December 2, 2020

Nick Lannon on Lessons from Jr. Seau

From Derision to Compassion: The Death of Junior Seau
by Nick Lannon
Posted at Mockingbird on 5/9/12, and used by permission

Nick’s blog: My Series of Tubes

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It was like a switch was thrown. I was at an open gym, shooting baskets with a bunch of guys, talking about the news of the day: the apparent suicide of former NFL great and presumptive Hall of Famer Junior Seau. Many of the guys couldn’t believe that a man who was so famous, so rich, who had so much, could be depressed. What could possibly be so bad about his life that it wasn’t worth living? The tone of the conversation quickly became derisive. Seau must have been weak. Fragile. Pathetic. Then someone suggested that his brain may have been irreparably damaged by the numerous minor head traumas he suffered over the course of his playing career.

It was like a switch was thrown. All of a sudden, no one had a cutting remark. No one was talking about how satisfied they were with so much less than Seau had. We recalled the story of Dave Duerson, another former NFL player who committed suicide, who had shot himself in the chest expressly so that his brain could be studied; he had known his depression was physically sourced (subsequent medical examination of his brain proved him right). The mood in the gym became somber, and the tone, compassionate.

I couldn’t believe how quickly derision became compassion. Then I realized what had really happened: the group had collectively transitioned from seeing Seau as basically “able,” that is, in control of and responsible for his actions and mental state, to basically “disabled,” that is, the victim of forces beyond his control. It is only natural to feel derision for people who are able to control themselves and do not, and just as natural to feel compassion for people who are unable to control themselves.

Here’s the thing: Christians are disabled. Not especially disabled, just as disabled as non-Christians. It is easy for us, especially the preachers and ministers among us, to think of Christians as “able” in a way that they (read: we) are not.

And the result? Derision.

If we see people as fundamentally able to make good choices, possessing the ability to improve, and able to control their minds, our ability to be compassionate toward them will wither and die. This is particularly damaging (as you might imagine) for preachers and pastors, but will damage any relationship.

At one time in my life, a close friend confided in me that he and his girlfriend were having sex. We prayed together, and I assumed that that would be the end of it. But, despite their stated desire not to, they kept doing it! I know: you’re shocked. At the time, though, I was shocked. I couldn’t understand (I was comically blind to my own nature…as, of course, I remain to this day) how someone could continually do something that he didn’t want to do (Romans 7:14-20). As my friend’s confessions to me mounted, my compassion for him withered. Finally, it was replaced by anger: why couldn’t he just stop?

As a pastor, I have come to know that Paul’s words in Romans 7 are not only true, but fundamental to pastoral care for people. Compassion cannot exist where we see people as “able,” because people are inveterate failures. Pastors will either come to hate their people (because they’re not following your good advice) or themselves (because you’re not communicating the advice well enough). In either case, hatred is the end result.

If we are to avoid hating those closest to us (including ourselves!), and are to avoid heaping scorn on those further away, we must begin to see people as the “disabled” creatures that they are. Like Paul, and potentially, Junior Seau, they often “do the very thing they hate.” We can only be there, compassionately, when they cry out for a savior, with the Good News that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).


  1. Michelle says

    Thank you. I needed this. In my pride and self deception, I think I’m being helpful with my advice, ‘insights’ and ‘logic’, when in fact I’m being judgemental and not compassionate or merciful.

  2. Thank you…almost didn’t read this, thinking it was a sports article….

    You are right. It is also easy as a health care provider to think “Why doesn’t s/he control her weight, quit smoking, check his blood sugar/show up for dialysis” and get angry and discouraged (like pastors do with sins, as mentioned).

    It is even HARDER to realize how DIS-abled I am in virtue and willpower….just that my failures aren’t as clear to those around me as the drug addict’s or prostitute’s.

    And as to suicide….if you haven’t been to that edge and been stopped ONLY by your faith and an unwillingness to spend eternity in Hell for murder…..then it is all too easy to judge those who take that final step.

    • “And as to suicide…” Yes Pattie, yes. How easy it is to hide those dark memories back in the caverns.

      peace and blessings to you,

  3. Wonderful point. Seeing people in their truest nature opens the door for compassion. Sometimes the ‘heroes’ in our culture are horribly isolated because we demand that they play the part and they alone see their abject poverty of spirit. They are drowning.but must pretend they are just out for a swim. This is every ‘hero’, right down to the local pastor with 15 members in his church.

    • We do a service to those around us by not being respectors of persons and reserving the hero worship to the only one worthy of worship. That creates equilibrium in the spiritual ecosystem.

  4. me watching the news at night, pointing my finger, shaking my head in disgust and disbelief…

    …oh, but for the grace of God (and His restraint of the evil in me).

    thanks Nick…

  5. Paul Vorderbruggen says

    A friend of mine once said, “Only when we have a profound sense of our own wormliness can we then call someone else a worm. “

  6. Agree 100% but still struggle with some of these ideas. Namely, from what I see in the Bible, disabled doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for our actions. And also, where is the line between acknowledging “disabledness” and just making excuses for the actions of myself and others.

  7. humanslug says

    For the past several years, I have been involved in what might be called a “discipleship” relationship with a good friend (I’ll call him Jay), who happens to be a recovering crack addict — and more than any other experience in my life, my interactions with Jay have opened my eyes to how different and various people can be in what they are able and not able to do or change when it comes to their attitudes and behavior.
    Jay can both amaze and frustrate the heck out of me in the course of an hour. In one sense, his faith is more genuine and childlike than my own — but he can also be childlike in other ways that are dangerous and self-destructive. His heart is open to potential friendship with pretty much anyone — but when he makes poor choices of friends, he caves in to peer pressure every time.
    I could go on and on about Jay’s strengths and weaknesses — but, strangely, they seem to be a complete reverse of my own strong and weak points.
    And while at one time I clearly saw myself as the teacher and him as the disciple, I have come to see that we’re really discipling each other in Christ.

  8. You’re right, when someone like Junior Seau commits suicide we’re surprised and it makes news. Since Seau was a public figure, was a future Hall of Famer, made a lot of money and seemed happy, surely he must be happy, right!? My conclusion was much like yours. Seau’s tragic death reminded me how we are all broken. It was also deeply sad and disturbing, because without having known Junior personally, I wonder about a man who always seemed so outwardly cheerful and happy, but at the end, harbored deep feelings of hopelessness.

    It’s ironic, because on one hand, we embrace the church as a place where broken people can find a home, and on the other hand, people’s brokenness makes us uncomfortable, and we feel unable to share our own brokenness, because we’re afraid of rejection. We put our happy face and engage in happy talk.

    So, maybe the distance between us and Junior Seau is not so great.