Classics enthusiasts will tell you that the Ancient Greeks had a story about everything.
Then they'll tell you that over and over and over until you're sick of hearing about how the Ancient Greeks had a story about everything.
But, compulsive stereotypical didacticism aside, it remains true: Greek myth has insight into every facet of human existence from the mundane to the cosmic.
And that includes the phenomenon of suicide.
This was on my mind as I arrived in State College, Pennsylvania, to perform for the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League Convention at Penn State.
It was on my mind because of the recent news that one of my favorite singers, Chris Cornell, had taken his life. Check out his version of Nothing Compares 2 U: it's a heartbreaking take on an already heartbreaking song and it captures perfectly what made Cornell one of if not the best rock singer of our time: an otherworldly combination of power and nuance almost always tinged with a mysterious but compelling mix of anger and sadness.
As is often the case with musician deaths, the news of his passing flooded me with memories connected to his music: middle school art class hearing Outshined for the first time; high school going to Lollapalooza with Temple of the Dog blaring out of the van speakers...
And the manner of death also resurrected the unfortunate number of family members and friends who have succumbed to the same fate or been touched by loss to suicide, going all the way back to high school when we lost our friends Mari and Liz to the same demon that took Chris Cornell.
And, to connect to my first point, it also made me think of the Greek hero Ajax, who committed suicide in the context of the Trojan War, largely as a result of a disagreement he had with Odysseus over the armor of Achilles.
One of the most incredible images in Greek art is a vase painting of Ajax setting up his sword in order to fall on it:
So Chris Cornell and Ajax were on my mind as I rolled into the Nittany Lion Inn on the picturesque Penn State campus. My show wasn't until 10:00 pm so I had some time to explore the campus and see the 600 seat room in which I'd perform for the 450 or so high school-aged convention attendees.
The room was gorgeous: epic and live sounding. I wore a lapel microphone while I sang, something I don't usually do, but something that suited the room wonderfully, and created an ambiance around my voice that isn't always present with a regular microphone.
It made me feel like the whole speaker system and really the whole room was an extension of my voice and body and this was electrifying to me as I very consciously tried to channel a bit of Chris Cornell-magic during my performance.
The last chord was still ringing out when the students began applauding and soon were giving me an extended standing ovation, an incredible feeling.
The discussion that followed was typically great and we touched on Odysseus' standing as a hero.
Much of the debate around Odysseus' morals (or lack thereof) generally centers around his fidelity (or lack thereof) to Penelope. This is a question way beyond the scope of this post but high school audiences in particular love to discuss it and generally show disgust at Odysseus' dalliances.
But during this discussion with the kids it occurred to me that Odysseus' role in Ajax's suicide is perhaps a worse mark against his soul.
I remembered book 11 of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus comes face-to-face with Ajax's ghost and Ajax refuses to speak with him and turns away.
That night in a dream I came face-to-face with my own ghost. I was back in the room in which I'd performed but there was only one person in the audience: Chris Cornell. I asked him what he thought about my show and just like Ajax he refused to speak to me.
But he didn't turn away.
He smiled, slowly rose, and gave me a standing ovation.
Rest in peace those who have fallen victim to suicide, from Ajax to Chris Cornell and everyone in between. It's a brutal disease and I'm not sure we talk about it in the right terms if at all. Many illnesses have mortality rates and depression is no different. It seems different because the act of taking one's life gives the illusion of control over the mortality. But this isn't the right way to think about it. Some people, no matter how hard they try, just don't make it.
So practice compassion around depression and suicide, for the individuals and their families. For those who make it and those who don't and leave behind grieving families and friends. The Suicide Prevention Hotline is always there at 1-800-273-8255.