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The boy that no one noticed

Extreme social isolation takes its toll on three teenagers in this true story with a bitter ending that didn't have to be. Amelia offers an up-close look at the relationship between loneliness, despair, and adolescent suicide.
Everyone knows that high school isn't just about school.

It's about laughing in the cafeteria and texting under the desk during math class. It's about holding hands in the hallway and decorating friends' lockers on their birthdays. It's about going to football games, getting invited to parties, and pleading with parents for more freedom. For many teenagers, the academics are the least important part; high school is all about "the experience."

For one boy, however, high school means something entirely different. He doesn't have any of what his peers seem to live for. He doesn't have a girlfriend, a best friend, or a group that’s always around him; he’s pretty much a loner. He doesn't have a seat at anyone's lunch table; he eats by himself every day, then puts his head down and pretends to sleep. The teachers never catch him typing text messages from his lap during class, because he doesn't have anyone's phone number and no one wants his. But his isolation cuts deeper than simply not having any friends; he has no enemies, either. No one has ever cared enough to bully him, to gossip about him, or to spread a wild rumor about something he didn't actually do. High school is merely a reminder to him that, as far as everyone else is concerned, he might as well not exist. More or less, they don't really know that he does. He's the boy that no one ever noticed.

Two students stood in front of his gym class one day, picking teams for a game of dodge-ball. One by one, his classmates all joined one team or the other as their names were called. But neither team chose him. No one even seemed to realize that there was still someone standing there, waiting to be chosen—someone who, only a minute before, had been standing right next to all of them. Huddled obliviously in their teams, they high-fived each other and ran to the middle of the gym to start the game.

Twenty paces or so behind the crowd, he followed, as though he were numb to what had just happened. He chose a team for himself and found an empty spot and stood in it, ready to play. And there he stood, still invisible, as the game went on around him. No one let him have the ball. No one tried to strike him out. No one even tried to chuck the ball at him "just because." Everyone else was struck out one by one, until only the fastest, most athletic players remained. No one seemed to notice that he was still in the game (technically speaking), cruising back and forth, all clumsy and awkward, waiting for a chance to be part of it.

Until the bell rang, he waited.

* * *

At the same school a few years earlier, there was a girl that no one noticed. She came to school every day, got perfect grades, went to club meetings, and did as much as anyone else, if not far more. No matter how hard she tried, though, she never found her place. No one gave her a chance. She wasn't overweight like the boy, and her hair wasn't overgrown and unstyled like his. Her glasses weren't ten years out of fashion like his, and she didn't wear elastic-bottomed sweatpants and t-shirts that didn't match, either. As pretty, thin, stylish, kindhearted, and smart as she was, she still wasn't good enough for them. Who knows what their standard of "good enough" could have been, but, guaranteed, she wouldn't have been able to meet it.

For the next couple of years, she suffered alone, while thousands of eyes, thousands of minds, thousands of hearts swarmed all around her—just none that cared. Isolated and terribly lonely, she was unable to deal with things anymore. She went home from school one afternoon, decided she couldn't take it anymore, and never came back.

So far, no one has stopped to ask or wonder or worry where she might be. In fact, no one has seemed to figure out, yet, that she's missing.

* * *

Same school, a few more years back, there was another boy that no one noticed. Last week, his mother found his body hanging in a closet.

And suddenly, everyone noticed.

His suicide must have really rattled them. Startled, they woke up, rubbed their groggy eyes and took a quick look at life beyond their cliques, and they found themselves staring at something awful: As it turns out, the problem wasn't that the boy had gone through high school anonymous and invisible; everyone had noticed him. Problem was, no one cared.

Even in the wake of this bitter tragedy, as his classmates' tears fell and their emotions flowed freely, they still didn't necessarily care about him. They grieved, but only for themselves and each other, for how they felt. They were sorry that something sad had happened, but they weren't sorry for him or for what he went through. They were sorry for their own loss, even though they hadn't lost anything special to them. The stories they shared in remembrance of him weren't even stories that involved him; after all, he'd had no important role in anyone's memories. And once the weekend of his funeral had come and gone, they all went right back to not remembering, not caring.

Although it probably wasn't his goal, he accomplished one thing, if only for a moment: He stopped being the boy that no one noticed. All these people acknowledging his death had finally realized that he had been there, alive—that he'd existed! And maybe their attention wasn't sincere (or maybe parts of it were), and maybe it didn't last, but they ALL finally noticed, every single one of them.

Just not in time.

Surely, at that moment, the devil was laughing. He was laughing at everyone—the classmates, the school counselors, the kid's parents, everyone. But most especially, he was laughing at this poor, unnoticed, didn't-matter-to-anyone, too-late-to-be-helped, dead boy. A 20-year-old boy whom God still wanted alive.

How differently things might have turned out if someone would have started paying attention ten years before, even ten days before!

If someone—anyone—would have gathered together a group of friends to sit with him at lunch, those same friends might not have had to gather around his coffin only a few short years in the future. If somebody had donated a dollar to the school's Valentine's Day fundraiser so that he, too, could've had a carnation delivered to his first period class, maybe he wouldn't be lying in a fresh grave now with 500 carnations heartlessly tossed on top, left there to wilt under the scorching sun. From all the people who showed their compassion at the funeral, if just one could have shared that compassion with him a titch sooner, maybe he would have found the strength to hold on one extra day before killing himself—and in that one extra day, he might have found God and changed his mind.

Until last week, there was always that chance that someone could have made a difference in his life. But for this one, unnoticed boy, and for the tens of thousands just like him, it's too late to do him any favors.

For everyone else, though—for all the ones who haven't staggered past their breaking point, no matter how close to it they might be, it's still not too late. There's at least one girl and at least one other boy in that town who still have some time. They might appreciate a kind word or a sincere smile, or perhaps even a genuine attempt at a real friendship. It might mean the world to them. Literally. A reason to continue living in it.

Maybe, secretly, they're okay with being lonely and ignored and cut off from everyone and everything—but what if they're not? Maybe they're confident and hopeful and full of faith that God loves them even if no one else does—but what if they're not? God forbid the idea of suicide ever to enter their minds—but what if it already has?

Loneliness isn't enough, by itself, to drive a person to suicide; neither is being an outcast or being bullied. Other factors have an impact, of course. But from the people who do end up self-destructing, when we look back and recall that we did notice them—how many had been lonely? How many had been completely cut off by everyone around them? How many had been picked on, or ignored, or forgotten, day after day, year after year, while everyone around them was too caught up to try and help, or to be plain-old nice, or even to feel sorry? By itself, social isolation isn't enough to drive people to suicide, but it's more than enough to nudge them over the edge, especially if they’re already standing there peering downward, teetering on one foot.

We'd like to believe—professionals and laypeople alike—that suicide is an unfortunate mystery, a tragedy that no one understands and that we're helpless to prevent. And from the secular perspective, maybe that's true. From the Orthodox Christian perspective, however, it's not. Despite the many differences in the life situations of people who attempt or consider suicide, there's one underlying cause that's always the same. There’s also, unconditionally, one thing we can always do to help prevent it.

Whether we're Christian or not, we all agree on what's the most imminent cause of suicide: Some combination of despair and hopelessness. But we have to be Christian to know that the solution is equally imminent and sure: The solution is the Lord, Whose grace will rescue us every single time if we believe. Real faith isn't shaken in difficult times; it's what carries us through them when nothing else can.

In other words, there's no such thing as "Christian but despairing," or "Christian but hopeless." Christ God takes away all despair and hopelessness, but the other half of the equation is the belief that He will. In our darkest moments, if God sees us leaning on that belief, trusting it with our very life, He draws nearer to us—so near that we realize we can let go of everything else because we can actually feel Him holding us up.

Sadly, not everyone has that kind of faith or wants it. More sadly, not everyone knows how much it would help.

If we see someone suffering, especially someone who's suffering alone, we have a moral responsibility and a Christian obligation to try and establish or rekindle that kind of faith in them. It's the only way to save their lives. We can't give them hope—no one can, but we can lead them toward it, toward Christ. The problem lies in how to get to the point of teaching them about God, about finding hope in His promise of eternal life and everlasting joy, if we never take the time to notice that they're suffering in the first place. How much of an impact can we have on their faith if we're busy shunning them, ignoring them, or pretending like they don't even exist?

For at least one boy and at least one girl, it's not too late to be nice. It's not too late to sit down with them in the lunchroom, or to include them in a conversation. It's not too late to make an honest attempt at friendship and, once the door is open, to be a friend in Christ. It's not too late to be there for anyone else, either—the people where we work, our friends, our children, our neighbors, strangers who cross paths with us, or even our enemies. It's never too late, as long as they're still alive, to notice them, to love them, and, most importantly, to let them know that someone loves them.

Granted, they have to do their part, too. All we can do without their participation is pray for them. If we offer them kindness, it's their job to accept it. Down the road, if we teach them about true hope—Christian hope, it's their responsibility to seek it. If they don't want our compassion, friendship, mercy, or help (or any of God's), we really can't force it on them. But it's unfair (and, more importantly, unholy) for us to assume that they don't want it and not bother to try. If we pass up all of our opportunities to help and then, God forbid, they kill themselves, their blood is on our hands, too. An important part of being Christian is making sure that we aren't shutting people out. And if others are shutting them out, we need to make sure we're not shutting our eyes. Whether they're friends or enemies, familiar or strangers, of any worldly benefit to us or not, we aren't exempt—especially not if we're Christians—from having compassion on them. God sees how much we love Him in how much we love others.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
— Matthew 25:37-40

Our love for God is a reflection of our love for others, His children. If we shut them out, we're shutting Him out, too. If we turn a blind eye to their suffering—or, worse, if we contribute to it, the Lord is hanging on the precious Cross, parched with thirst, and we're handing Him some more vinegar. When people are hurting and we have an opportunity to try and ease their pain a little, even when we're not sure whether it will help, God still expects us to try. He expects us to try even if they're awkward, or unpopular, or loners, and even if they do things to drive people away from them in the first place. Even if they don't seem to want our love, we still have to give it. The Lord will gladly accept it on their behalf.

For one boy, and probably at least a handful of others we used to know, it's too late to do anything other than pray for mercy on them, on all of us. For another boy and a girl, as well as for many others, there's still time. But only God knows how much.