13 Reasons Why: A Youth Minister’s Perspective

 

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If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They’re good people. 

As Pepsi was recently reminded, advertisement is hard. When it comes to media, what’s received is often just as important as what is intended. This is something that the makers of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, an original series based on a book by the same name, would do well to consider. The story follows Clay, a high school student who finds seven cassette tapes left by his friend Hannah who recorded them before taking her own life. Each side goes out to a different person who in some way hurt Hannah, her “13 reasons” for her suicide. According to Dylan Minnette, who played Clay, the goal was to make people “more aware” of the causes of teenage suicide. Selena Gomez (yes, the girl from Wizards of Waverly Place) produced this project and said that she wanted to facilitate a conversation about teen suicide saying, “more than ever it should be talked about today.”

There is a lot I could talk about in this series. I could talk about the causal attitude it takes towards underage drinking. I could talk about the conflicting image it paints of people with same-sex attraction. I could talk about the lack of a clear message regarding drug use, or the frequent shall we say, less-than-saintly parties. But let’s be honest, teens know about that already.

They aren’t stupid, they know that stuff is out there. And it’s so prevalent in our culture that, if only for those things, I wouldn’t bother to write this post. 13 Reasons Why isn’t special because these issues feature. But it is special.

This show is special because it presents itself as giving voice to this real world issue, this often ignored reality that is part of so many teen’s lives. And the audience most impacted by it are the people I’ve dedicated my life to serving God through. For me, this is personal. These teens are my family, my brothers and sisters that I would give my life to protect. So when a series with the potential to impact them so greatly aired, naturally I was very interested. So, one tuesday night with a bag of Doritos in hand, I began the first episode. The series was well done. And for a story that you already know the ending to, the suspense was surprisingly powerful. Within two days, I had watched all 14 episodes. And my heart was broken. I walked with Hannah because I saw in her the suffering of countless young people who feel alone. And I grieved for them as the story of a girl who felt so hopeless that she didn’t want to continue living unfolded. And yes, I cried a little. Well done Netflix, you hit your mark.

But you also may have caused a lot of collateral damage in the process.

As many have observed, show presents an unrealistic outcome to suicide. The book, by comparison just told the story of a person who lost hope and wanted to be heard. It told her story and that was it. The show on the other hand weaves a revenge fantasy in which the people that hurt her are made to pay and she becomes a hero that everyone is sorry for misjudging. As someone who works with teenagers on a daily basis who are watching this show, I am genuinely afraid that young people who are struggling with the temptation to commit suicide or self harm will see this and think of it as a viable option to achieve those results. It is far easier for someone to be pushed over the edge when the edge seems kind of desirable. In the real world, suicide doesn’t have a happy ending. A white knight doesn’t take up the cause of punishing the evildoers, people don’t sit down in meetings and discuss how much they suck for treating you badly. When a person kills themselves, they are not glorified as a martyr. There is only tragedy. But if a person feels like they’re going to be vindicated by killing themselves, it’s a lot harder to help them see hope in healing. The show also makes no mention of mental illness. According to a statistic by the University of Washington School of Social Work, roughly 90% of persons who attempt to commit suicide have some form of diagnosable mental illness. At a time when our culture is just beginning to understand the importance of mental health, I do not feel it was properly handled by a show claiming to shed light on this complex problem. It’s deeply concerning to me that someone attempting to start a conversation about this real-world issue, with real world consequences, could gloss over this crucial component in the vast majority of suicide cases.

Most of all, and this absolutely infuriates me, the show which presents itself as a way to educate people who are struggling with suicide on ways to find their way out of the dark place that they’re in the paints literally every adult that Hannah relies on for support as being either cold and unfeeling, incompetent, or malicious. Well done Netflix. You have now addressed something that actually impacts people, spoken to a struggle that hurts them in the deepest part of their heart, and then conveyed to them that there is no point in doing the one thing they should actually do. How on earth can someone like me stand in front of my students and say that if they’re considering hurting themselves that they should tell somebody, that we’re going to walk with them and help them heal, that we care about them and want to protect them, if Netflix is telling them that the adults in their life are going to completely blow them off? If you disagree, I would encourage you to go back and watch the show. Look at Hannah’s parents. Look at Clay’s parents. Look at Hanna’s communications teacher. Look at the principle and his secretary (or VP, or whatever that guy was). Look at the guy who works in the convenience store. Look at the school counselor. There are so many examples of adults who either don’t care or utterly fail but not one example of someone who is actually equipped to help Hannah and bothers to try. Now try to convince a teenager to confide in adult something so painful and so personal. I guarantee you it’s not easy. The show got that very very wrong.

The show does have many positive aspects to it and I would encourage parents to watch it. It sheds light on the way is that the things we dub “bullying” can actually escalate and genuinely destroy people’s self understanding. It shows how mass communication and technology can compound the problem to the point where teens feel they cannot escape it. And it humanizes the issue of suicide by giving you a well-formed character who is likable and walking you through their story. It took something that is extremely foreign to many people and forces them to look at it as something real. And so I am grateful for the show in that regard, but I honestly wish they had given more consideration to the way it is may impact teens who are actually living in that world as well as the adults in their lives that are here to help them.

The show gets a lot right, very right. But there are also some things that it gets very very wrong, and some choices were made by the directors that I can only call irresponsible. Suicide is not something to play around with, it’s real. I want people to talk about it. I want it to be an issue that is represented in media. But not like this. Never like this.

And to teens reading this, please please please hear me out. Do not harm yourself. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, I want you to know that the pain you’re feeling is real and it matters, but this is not an answer. Once you make that choice, you cannot unmake it. If you’re looking for revenge, this will not grant it. Do not listen to a show that treats you like an idiot, suicide only means the people that hurt you will continue living and you won’t. If relief is what you’re looking for, there are people that care about you and want to help you get through this. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 1-800-273-8255. 

You matter. And not just to me. 

Getting Help is Normal.

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I’m about to tell you a crazy story.

I was at a high school football game a while back. It was the playoffs, the home team was down by two points, and the visitors had possession when suddenly, INTERCEPTION! Chase, a senior and star player had the ball and was running. 40 yards – There he went! – 30 yards – He wasn’t stopping! – 20 yards – This was unbelievable! And then it happened.

Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was a sloppy mistake made out of panic, but a tiny, spry player on the visiting team charged Chase from the front, tackling him around the legs. Chase went down, and his legs both went in directions they shouldn’t. He had just suffered a horrible bilateral femur fracture. The crowd was on it’s feet as the two EMTs went out to the field to take a look at Chase, one would later report that it was one of the worst football injuries he had seen. It was over. The game was almost lost and with their star player gone, they were finished, to say nothing of Chase’s football career. One of the most promising young athletes that the high school team had seen, now face down in the grass, legs bent out of shape, crying like a baby. But then coach Mitchel took the field, bent down, looked Chase right in the eye and said, “Listen son, enough with the pity party. Other people have it way worse than you. Just pull it together and you’ll be fine.” And with those words, Chase stood up and finished the play. We won the game and the crowd went wild.

In case the horrendously unoriginal names didn’t tip you off and you’ve never actually seen a bilateral femur fracture (if you choose to look it up I’m not responsible), this story is entirely fake. And I expended pretty much all my knowledge of the great game of football writing that little fallacy. Sorry for the deception, but if it makes you feel better I had a really good reason. What did you feel as you read this? Concern for Chase? Frustration at the appearance of this obstacle to doing what he loves? How about annoyance at the well-intentioned suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it speech?

I think that this little story is is a pretty accurate metaphor for the attitude that we as a society take to the issue of mental illness.

For goodness sake, this thinking needs to stop. We need to stop this illogical (and downright stupid at times) belief that if somehow we just dig deep enough and draw on some hidden inner strength that healing can come and you can live a relatively normal life by sheer force of will.

Let me break this down for you: The brain is part of the body. Right? And sometimes parts of the body get sick, or overtaxed, or imbalanced, or injured. When that happens, the normal, healthy thing for an adult to do is go get some form of help from a professional. Right? Not complicated. So why is it that we apply this ridiculous double standard to this one part of the body? Why do we make people who are already hurting feel worse for not having what it takes to just pull it together? Looking at someone with depression and telling them to “just snap out of it” or telling someone who is having a panic attack to “calm down” is the same thing as looking at someone who has a leg injury that prevents them from standing and telling them to “just stand up.” When you do that, you are literally telling someone who is suffering because a part of their body can’t do a thing that it will be fine if they just do the thing. Do you see the problem with that?

It’s not an attitude problem, it’s not a matter of making a choice to get better. It’s a matter of making the decision to do things that are going to help you heal.

First of all, counseling is not that big of a deal. Whether you’re struggling with something or not, having a person to act as a sounding board for what you’re thinking is objectively a good thing. Use it. Especially if there is reason to believe it can help to live the life you were meant to live. Though honestly, I’m still of the opinion that everyone should see a counselor from time to time. It’s just a good practice.

And real talk for a minute: Never belittle someone’s decision to use medication. I know we can be hypersensitive to issues relating to the use of drugs, and yeah, you should scrutinize the heck out of something before you put it in your body, but deciding to take medicine is nothing to be ashamed of and we need to stop acting like it is. If you knew someone who had a bad respiratory infection would you give them grief for taking antibiotics? Or how about someone with high blood pressure, would you be freaked out because they take blood pressure pills? Of course you wouldn’t. In fact, you’d probably be annoyed at them if they didn’t, because taking medicine that can help you is a normal and healthy thing to do. Overmedication and abuse are legitimate concerns, but they are not isolated to mental health issues and shouldn’t lead to this stigma about taking medication. Newsflash, you’ve probably probably met people who abuse pain meds. Do you look at someone differently because they take prescription pain killers because of a back injury?

The problem is that we have created an environment in which doing the normal and healthy thing is looked down upon when it applies to the brain. “But wait!” Some say “I pulled through my depression/anxiety/trauma/addiction and all on my own and turned out just fine.” Well, good for you. Seriously, good for you. You got through something painful and difficult in a way that made sense for you. Now let others do the same. For some that means going to see a counselor or shrink for a while. For others it means medicating in a healthy way with the help of a doctor, or forming a support system with others who share their struggle. It’s normal.

I’m not saying don’t encourage people who are struggling. Seriously, please do. You have no idea what a kind word can do for someone. But we need to adopt a view of these things that is more in line with reality. You cannot and should not expect that encouragement is the same thing as professional help.

I’m not saying that attitude has nothing to do with it. Ask any physical therapist, the attitude of patient can be one of the single biggest factors in the long-term healing process, but it’s because attitude moves people to keep taking the steps necessary to heal. It is NOT the same thing as saying that if the person just has an attitude adjustment and keeps telling themselves that they’re worth it that their life will get better as a result. It certainly can’t hurt, but it doesn’t end there.

And I’m definitely not saying that grace has nothing to do with healing. I’m just saying that, logically speaking, there’s no reason that taking care of yourself should be weird. And we need to stop letting a loud minority of the population convince us that persons with mental illness need permission to continue living. 

And to my brothers and sisters who are struggling with any form of mental illness, I love you. This part of your life does not define you and is not the source of your identity. You are not a different person simply because there is something in your life that makes it harder. Whether it’s a broken bone or panic attacks, you are still you. And you deserve to be happy and healthy. So please, don’t let the stigmas of ignorant people stop you from taking care of yourself. The fight is hard but it’s totally worth fighting, and there’s such joy in victory and recovery at the end.

You matter, and not just to me. Now swim for your life.

Can A Catholic Play Dungeons and Dragons?

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It has been said that no one truly hates the Church, but many people hate what they believe the Church to be. For three decades, Dungeons and Dragons (abbreviated “D&D”) has been a source of controversy, and it’s history is confusing as it is complex. In addition to the prevalent stereotypes of players being socially inapt, our culture has linked D&D to everything from satanism and the occult to depression and suicide. This has in some cases resulted in mass fear and anger being directed at the game and its developers. There have even been calls for warning labels and age restrictions on D&D books and paraphernalia. Now, to be fair, the majority of these concerns come from persons who mean well but have been misguided. But as Catholics, we are called to make informed decisions about the things that we consume, including media. As 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us: “Examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good.” Additionally, those of us that are called to marriage are given the responsibility to teach our children to do the same. For these reasons, it is crucial that we examine them as they are and not merely what we have been told they are, always in light of what God has revealed through Scripture and Tradition. But many Catholics have simply rejected D&D outright out of fear or simply out of a lack of motivation to research it themselves. As someone who has dedicated his life to forming young people in the Catholic Faith, this concerns me. As a person who enjoys D&D, this concerns me. And so by this post, I hope to present the case for D&D through the perspective of the Church’s wisdom.

Perhaps the most common objection to D&D is the use of magic. We often cringe at words like “wizard” and “spellbook”, but this was not always the case. Consider the work of the great Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Heroes such as Gandalf the Grey who have been deeply loved by the Christian literary tradition call to question our knee-jerk reactions. Let me be clear: as it is understood in the real, physical world, recourse to magic is dangerous and not acceptable. But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not the real world. In Middle Earth, magic is a preternatural force wielded by those chosen to do so by beings of a higher plane of existence (Tolkien expounds on this in The Silmarillion). It is a qualitatively different issue than the type of divination forbidden by the Catechism. This is the case because, it only makes sense in the context of this fictitious world. D&D takes this a step further. In the world of The Forgotten Realms (the setting of the majority of D&D) “magic” part of a natural force called “The Weave” which certain persons are able to manipulate through talent or study (directly comparable to “The Force” in Star Wars). This connection may seem arbitrary, but a quick review of some of the lore of D&D will reveal starling similarities with Tolkin’s imaginary world. As a matter of fact, the game’s creator, Gary Gygax, described himself in an interview as a “huge fan” of Tolkin’s works and describes them as having a “strong impact” on the game’s development. So strong, in fact, that it almost became the subject of a 1977 lawsuit when the copyright holders of Tolkin’s work insisted that the game was too similar to the Lord of the Rings and forced the writers to rename a number of the characters, creatures and races. Gygax claims that the similarities were intended to appeal to fans of the books, and I am not arguing that the on their own they should not be considered reason to approve the game. All that I am saying is that it is helpful for establishing context. 

Others point to the references that are made to “the gods” in D&D literature. At first glance, one might reasonably see a game featuring a pantheon of this type as going against the First Commandment. But if this is the case however, then a Catholic be equally quick to spurn other works that contain infighting between similar beings of immense power. This is exactly the premise for Shakespeare’s the Tempest, as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and The Avengers for that matter). Consider this: there are many fictitious creatures in the world of D&D. These created beings of immense power would not even be the strangest thing in a world that features sentient rugs and talking fire, and they in no way take the place of “the First Mover” that we know through our philosophical Tradition to be the Triune God.

Many of the other fears associated with D&D is nothing more than the result of bad press, and could be alleviated by simple investigation. Regarding the supposed connections to the occult, the myth that D&D is used as a recruiting tool by satanic organizations came from a story told in a comic book style tract published by Jack Chick Publications. Beyond this story there is literally nothing to connect the two. This is not to say that it cannot happen, but there is currently no evidence to suggest that it does. As to the trustworthiness of this source, it has also produced multiple books, tracts, and blog posts accusing Catholics of being pagans using much the same reasoning. This is a group that mocks the Eucharist, calls Marian devotion idol worship, and claims that Satan himself founded the papacy to lead the early Christians astray. Now, none of this is to say that they are incapable of getting anything right, but a Catholic should approach them with scrutiny. 

The supposed connections to suicide were promulgated by a one-woman organization called “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” or “B.A.D.D.” The story of how B.A.D.D. came into existence is a long and sad one of a grieving mother, a well-meaning sheriff, and a 60 Minutes piece. It isn’t difficult to find and there is no need to retell it here. But suffice to say that the impact was widespread. Films were even made in which people have psychotic episodes as a result of the game. However, the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology, Health and Welfare Canada, and a peer-reviewed study published in Psychiatric Quarterly have all, after extensive research, found no connection between suicide or mental illness and roleplaying games like D&D. Far be it from me to stand in judgement over a parent trying to make sense of the loss of a child, particularly to suicide. The fact remains however that the research that was undertaken by B.A.D.D. was extremely lacking, and that the conclusions have been proven incorrect on multiple occasions by credible sources. 

At the end of the day, this is about more than D&D. Consider for a moment the human cost of this misinformation. Consider the unevangelized community of players who, told repeatedly that their hobbies are satanic, are driven away from the Christian faith, believing it to be only a judgmental group who arbitrarily declares things immoral with no actual ability to explain why beyond “such and such a speaker told me it was satanic.” Despite the fact that the greatest source of material for D&D is the writings of a well-known Catholic Author (including the race of the Halflings and the popular character role of Ranger, both of which are taken directly from Lord of the Rings), despite the fact that the entire concept of character alignments flies in the face of moral relativism by presupposing an objective moral right and wrong that is independent of anyone person’s opinion, despite the fact that the very act of playing the game is ordered to patiently building and maintaining community, despite the fact that it withstands the test of determining the morality of an action outlined in the Summa Theologica and Catechism of the Catholic Church 1750 (Catholic Stand has an excellent article explaining this), many still place the game on par with tarot cards and ouija boards.

As with any pastime, there is such a thing as healthy concern. Yes, when taken to it’s ridiculous extreme, like any other good thing, it is harmful. But that is the result of neglecting the virtue of temperance and is not specific to D&D. Yes, it is is entirely within the power if the Dungeon Master (the lead storyteller and referee) to write a campaign that involves things contrary to Catholic values, as any witter may. But the solution to this is not to spurn D&D, it’s just a gaming system. Rather, address the person who is misusing it, and if necessary, cease playing with them. Yes, the flexibility of the gameplay can facilitate objectionable themes. This is because D&D in and of itself isn’t a game, it is a system for playing games. The content will reflect the imagination of the player. Shall we say that little children shouldn’t play cowboys? After all, there is as much potential for them to play as Billy the Kid as there is for them to elect to be The Lone Ranger instead. Shall we say that Catholic authors should refrain from writing fiction? After all, one could just as easily produce The Golden Compass as you could The Chronicles of Narnia. No we should not. We should not teach people to run and hide from the good things in life simply because they could be abused. Rather, we should form them to be able to appreciate these things in a manner consistent with what we as a community of faith believe, and ultimately to use them as instruments for the building of the Kingdom of God.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to play D&D. I personally think it’s wonderful. I also think scotch and cigars are wonderful, but you don’t need to join me and my friends for that if it doesn’t ring your bell. Furthermore, a parent should subject something to heavy scrutiny before giving it the proverbial green light, and I am by no means arguing that an exception be made for D&D. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t hold it under pain of sin or as a matter of faith. And many people do exactly this even though the Magisterium has never spoken on it. Some examinations of conscience written in the past few years have counted it as a violation of the First Commandment. I’m not kidding, that’s how deep this bias has run. It is my hope that in light of the information presented here that the reader will make an honest assessment of this game and others like it. If you disagree with my evaluation, that’s fine. I will of course wholeheartedly believe you to be wrong until I myself am proven to be so. But at least we’re talking about it, rather than simply dismissing it out of hand. Regardless of how you feel about it, so long as the Church remains silent on this topic, you should reach your conclusion in the way that Christ has taught us to: through the use of reason enlightened by faith. In closing, I’ll leave you with a bit of wisdom from G.K. Chesterton:

“Idolatry is committed, not merely by the setting up of false gods, but also by the setting up of false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.”  

-G.K.C.

God bless you, and happy adventuring.

Adversity Has Made You Extraordinary

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I’m not too macho to admit that there are still days that all I want to do is curl into a very small ball under the covers with a bottle of scotch and a box of Chinese takeout as I binge on Firefly and pretend that the craziness of my life will just go away if I ignore it long enough.

Obviously I’m not going to do that.

But truth be told, my second day at home after graduating from college put me closer to that point than I’ve been in a decently long time.

I had planned it all out so perfectly. Finish my last semester of college, look awesome at graduation, go down south for the summer and have the time of my life working at a Catholic summer camp, fix up my dad’s old truck and use it to commute to work at the big boy job my friend’s dad was going to set up for me, live with my parents until my student loans were paid off, jump full time into ministry and live happily ever after.

To make a long blog post much shorter: Truck is too broken to fix, union rules keep me from realistically ever getting into that job, there are only a few other job prospects that are within driving distance of my house, and there is no way I can make enough at my summer gig down south to buy a car, change cities, and possibly make my first student loan payment.

All of my plans dashed in a matter of a day and a half.

And so after making a list of all the places that I might possibly be able to convince to hire me, researching exactly how little I can pay for a car without immediate risk to personal safety, and emailing my old cannery and confirming I am in fact crazy enough to go back to Alaska to work this summer, it was finally time to make the dreaded call to my would-be boss at the camp.

He was great about it. I wasn’t. In fact I was too upset to be any good to anyone for a while. So I took a walk as I tried to wrap my head around the situation. I was going to be going back to Alaska instead of Texas. After swallowing the bitter disappointment I realized how extraordinary that was. I had just decided to go to Alaska. That’s a pretty big deal. I had to wonder what others might do in such a situation. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as the Father consoled my heart with the reality that I was more annoyed that I wasn’t going to be working at a camp than I was intimidated by the prospect of flying to a remote and unforgiving part of the country to work sixteen hours a day processing fish. I thought back on the places that the difficulties that life had handed me, as well as the poverty I’ve voluntarily embraced these past few years, has taken me. The decision to move halfway across the country to a college I was in no way able to afford as well as to pursue a job that doesn’t allow for much debt has led me down a path in which I’ve been forced to be bold and creative. It’s the reason I became an RA, the reason I took odd jobs like pyrotechnician and seafood worker in order to make ends meet. It’s made me into someone unafraid to go to great lengths to follow the will of God, someone who performs magic tricks in bus stations to make little kids stop crying, someone not afraid to step in between the frightened woman and the thug who’s giving her trouble because, buddy, I’ve stared down a grizzly bear before and it was way uglier than you. It’s given me the ability to talk to anyone because I’ve traveled from one side of this continent to the other and met some pretty bizarre souls along the way. It’s given me courage, and if not for the necessity created by adversity, I wouldn’t have given those adventures the time of day.

Some of the most formative experiences of my life, the moments that truly made me the man that I am, have come as a result of adversity. I shudder to wonder the person I would have become if I had been given an easier path in life. And as I stood there demanding an answer from God, those words kept resounding in my heart: Adversity had made you extraordinary.

Dear reader, wherever you are, whatever you may be going through right now, know that (frustrating as it may be that everyone says this) God is using this experience to shape you in a way that you can’t even imagine. I know it seems dark now. But laying down and dying isn’t on your list of options today. Sorry about that. But you know what kid? You’re gonna be just fine.

Because the adversity has made you extraordinary.