Commentary

Life is beautiful and worth living

Originally Appeared in : 9812-6/7/18

Over the last few weeks, I have been distressed to learn of four suicides of high school or college age students connected in some way with my parishioners. My heart goes out to the parents, grandparents, siblings and friends of these young men and women — boys and girls — who decided at an early age to end their lives.

 

It does not surprise me to discover that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “the suicide rates for adolescent boys and girls have been steadily rising since 2007.” Specifically, the suicide rate for girls 15-19 increased by 100 percent from 2007 to 2015, while the rate for boys the same ages increased by 30 percent — roughly three times as many males than females 15-19 committed suicide in 2015 (1,537 vs. 524) in the richest country in the world.

 

What might be the factors that have led too many young Americans to seek this drastic and permanent solution to problems that are rarely permanent? What follows is speculation on my part, a series of educated guesses by an older man and experienced priest.

 

Although I grew up in a Protestant family in the early days of television, we watched the Catholic Bishop Fulton J Sheen’s classic program, “Life Is Worth Living,” nearly every Tuesday evening, first on the old Dumont network (1953-55) and then on ABC (1955-57). The show was so popular that it swept the Nielsen ratings, beating Milton Berle, the “king of Tuesday night television,” so badly that his network (NBC) bought out his contract and retired him.

 

Bishop Sheen’s basic set consists of a blackboard in front of curtains. Although broadcast only in black and white, it somehow seemed full of color, as Bishop Sheen strode on screen in his episcopal robes. “With his hypnotic gaze, disarming smile, and dramatic delivery,” he laid out in a systematic way the worth of living. The context was the aftermath of the horrors of the preceding decades—the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and the Cold War. In a sense, the modern world seemed repeatedly to have attempted suicide. Individuals, too, often despaired of the value of life; the suicide rate began to rise. It is no wonder that large numbers of Americans tuned in to watch and hear Bishop Sheen on Tuesday evenings, for we need to be reminded that life is indeed worth living, no matter how difficult we may find it at times.

 

In 1997, 0 years after “Life Is Worth Living” ended, Roberto Benigni stunned the world with his phenomenally successful film, La Vita è Bella, “Life Is Beautiful.” Not only did the film win the Academy Award as the year’s best film in a foreign language, but Benigni won the Oscar for Best Actor. “Life Is Beautiful” was still playing in Savannah, so I asked some of my former students from Pacelli High School, Columbus, if they would like to see it. I cautioned them that the movie was in Italian, with English subtitles. They said they didn’t mind. For the next few hours, we sat mesmerized by this tragic yet comedic masterpiece, set in Fascist Italy, portrayed a Jewish man trying to protect his wife and son from the horrors around them by interpreting them as elaborate games that they could win. Even when interned in a German concentration camp, Benigni’s character shields his young son from reality with an ingenious humor that makes the “game” seem plausible. 

 

As we left the theater after the tragic but uplifting ending, I noticed that my three young friends had tears in their eyes. I asked them what they thought, and they replied, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life!”

 

Thank you, Fulton Sheen for reminding millions that life is worth living, because as Roberto Benigni reminded us, it is intrinsically beautiful, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear its beauty.

 

Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

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