Aaron and Reiko both broached a subject that came up every year in the Biodesign Class. No study of biology can go far without considering the “complementary yet opposite” dilemma of life and death. Yosemite commonly raised student hopes, dreams and visions to a higher elevation. Grand Canyon often evoked feelings of such immensity of time and change as to render one’s life miniscule, even insignificant. As Aaron mentioned, it forced him to deal with his own immortality.
Like all subjects, we approached the discussion of death openly, boldly, and as a part of the great circle of life. John Muir implored: “Let the children walk with nature and they will see that death has no sting…all is divine harmony.” We reviewed Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “5 stages” of approaching and accepting the reality of dying. However, the most haunting, and problematic possibility of dying involved suicide. The causes varied widely, and were unique to each individual, however there seemed to be a common bottom line. I tried to gather as much information as I could on all topics, and was profoundly impressed by a newspaper article about a Christian organization called, “Campus Crusade for Christ. I did not personally identify with some of their ideas, however, I was “blown away” by their dedication to saving lives. The suicide rate is much higher in urban areas and they organized and manned, “Suicide Hot Lines 24/7.” They advertised on radio, T.V., the yellow pages and on college campuses throughout the Country. College and high school counselors became aware of and offered phone numbers to troubled teens and young adults. But what impressed me most was the “triad” that they discovered. Simply put, the risk of suicide was extreme when people found themselves in a position of: 1) No one to love (feeling that they were unlovable). 2) Nothing to hope for. 3) Nothing constructive to do.
There were critics who openly suggested that some of the Biodesign topics of discussion were dangerous and should be avoided. One woman screamed on the phone at me for 45 minutes, claming that I destroyed her son’s faith. He was “scheduled” to be confirmed in the Catholic Church and he wanted more time to consider just what he was “confirming.” Another woman snarled at me for causing her son to pursue the ministry. She had hopes that he would become a lawyer or engineer. A local minister angrily attacked me as being, “unqualified” to be a spiritual leader of young people. I quickly agreed with him and said I had no intention of being a “spiritual leader.” However, I asked him how many teens he had in his congregation. He angrily snapped, “One! But that is none of your business.” Still, I wondered if I had given them too much freedom and whether some topics should be avoided. Over the years, I consulted with school counselors and even local psychologists and “friendly” clerics. They reminded me that the class was optional and students were free to drop if they felt the topics were too treacherous or unsettling. Over and over, I returned to my main mentor. If John Muir was correct, and one day in the wilderness was worth cartloads of books, was Mother Nature also not capable of healing and inspiring students? Not only that, the students themselves seemed to intuitively be able to heal each other of many of the scars and bruises that life had dealt them. Campus Crusade provided me with a great gift. The Half Dome hike often created bonds of friendship, camaraderie (even love). All three trips often provided a deep sense of inspiration and thus hope. And finally, the whole experience provided the students with something, not only constructive to do, but perhaps helped them form a foundation to build their lives on. Many of them have chosen to go into education, social work, medicine, the ministry, outdoor recreation and careers involving serving people. The class was not Nirvana. I am aware of several suicide attempts by Biodesigners, two of which were tragically successful. I can only hope that the other 750 (or so) discovered a deeper meaning of the biological world and the importance of their place in it.