Before you read on, let me make it explicitly clear that this post is not meant to endorse or validate suicide. In fact, I hope it will have the opposite effect by expressing my empathy towards those enduring deeply felt emotions. Maybe if you only knew that kindred hearts are out there, sincerely committed to listening and sharing your presence, without judgement, then you might find a reason to continue living – even if for no other reason than to alleviate a share in someone else’s suffering.
If you, or someone you know, are thinking about suicide, please reach out to a friend or one of your local Crises Centres. For further information, visit this site: https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/
On our last 3 tours, I’ve had a much better appreciation for all the people I’ve known personally, and as fans of our music, but I still can’t get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There’s good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too f#%$! sad.― Kurt Cobain (from his suicide note)
The tragic deaths of two celebrities who were very dear to me, Anthony Bourdain & Robin Williams, and a precious friend who will remain nameless, have caused me to reflect often on the nature of suicide. It seems to me that suicides trigger two types of response:
1) the “s/he was a coward” response, which I think is triggered by some visceral moral outrage towards the suicide as an act of selfishness motivated by a failure to partake in the common struggle; and
2) the “s/he suffered from mental illness” response that, in a way, regards the act of suicide as a form of sickness that deprives the individual of their moral agency.
I’m not speaking with any degree of expertise here (I mean, I do have a Master’s degree in Psychology, but that’s a broad domain of which I know only a tiny fraction), yet I feel that these reactions to suicide fail to appreciate the complexity and breadth of forms that characterize this final act. The former seems like a sort of deterrent language that is meant to send a warning to others, “this man/woman was a coward, if you commit suicide you are also a coward.” The latter seems to dismiss the individual’s power to choose their own fate, even when in good health of mind and moral sense. That’s not to say that suicide should be condoned by society as a morally acceptable choice. Indeed, I believe that society should promote the preservation of life, but insofar as life allows freedom from oppression, and nurtures our will to thrive and be self-determining agents.
What more, then, is there to a suicide than the two categorizations I’ve presented above? Certainly, some suicides might have been a form of cowardice. Others could surely have been the result of mental illness, to the extent that autonomy and moral agency had been compromised, and the final slice, pull, kick, or swallow was nothing more than a preventable death. However, I’m not convinced that this is all that there is.
I think there’s a form of suicide that is neither an act of cowardice nor the result of a sick mind, but the resolution of an internal deliberation. As Kierkegaard once put it, “Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”
It’s a deliberation born of profound empathy and an transcendent (albeit, tortured) view of humanity’s shame. Without an equally powerful motive force to propel them through life, their deep regard for humanity and unbearably low tolerance for the suffering of others overwhelms them and “in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself” (Albert Camus). It’s not merely in the absence of friends, pleasure, or wealth that a person succumbs to suicide. What I’ve witnessed even suggests that one can be enthusiastically involved with a greater cause, surrounded by the grandest of ideals and the most enthusiastic of friends – but it’s not enough. There is a type of suicide that occurs due to an unrelenting conscientiousness and ever-expanding consciousness, “with every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair” (Søren Kierkegaard).
A person does not become this way suddenly: the suicide being an acute condition brought on by the sudden onset of grief. No. These people have been this way for as long as they can recall. In the old days, we used to diagnose it as melancholy, today it might be mistaken as a severe form of chronic depression (again, I’m not dismissing the validity of these diagnoses), but these individuals do not suffer from a preventable illness. I propose that what we’re seeing is something far more unpalatable: an expression of severe mental wellness.
Might it not be the case that human suffering generates an intense gravity, which consumes those who emanate the greatest light? Could it not be that there are those among us who are brimming with empathy, love, compassion, and conscientiousness – the highest virtues of humanity – and are, therefore, cursed to forebear society’s neglect, hate, and narrow-mindedness? Where is the locus of responsibility here, who carries the salve to relieve this form of suffering?
Victor Frankl opines that there is “no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” I think there are many among us who suffer because of our suffering, who are immobilized because they have no place to confide their limitless love and insight. And I think that until we create space for these people, and until we repair the bonds of true friendship and community that have been broken by politics and religious bigotry, these people will continue to leave us – and the fewer of them there are among us, the worse off we will all be.