An excerpt from the 37th Annual LaFollette Lecture
by Robert Royalty
Twenty-five years to the week before I left for England to walk Hadrian’s Wall, my father committed suicide in his car at our Atlanta home.
He died in May but the illness began well over a year before. The October before this he was giving dire warnings of a financial crash of apocalyptic magnitude. As a graduate student with little income, I was both apprehensive and skeptical of his warnings not to spend a penny that wasn’t absolutely necessary for survival. He pulled all funds from the stock market—he was a lawyer, wealthy enough—and put them in the money markets, anticipating a disaster. No disaster ever happened except the one he brought on himself and our family. By that Christmas we realized there were signs of serious, debilitating depression.
After a first suicide attempt in April I flew to Atlanta to visit him in the hospital. He was calm and controlled when I was there, but had “acted out” the night before and been restrained (placed in the padded cell, in his words). Perhaps he wanted a release from the pressures he faced in life, both real and imagined. By that point there was little difference between the two since his very, very sharp mind had become so clouded by the disease.
His death was as bad as you might think it would be. Emotions were so conflicted: grief, horror, sadness, love. And anger. All of us were devastated, for days, for weeks, for years.
Everyone in the family and everyone who knew him wanted to know “why.” Beyond a diagnosis of depression, that’s a very hard question to answer. By nature, I want to understand things—I’m an analytical thinker, which probably suits being a professor more than other vocations where you have to make a decision and move on. But I’ve had a hard time understanding the “why” here. We know a great deal more about depression and depression medications today than 25 years ago, but I’m not sure that would have saved him.
The week after he died, the children were gathered in a room in our house with my father’s therapist, a man he had known well before becoming so ill. He asked us what we had learned, I think—I know—what I replied: “Bend, don’t break. Bend, don’t break.”
I understand more now, both cognitively and emotionally from other experiences, that depression is a disease and people suffer from depression like people suffer from cancer and heart disease. Medicine and therapy can help. There is no shame in the disease and there should be no shame in suicide.
When I planned this trek I wasn’t thinking about the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. I thought a lot about the walk itself.
This was the first backpacking and longest trek I had done since I was a teenage Boy Scout. I injured my right knee during training in April. Soon I was hobbling around campus and climbing the stairs in Center Hall with considerable difficulty. I made two visits to orthopedists, got a steroid shot and a knee brace, and started physical therapy. There were some dark moods during this time barely a month before flying to England—I really wanted to do this walk and started to worry that it wouldn’t happen after all. But I improved and the knee didn’t bother me at all on the walk until the last two or three days.
I finished the walk with some new pains to go with the knee: severe blisters and lumbar vertebrae pushing on nerves. The very last day was short, but I limped slowly along the Firth of Solway, frightening off lambs, and took almost three hours to walk just over six miles.
But there was such joy and there were so many moments of clarity during the trek.
People have asked me what the best part of the walk was. My answer is that the walk in its entirety was the best part. It was a gestalt. For me, it was a magical time from the creaky start in Newcastle to the painful half day limping from Hillside Farm to Bowness. I was engulfed in the experience, the rich palette of hiking, natural beauty, and Roman archaeology. I felt exhilarated even when exhausted by the miles, thrilled by achieving a worthy goal.
I discovered that, on a long walk such as this, life becomes simplified, focused, and clear. Everything I had went in my backpack each morning. The only task I had besides walking to the next inn or bed and breakfast was to enjoy the day: the history, the scenery, and the birds. The goal was to enjoy the moment as the miles ticked by. I walked and looked, spied some birds, and thought. For nine days, I carried everything I had.
And I had to keep going. I suppose that’s true in a sense of any travel, but on mile 10 out of 20 for the day, the only way to go was forward. This wasn’t a day trip. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t turn back to the inn I had checked out of that morning. I had to keep going.
Faced with obstacles that seem minor now but loomed large at the time, I kept going. When these diversions upset my plan, I changed my plan.
I thought about how we live this way every day. It sounds trite now I’m sure, to say that we have to keep going. But think about how hard that can be. We all have lived in the past, dwelling on successes or failures or resentments, rather than moving ahead. And we have all known someone who couldn’t move forward. We say they are paralyzed—by grief, fear, indecision, or depression. They can’t “get on with their lives.” They can’t move. The metaphor of movement, of progress along our life’s journey or pilgrimage—this is fundamental to how we think about ourselves and our lives.
There are many paths, yes, but only one direction: forward.
Royalty is Professor of History and Religion at Wabash. Watch his complete LaFollette Lecture, “Walking Hadrian’s Wall: Meditations on Romans, Christians, Birds, and Growing Older.”