The giving tree became a catalyst for the people gathered around. They began talking about the holiday season and admiring the collage of pictures of the elementary school children who are sponsoring the giving tree project. Their faces were aglow. Their genuineness was refreshing.
On my way back home, I couldn't help but think of that giving tree and how many people were touched by the simplicity and genuineness of those elementary school children. Already they were thinking of others during this season of giving, sharing and remembering.
On my drive back to Port Jefferson, I couldn't help but reflect upon the sharp contrasts between the urban airport near the city and the more laid back, peaceful and engaging environment of that small southern airport with those wonderful pictures of the happy, smiling elementary school children. The holiday season is truly a time for our children, but also a time for us adults. It's a time to remember all of our blessings in the midst of our struggles and challenges. It is a time to give thanks for our families and for those countless opportunities that empower us. It is also a time to make time in the midst of all the chaos, all the noise and all the pushing and shoving of this wonderful time of the year to slow down enough to appreciate the countless blessings we enjoy within our circle of life.
If tomorrow is going to be better for our children, we have to live our lives differently today. We need to make time during every season to reach out and to act differently. We live in the midst of war, violence and growing hatred. We need to lead by example. Our children need to see within us a capacity for compassion and forgiveness. They need to see a respect for diversity and difference that is sadly lacking in our neighborhood, in our nation and in our world in all that we say and do.
Unfortunately, the holiday season is not always a time for celebrating and remembering all that is good in one's life. For a growing number of people, it's a time for being reminded of one's pain, grief and possibly all that is missing in one's life. The animated faces of children who are excited about this time of year which for many of us is contagious and energizes us, can be a source of pain and grief for others, especially if they're feeling a sense of loss, alienation or estrangement from those that they love.
It is also a time of year when people's emotions are very tender. Sometimes those who are very fragile find it to be an extremely difficult and painful time. JT is seventeen. He is a junior in high school, the captain of his football team and a class officer. He describes himself as being one of the luckiest guys in the world because by his own definition, he has one of the greatest families in the world. He's the oldest of four children and says he is very close to his two brothers and one sister. He loves and respects his parents and is constantly trying to please them. He describes them as caring and totally giving to all of their children.
Most of his life, JT has always tried to please people. In elementary school, he was always quick to volunteer to stay after for whatever project needed help. In middle school, he volunteered to help his classmates who were deficient in various academic subjects. In addition to being active in athletics, he became a peer mentor which took up a lot of his free time. However, that experience really seemed to affirm him as a young man. On the outside JT seemed to have everything in balance.
Unfortunately, there was another side to this young man's life. No one really knew about it, except for his journal that he counted as his best friend. He guarded it with his life; no one was allowed to read it or see the contents that were contained within.
At the beginning of junior year, JT seemed to have the world in his hands. As the semester unfolded, his mother became concerned because JT started to withdraw. It was the type of withdrawal that only a mother would notice. He was still active in athletics, still at the top of this class academically and still volunteering to be helpful. However, the sparkle in his eyes was missing. He didn't have the energy he once had. His Mom asked him if anything was wrong. Without hesitation, he said everything was fine.
His mother accepted that response, as the holidays were approaching, but was still troubled by her son's behavior. As always, JT was in the thick of things. He seemed to be excited to be with everyone on that long Thanksgiving weekend. With family and friends all around, JT said that he was tired and was going up to take a nap. A few hours later, a friend who had been over, went up to see what JT was doing. He knocked on JT's door and there was no answer. He knocked a second time, still no answer.
Finally, he opened the door and found his friend hanging from a beam in the middle of the room. The boy screamed and JT's parents ran upstairs to see what was the matter. They were devastated at what they saw. They painfully cut their son down while a neighbor called the police. All they kept saying was "why my son?"
Next to his bed was his journal; his companion and best friend. While his mother waited for the police to come take her son's body to the hospital and then to the undertaker, she sat at the edge of the bed and read her son's story. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she discovered a side of her son's life that no one knew about.
It was the life of a fragile young man who, despite the plastic smile and the generous heart for giving, was a tortured soul. He was afraid to share that with anyone. The demons that were torturing him were unbearable. He tried to cope by doing more and giving more, hoping they would go away.
The police finally came and took his body away. For the next three to four hours, his mother sat on his bed and discovered a son she never knew. Her heart nearly broke as she realized this wonderful young man had so much pain buried deep within him. If only someone knew, maybe his life would have been different.
His journal covered the span of his life from middle school to the day he died. He never missed a day writing in his trusted friend and companion. He said that the simple process of writing helped him hang on as long as he did. He was afraid to tell his parents and his teachers that his life was so hard. He didn't want to disappoint them or make them angry. So he continued on his tortured journey.
When someone commits suicide, what they are saying through this senseless act of violence is not that they want their life to be over, but rather that they want the pain to stop. As we prepare for the holidays, unbeknownst to most of us, we all know a potential JT. A fine young man or woman who wears the plastic smile, says and does all the right things, but because of peer and family pressure is like a time bomb ready to go off. For all the wonderful things we do, both in our schools, in our communities and in our families, the one area that we continue to fail miserably in is the area of empowering our children to feel good about themselves. Equally important we must create a safe place that they can go to without shame, blame, guilt or undue criticism or condemnation. A place where they know they will be loved, supported and encouraged, no matter what.
At this time of year, it's very easy for us to get distracted and miss the things that are most important. Our greatest gift, our national treasure, is our children. Sometimes we get so distracted with all the nonsense that we fail to see the pain in their eyes, the heaviness in their hearts and the challenges in their lives. It's not because we don't want to, it's because life is hard even on a good day for most of us who really care.