In the past week, two famous people died by suicide. This is not the first, nor the last time that a celebrity will take his or her own life. As humans, in our culture, we feel sad about this. When it is a celebrity, we feel sad because we feel a connection to celebrities, and it is as if we lost somebody we knew, even if we didn’t really know the person. For some celebrities, especially those who are still making music or art or film or theater, we feel a justified loss because we know that we lost the chance to ever hear a new song by Prince, or see (or own) a new design by Kate Spade, or learn about a new fascinating place by Anthony Bourdain. It seems reasonable to be sad about that, even if it’s not the loss of somebody who is in our real lives. Suicide is complicated though, and I have very mixed feelings about it, and my thoughts aren’t entirely consistent with each other, but like other things I write about, I find it a bit cathartic to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) and try to flesh things out a bit. The relative anonymity, and low volume traffic of this site of mine helps bring out the honesty too. Here goes…
I have contemplated suicide before. I was a very troubled youth, and in my mid/late teens I certainly considered ending my life. That was relatively fleeting, and influenced by a lot of circumstances that aren’t all that important here, but I am very happy that I did not end my life then. My life improved dramatically in the end of my teens and into my twenties, and I emerged as a very different person. Suicide would have prevented that, and prevented the wonderful family I have, the job that I enjoy, and the people I have taught, trained, and mentored. Although in reality, my impact on the world has been modest at best, more realistically negligible, my impact on a small circle of people has been enough to be missed, and that alone makes me happy that I lived through those times. But my years of circumstantial and emotional darkness were not the only times that I contemplated suicide. As an adult, those thoughts arose again, and at a time when there were no other symptoms of depression whatsoever. In fact, it was during a time when things were going incredibly well. My marriage was excellent, I had beautiful kids who gave me such joy, and I was doing very well at my job (received my first large grant, was honored by my ‘home’ scientific society with a prestigious award, and was very clearly going to get tenure at my university). Yet, thoughts of suicide were strong, not because I was sad and wanted to escape, but because I felt immensely fulfilled, and feared that it would never again feel that good to be alive. It was not a whimsical fleeting thought, but a rational internal discussion with myself. As before, I am glad that I did not, and am happy about things I have done and seen since then, but most importantly I am glad that I was not so selfish. I am glad that my kids have a father and that my wife has a husband and that my trainees have a mentor. Still, I think it’s important to note that this was not out of desperation, or even a desire to escape what troubled me.
Even though my thoughts (as an adult) were not based in sadness or wanting it all to end because it was bad, it was rooted in selfishness, and one of things that kept me from entertaining the idea more seriously was knowing that I would leave behind a wife, children, parents, friends, and co-workers who would have lost a husband, father, child, friend, and co-worker, all because I wanted to avoid the possibility that things might not stay so great. That is incredibly selfish, and I know that, and knew that, and it was more than enough of a reason to decide against it. But sometimes we encourage people to be a little more selfish. Sometimes we tell people that they have to do what’s right for them, in spite of the impact on others. Sometimes we tell people to put their needs before others. We encourage people to leave a bad marriage, even if leaving would crush the feelings of their spouse. We encourage people to look out for themselves in their careers, and we wouldn’t fault somebody for leaving a job for a better job, even if leaving the job caused some harm to those left behind. Of course, suicide is pretty far on the selfish side of whatever continuum there may be. Perhaps that alone should stop most of us from taking it any further than a fleeting thought.
I also wonder how much of our views on these issues are based on an assumption that may not be a good one: that life is good and death is bad. We make that assumption, and it seems like we are programmed to escape death, but in the end, we really don’t know if life is good and death is bad. But, we do clearly have biology pushing us to avoid death. This is not true of all species, some who die after very short lives to advance a colony, or satiate a predator so others may life, but it’s true of us. We have fear that helps keep us safe. We have pain that helps us avoid things that hurt us. We have all kinds of societal conditions that have supported these things, and we have long-standing organized thinking about suicide being bad. This is clear in our religions. It’s not perfectly clear, but the general consensus is that suicide is bad. Like most things, it’s a bit complicated, but still leans in the anti-suicide direction. King Saul killed himself in battle, after being mortally wounded, and was reunited with Jonathan, presumably in heaven (2 Sam. 1:23), but the Catholic Church and other Christian sects are pretty clear that suicide goes against “Thou shalt not kill,” and is forbidden. For this reason, Jews also frown upon suicide, and Jews who die by suicide can be refused burial in the “normal” parts of a cemetery, but the Jews of Masada were part of an organized mass suicide and are largely viewed as heroic for avoiding the inevitable enslavement by the Romans. But even in that story, all but the last person killed somebody else, avoiding suicide, making a pretty strong case that even in those dire circumstances, suicide is not the way to go. Islam also forbids suicide. The Qur’an reads, “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you.” Sura 4 (An-Nisa), ayat 29. This has been raised by many in opposition to martyrdom operations carried out by extremist groups (one of the many reasons that I do not equate these groups with Islam, any more than I equate the KKK with Christianity). Hinduism and Buddhism also condemn suicide. Although I, personally, view religions as man-made inventions, when there is such universality, or near universality, I think it says something about what we have been selected for, by evolution, and how that has been codified in our religions. It’s also not hard to see how a drive to avoid death would be selected for in our evolutionary history.
With all that in mind, the selfishness of the act, and the inability for me to really know if our life-is-good-and-death-is-bad assumption is a good one, I honestly sometimes feel a sense of relief out of empathy for people who do find a way to end it. I do not feel sad when somebody who is suffering from a terminal illness takes his or own life. Of course I mourn the loss, especially if it is somebody close to me, but I support policies that allow physician-assisted suicide. It feels kind to me. It feels compassionate to me, to allow people to end their suffering. And this leaves me in a difficult place, because I don’t know where to draw the line. Is depression, for some, an inescapable and untreatable suffering? Should we force people with treatment-resistant depression to live their lives in suffering, for as long as it takes for something else to kill them? In the same way that many of us, and the state of Oregon, feel it is compassionate to allow people with terminal illnesses like ALS, some forms of cancer, or any incurable and irreversible illness, to die with dignity, should we recognize some forms of depression as qualifying illnesses? Are we doing what we so often do: treating mental illness as somehow different from “real” illnesses? That doesn’t mean, however, that we should see it as anything but a last resort, and from a policy perspective, I want resources after resources pouring into suicide prevention hotlines, into programs to help people who are contemplating suicide, and, maybe more than anything, an ability to talk about it without being stigmatized. On the other hand, I wonder if more free discussion of suicide would embolden many to take their own lives, and I really don’t want that. In the same way, I do not want any of this to make anybody think more seriously about suicide than they might have before, and that thought certainly gives me some pause in posting, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that very few people read this site, and this is one of the many times that I’m happy about that.
These are very difficult questions, and I don’t have any answers, but there is something about thinking it through that just works with who I am, and what makes me tick. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I think about this, and, more than anything, I hope that anybody thinking about suicide will think about those they would leave behind, and realize that it’s just about the most selfish thing somebody can possibly do.