Suicides and Shoelaces

Last September at the second annual Cell2Soul conference, Jim Johnson, a retired advertising executive and host of Mason Hill Farm conference center, told me that he reached a point in his life where he resolved to spend the rest of his days helping folks in need. Johnson made this decision after hearing a story about a young man who was poised to jump off a bridge in the Midwest. As he stood by the railing contemplating suicide, a passer-by happened to look down at the young man’s footwear and remark: “Nice boots.” For some reason that small comment was enough to distract the young man from his obsession at that moment, and he never went through with his plan.

“You never know when even the least little acknowledgment might save the life of another human being,” Johnson told me.

According to a recent New York Times article — Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers — the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-old Americans increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004. By contrast, the suicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds increased less than 2 percent during the same period.

Although the reasons for the increase are not clear, the author of the piece offered several speculations. A prime suspect is the skyrocketing use — and abuse — of prescription drugs. Andrew C. Leon, a professor of biostatistics in psychiatry at Cornell, suggested that a drop in the use of hormone replacement therapy in women after 2002, leading to increased rates of post-menopausal depression, might be implicated. Veterans have been identified as another vulnerable group. Myrna M. Weissman, the chief of Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute, blames frayed social support networks brought about by a hyper-mobile society.

Perhaps more telling were comments from readers, many of which implicated the downturn in the economy, the war in Iraq, the growing societal obsession with youth and physical appearance, the rise of ageism in the workplace, and a nadir of self-belief and optimism between 40 and 50. As a possible antidote, one reader called for a new revolution, where age and wisdom are valued — not discarded, devalued or diminished.

One poignant comment from a would-be suicide caught my eye: “The loss of a loved one is always painful, and questions will remain forever unanswered.” When this particular reader contemplated taking her life, the one thing that stopped her was she didn’t know who would tie her little boy’s shoes after she was gone.

“He couldn’t do it on his own and I hadn’t taught him that skill yet. His huge brown eyes always looked in fascination as I deftly whipped his shoe laces into perfect bows. He smiled and said he would do that someday, too.”

As in Jim Johnson’s story, a seemingly small and insignificant act saved a life and gained a convert.

“Something that minor to me was awe inspiring to a little boy,” this mother wrote. “I now have five grandsons and I tie their shoes, too.”

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