By Davide Maglie, GBU Chairman
In the last few weeks I have been struck and deeply disturbed by news stories which have to do with the context in which the GBU operates. On the 1st of February news reached the press and national media about the suicide of a student at the Iulm University in Milan. A young woman whose name we do not know was found dead in the university toilets. Just over a month later, on 3 March, came the dramatic news of the suicide of a student at the Federico II University in Naples. Her name was Diana.
The student from Milan left a letter of farewell to her family, in which she tried to explain the reasons for her gesture. They can be traced back to a general sense of failure, to her not feeling equal to her family’s expectations and sacrifices to make her study. Instead, the student from Naples had constructed a false narrative about her course of study, and may not have been able to cope with the sense of shame or guilt. She had announced that she was close to graduating, when she was not. Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. In the last three years, ten university students have taken their own lives. And these are just the known cases.
A challenge for the GBU
We must not underestimate the situation and take seriously the mental health of the students the GBU ministry deals with. On the 15th of February, following the shock of the suicide in Milan, Emma Ruzzon, President of the Student Council of the University of Padua, said during her speech at the opening of the academic year: “When did studying become a competition? When did training become secondary to performing? All we know is that a good life, a dignified life, is not ours by right, but something we have to deserve’. Words that should make us pause.
We must engage ourselves as a ministry and thus equip ourselves and raise awareness of our co-workers, especially our front line, to pay proper attention in recognising the signs of discomfort, of existential malaise, the non-verbal or indirectly expressed signals. But I want to add something personal, which may explain the reasons for my emotional upset at the news I am reporting.
My personal experience
I was a university student who experienced traumatic interruptions in his life: the person with whom I shared my exam preparation, my academic alter ego, was a friend, her name was Cristina, and she lost her life in a car accident on New Year’s Eve 1992. We had said goodbye to each other a few weeks earlier, in mid-December, with the commitment to resume the preparation of the exams of the common syllabus when we returned from the Christmas holidays. All the exams we had prepared together had gone well and we were encouraged by the results. This news produced an emotional upheaval in me, exacerbated by other traumas that had occurred, and made me unable to concentrate on studying.
At that time, I was “kept afloat” by active involvement in a church ministry, which occupied my days. However, guilt and feelings of inadequacy were burrowing inside me: I attended classes, but could in no way concentrate on reading the study texts. On several occasions I left the house to take exams, but I did not reach the classrooms where I was supposed to take them. I could not accept the death of that sensitive, intelligent and generous girl. I was angry with God and had entered a kind of black hole; and even if on the outside I smiled and said ‘it is all right, the Lord is good and will provide for my needs’ inside I was emotionally torn apart.
Eventually, the love of my biological and spiritual family helped me to redirect my life in a healthier and more satisfying direction. I overcame the acute phase of the crisis and managed to complete my studies. But I could never have done it alone. I remember well, even though I never spoke about it willingly and never in public, the frustration, indeed the depression, the anger, the sense of self-pity that had held me back and prevented me from progressing in my studies.
Around us, bearers of hidden challenges
Dear staff and students who participate in GBU activities, I want to encourage you to look at those who relate to you as potential carriers of hidden challenges. If they feel judged by you, they will not truly open their hearts. If you present only normative models of high spirituality, they may smile at you and say “amen”, but you will not reach them where they are, at the heart of their conflicts. Be able to welcome and encourage, without judging. Bring out their sense of failure, their insecurities, their challenges by sharing your own. You do not have to recount every detail, just be honest and open, genuinely interested in their lives.
I believe these words from Ecclesiastes can help us:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.Ecclesiastes (3:1-11)
These words have an enormous magnetic force, a poetic flow that continues to shake us, to not leave us indifferent.
Within human existence lies both what is desirable and what we would gladly avoid, within a chronological cycle that takes the form of the oscillation of a clock, or rather a pendulum. Qoelet/Ecclesiastes is not an idealist who optimistically hopes for a period of peace and celebration that can erase the less desirable dimension of existence. As the biblical scholar William P. Brown reminds us: ‘Every activity has its season and the seasons have their place in the rhythm of the eternal rotation, it is not appropriate to dance in time of mourning, weeping does not suit celebration, silence when the rights of the oppressed are at stake. Even hatred has its time, as the psalms of imprecation remind us.” The real challenge of the wise man is therefore to “recognise what time it is that you are living in. Discern the appropriate and inappropriate time to say certain things, to perform certain actions.
Dear reader, when “sharing Jesus” be open to the lives of the people you are addressing. You will need wisdom and discretion, at certain stages and moments; but you will also need courage and resourcefulness, when you have to ask “the questions that matter”, the most difficult ones, in order to reach the students where they are and really help them, in the stretch of the journey you will make together. There will be a time to walk together and then you will have to let go. This separation at the end of the study cycle is also natural and physiological.
Of course, we hope to find those students again later, having become mature and aware men and women, capable of picking up the baton and passing on to other generations that sense of wonder and awareness of life. Within a divinely inspired and Christologically oriented wisdom and, who knows, collaborators in various capacities of the GBU. But “there is a time for everything”, recognise the time you are living in and remain listening to God’s plans for your life. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11).