The death of someone you know or even love is always difficult and painful for those left behind. When it comes through such shocking circumstances as Malachi Ritscher’s, it is even moreso. That his death by self-immolation was framed by him in explicitly political terms exacerbates the trauma and confusion only further, no matter your feelings about those poltics.
Family members have also been weighing in, and regrettably their private conflicts and hurts — undoubtedly magnified by these events — have spilled bitterly into public view. It is not my place to pass judgement, especially about an obviously complicated family history I have never been privy to, but it saddens me still further to see old and deep wounds on all sides torn open anew before us all.
After nearly a week since I first learned the news, I felt courageous enough to try to express my feelings in more depth by posting to that thread. Here is what I had to say (with one or two typos corrected).
Today I write from far Seattle to somehow try to express my heartfelt pain, sympathies, and respects for the man and friend I always knew as Malachi, and for his entire family, wherever they are and whatever they are feeling.
I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to walk in the shoes of his family in these difficult days. You deserve our respect and compassion, and I am angered some here have chosen to display anything but that toward you. Ironically, it seems to exemplify the very spiritual crisis that Malachi invoked in what he called his final Mission Statement. I do not speak for those people but, nevertheless, on their behalf I apologize to you all — brothers, sisters, ex-wife, and offspring — for such manifestly inexcuseable treatment. You deserve far better in your pain and grief, no matter what form that might take.
Like everyone posting here, it seems, I too have been struggling mightily to come to grips with his death, what it was that led him to such an incredible decision, and what it might really mean. Every day since I learned of his death late last Monday night, I’ve struggled to understand and articulate my feelings about it, with no real success. Right now, all I really know is that I feel profoundly conflicted about it, and the whole thing is the very antithesis of simple…not to say that anyone’s death by their own hand, for whatever reasons, ever is. If my words fail me here, I hope you (and he) will forgive me. I, too, am finding my way in territory I never imagined I would ever see.
I knew him as a good friend, albeit not a Close one. I met him nearly 20 years ago, when he was a regular at Club Lower Links. Our mutual love for music and art that challenged preconceptions and expanded possibilities became the basis for our friendship. We were fellow travellers, comrade explorers, and shared a devotion to finding a new and better way, whether artistic, cultural, political, or personal. I make no pretense that I or we were any more noble for it — I only know that this is what meant the most to me and, I believe, to Malachi as well. History and personal experience teaches me that such souls are almost always directly informed by a sense of profound alienation and, significantly, a overwhelming desire to heal that wound, for themselves and for the world we all share. Like any other soul, they are imperfect. And thus, their actions.
Whatever the source, these are consummately lonely pursuits, and in such all friends are precious indeed. When one is lost to death or some other circumstance, it is felt at one’s very core. That lonely place is made only more bereft. Not only for our loss, but for theirs. It is as if Evil has won.
The Malachi I knew was a complicated person. And so while his death has shocked me it comes as little surprise that it, too, would be complicated. I knew him to be brilliant, perceptive, by turns deeply sensitive and extremely guarded (a common paradox borne of self-preservation), talented, witty, intensely curious about the world, sometimes very dark and other times remarkably puckish, and — clearly — deeply committed to his principles. While his self-penned obituary belittled his musical talent, I am pleased to have once induced him to share the stage with me and my then-band, as one of several didjeridu players…all the more fitting now, as the dijeridu is a gateway to Dreamtime.
I have had the great honor and privilege to know a number of such people in my life, and even to count some of them as friends. Being a friend to such people is never easy or simple; loving them is only infinitely moreso. It is by turns a revelation and the most vexing thing imaginable. Almost without exception, my experience is that it is this sort of person who cries out most, implicitly or loudly, for compassion and some sort of understanding and acceptance. I am also taught that all too often, rightly or wrongly, they feel it is not forthcoming or just plain insufficient. Malachi is not the first such Friend Soul I’ve lost to death, though he is the first I’ve lost like this. I pray he is the last.
How can any of us living here outside of their minds ever hope to understand the full truth of that? As decent human beings who profess to love our neighbor, we can only try that much harder to achieve that most difficult of marks. This, I believe, is the very nucleus of all great spiritual teachings, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, or shamanic. Vocabulary, schmocabulary…it all boils down to the same. Love, and be a good person, as best as you possibly can.
I also believe that this precept is what Malachi, ultimately and with every fiber of his being, hoped to instill in us through his death. Did he chose a shitty way to teach us this? Well…it’s hard to argue not, though I well understand and acknowledge the political precedent and spiritual intent. Was this the only factor at play in his decision? Again…given his own parting words to us, it’s difficult at best to argue a categorical No.
But does all that ipso facto mean his parting message to us was some “adolescent” lie, or his passion for justice disingenuous, or his pain at feeling his fellow and sister humanity suffer so beneath the noxious weight of injustice and folly and abject stupidity, or that any of those are not Real? Does any of this mean that the war against Iraq or the actions — war-wise or otherwise — of the current administration smack any less of hypocrisy, criminalism, cronyism, stupidity, arrogance, or as an abject betrayal of the very Christian teachings they profess to extoll? You may disagree, but I would say no once more. I say this as neither Republican or Democrat, or even Independent. I say this as a feeling dweller in this world.
It grieves me even deeper still to see the deep wounds of his surviving family displayed here before us. I pass no judgement here, and it is profoundly wrong for any of us not personally part of that obviously complicated family history to do so. I merely offer these following remarks, if you might all forgive my temerity.
To his brother Peter Ritscher, when I read your words “I am proud of him; very, very sad, but very, very proud” — I burst into tears as I sat at my desk at work.
To his son Malachi, when I read your words some moments later, I burst into tears again. Although from what little I can gather here the particulars were different and much less traumatic, I too was estranged from my own father for many years — indeed, from early childhood. In my case, my father and I were finally able to make peace, something that was profoundly healing for both of us.
In your case, you were cheated of this. You lost your father not just twice but irrevocably. I do not know you or your life, and you have no reason or obligation to give my words one whit of consideration. All I know is that as I struggle now to write these words I suddenly find myself weeping — not crying, but weeping uncontrollably — for the first time since I learned of your father’s death a week ago. No son who has not felt the loss of their father, in life or death, can even begin to understand the chasm it leaves. Even a one-time wife or girlfriend may mourn or rail, but whatever their wounds and however justified their pain, they are of an entirely lesser realm. That is not right or wrong, it simply Is.
As I am the first to acknowledge, I am not you. But in my own case, achieving a deeper understanding of my own father’s spiritual struggles and familial traumas long predating my birth helped provide my own gateway to deeper understanding and ultimately — no, miraculously — compassion, and eventually, acceptance and peace. It is my deepest hope for you that someday you might find some similar understanding, with full recognition and respect that it in no way lessens the justice of your own pain and depth of your loss. If I may truly risk your understandble wrath, please may I offer to you the hugely presumptuous counsel that both “sides” are right and wrong at the same time. Call it Schrodinger’s wound. Call it Rashoman. Call it whatever you like. But for the sake of yourself and your own children, try. Try mightily, and be true no matter the cost. Most humbly I say this.
Only through compassion and understanding will this world become a better place. This, I believe, is what my friend born as Mark David Ritscher — by any name and however pained — would wish for us all. How…HOW…could that be wrong? For this is the greatest teaching of all.
I have more to say, but no words to say it with. Today, I only wish the wide and private worlds were not such that led my old friend to burn himself to death, whether for principle, because of inner pain, or — as I currently believe to be the case — some mixture of the two.
To the friend I always knew as Malachi, I am so very, very sorry we all failed you so. You, too, deserved far better.
“There is no fire like greed,
No crime like hatred,
No sorrow like separation,
No sickness like hunger of heart,
And no joy like freedom.”
– from the Dhammapada, translated by Thomas Byrom.