Suicide is always a tragedy even when it ends a life filled with pain, but when it happens to young people it’s worse. It isn’t simply about age and the waste of human potential, or the grief and guilt carried thereafter by family members; too often young people are dying in response to what members of my generation have learned is a nitpickingly small event. Many appear to be consumed with shame, and it usually involves their sexuality, or appearance, or vulnerability to exploitation.

We all understand shame. If you have escaped all forms of embarrassment, especially in your early attempts to promote your sexuality, than you have either been remarkably lucky, or surrounded by a protective shell. And one particular lesson shame teaches us is that many, many people absolutely thrive on exploiting and expanding whatever humiliation you have endured into a world-class event. Library shelves are stocked with books on why some people need to make others look foolish, but whether it’s embedded in our cultural psychology or our genetic makeup, it feels very real and produces intense agony.

Lately, a move to class all such people as bullies has been promoted but, to me, that is a “thug” word and doesn’t express anywhere near the complexity and nuance used by truly aggressive propagators of social ridicule.

One fact young people seldom understand is how you deal with ridicule is an art in itself - one worth learning (or being taught by parents). Indeed, on more than one occasion I have seen people become heroes simply for the way they reacted to being shamed. But whether you react well, or badly, the pain does eventually fade and if you can’t believe it at the time, evidence does exist to support this reality. You just may not recognize it as such. Have you ever heard anyone brag that they learned many lessons in life the “hard way”? (I’m one.) This is generally a euphemism for saying we did a lot of stupid things and through the grace of God and with the help of others we somehow survived.

Like most young people I received a great deal of advice in my early years, with a considerable amount of wisdom and clear thinking contained therein. Still, everyone has moments when they are overtaken by an impulse and just reach out and touch that “hot stove” for themselves. It’s the nature of youth to learn from pushing boundaries, and avoiding the scars left behind is often purely a matter of luck. Over time we learn to be less impulsive and many of those mistakes, if made early enough in life, help us develop into a more successful person. Being tagged a loser is a great incentive to end up a winner.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that achieving acceptance is almost universally a priority in young people – it’s part of growing up – but where is it written that we have to be widely popular in order to be thought of as a worthwhile human being? Looking back over the last sixty plus years some of my best memories are when I was able to totally annoy people whom I considered self-absorbed, self-important, self-centered – you get the picture – or hypocrites, another group worthy of a year-round-open-harassment-season. Did I leave out prudes? I shouldn’t have, they get their jollies by applying a rigid set of standards and condemning everyone who doesn’t meet them. (I have noticed that as they age their circle of friends become smaller, even zeros out on occasion... so few people measure up over a lifetime.)

It may be a trite and worn-out homily but you truly will never please everyone and it doesn’t matter because a few really good friends are enough. Indeed, as you get older you learn that the more people who think you are special the greater the burden of expectations placed upon you and, if you are a conscientious sort, the greater the anxieties you feel trying to meet those expectations.



Lately, the new digital age burden of having almost continuous communication with all who are important in your life, via computers and their mobile offspring, has further magnified this ongoing pressure to accept the goals others create for you. It takes a great deal of self-belief and strength to say “no” to people you care for and that doesn’t develop overnight. Maturity teaches us how to demand our own space and gives us the ability to live within it. Young people haven’t reached that stage and remain open to conflicting and confusing demands – all happening in a brain that doesn’t physically finish growing until after the teenage years are over… and the last part to finish developing is the rational decision making center (scientific fact).

High-profile attention has been focused on a number of teen suicides involving the Internet. Apparently, when you combine the underdeveloped minds with the very developed appearance of present day young people, and the instant and constant communication devices now dominating our lives, it’s easy to forget how two dimensional and impersonal these devices allow us to be. Anyone can fall prey to a false sense of security, even if just for a thoughtless instant, encouraging them to share intimate details of their life, or the life of a friend, in a medium where intimacy doesn’t exist. This desire for acceptance and recognition leaves young people so open to being taken advantage of that becoming a victim, on some level, is almost a rite of passage.

If you have been victimized, and are feeling apprehensive about the long-term impact of your teenage follies, the prescription is clear if not easy. Tough it out and learn from it by showing that you are a quality person, the kind of honest, caring and positive individual that makes a good friend. Sooner or later the people around you will get over whatever issues they have, and learn to view your mistake as another goofy anomaly of youth. If you don’t believe this, sit down with a group of senior citizens and listen to the kind of stories they are sharing and laughing about. You will discover in a hurry that the ones who lived a good life were the ones who took a few risks. Getting burned was part of the process and their uninhibited relating of the details leave little doubt they are long recovered from the initial humiliation.