On Suicide: In which I take a break from fiction

My other blog, the one where I used to leave all my non-fiction pieces, has vanished into thin air. I need to post this somewhere, so I’m posting it here. I want to apologize to all readers who are only interested in fiction and/or photography. This is neither. And it’s on suicide, so not terribly light-hearted. I am happy to have comments and feedback, but I know this is a shift for this blog. I’m sorry for that. Sometimes, some things just have to be said.

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I have thought about suicide for decades. Not killing myself – at least not only that – but about the philosophical implications of it, about whether it can be rational, whether it can be moral, what it says about the person who takes his or her own life, what it says about the people around them. Since long before I took my first philosophy class as a freshmen in college, I have contemplated the nature of suicide. I’m honestly not sure I know more about it now than I did then. But I know my positions, my hesitant answers, have evolved and changed with more experiences.

As a result, I have had a lot of conflicting reactions to comments made about Robin Williams’ apparent suicide. And I had decided not to say anything. People will say what they say, and I did not want to wade into it. Either to agree or to disagree. I saw nothing profitable in that for me.

Then someone on Facebook (thanks, Ben) shared a blog post from Matt Walsh about Williams’ suicide. I won’t link to it because I don’t want to give it any more clicks. But I finally decided I needed to write something. It won’t be nice and neat. It won’t be the academic paper I’ve been trying to write for more than a year. But I need to say something.

Walsh complains that many of the twitter criticisms he has received are not responding to what he said, but to some misreading of him. So I will quote him at times, and try to restrict my comments to his actual words. If I drift from that, I will acknowledge it when it happens.

“… Robin Williams … apparently chose to leave [this world].” (emphasis his)

I know this is unpopular. The disease model of depression often leads people to talk about suicide as something that happens to those suffering from depression. That it cannot be a choice. Walsh takes the position that it is always a decision the person makes, not something that just happens to him or her.

Let me try to split the difference. If someone is so deep into despair that they can truly see no other way out than suicide, then it is not a choice. Surely, in as much as they have free will, they are making a choice of sorts. But when your only option is suicide, it isn’t really a choice at all. And it is ridiculous to claim that there is always a choice. Someone that deep into despair does not see other choices. And Walsh, or anyone else, telling them they have choices, does not make it so. The person in question has to believe that there are other choices. Depression can often take away the ability to form just such a belief.

That said, I do believe that it is at least possible for someone to truly choose suicide. In short, I think it can be the result of rational deliberation. To suggest that suicide can never be the result of rational choice is take away the agency of everyone who tries to commit suicide. It is to suggest that choosing life is always the better choice, and anyone who doesn’t must be crazy. Which leaves mothers who sacrifice for their children, soldiers who die to save their comrades, and martyrs who die for their beliefs all crazy. We might disagree with the choice that someone who takes their own life makes, but that doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t a choice.

So Walsh is wrong that it is always a choice, but I would agree that it can be a choice, at least in principle. Was it a choice in Williams’ case? I don’t know. Walsh doesn’t know (except from his position of “I know all about this and facts be damned”). The world may never know. And, I contend, it doesn’t matter. If it was a choice, it can still be sad. It can still be tragic. And it can still be something we try to prevent others from making.

Walsh says about suicide: “I’ve seen it in my family. I’ve known adults and kids who’ve done it. I’ve seen it on the news and read about it in books, but I can’t comprehend it.”

Part of me says that this is all you need to know. I don’t need to say anything more about Walsh’s piece. This comment right here is the problem. I have seen too many comments, too much pontificating, even book length treatments of suicide (Stay by Jennifer Michael Hecht as one egregious example) by people who cannot comprehend it. More than anything else, if you have never contemplated suicide, if you don’t know what it’s like to be in that place, then shut the hell up. Period. End of sentence. Nothing you say can help anyone at all.

I would never dream of telling someone with a terminal disease how they should feel or what they should do with their remaining days. I wouldn’t tell someone grieving over the loss of a loved one to get over it, no matter how long that grieving has gone on. People who cannot comprehend suicide have no business telling those who can comprehend it what it means. If you don’t know what the pit of despair really feels like, then all your words are so much sawdust in the mouths of those who live it. I cannot say this strongly enough. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

Ask questions. Listen. Empathize. Commiserate. But the moment you try to tell someone who contemplates suicide anything about what they are going through, you’ve lost them. You have no idea. You said so yourself, Mr. Walsh. So please be quiet.

But Walsh goes on, after admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So what the heck. Let’s see what else he might say to enlighten suicide from the perspective of someone who cannot comprehend it.

“The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope.”

This is how Walsh sees suicide. I read this just as an elaboration on his previous claim that he cannot comprehend suicide. If this is what he thinks suicide is, then he doesn’t comprehend it. Someone who takes their own life need not think most, if any of this. There may be little or no beauty, worth, or hope in my life, but ending my life is not to claim that there is none anywhere. My suicide is not a rejection of the world, but a rejection of my life. The problem is revealed in the next sentence Walsh writes.

“The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”

Here’s the heart of the problem for Walsh and for so many others. It’s always about them. If I were to kill myself, it means – for Walsh – that I want to saddle my family with this crap. This is the selfishness charge we often see leveled against the suicide. The living demand that the would-be suicide stick around because for him or her to leave hurts. It makes the family and friends feel bad. That is the true selfishness in all of this. For me to ask that you stick around despite the pain that is pushing you towards ending your life, irrespective the pain and suffering you feel? That’s selfish.

I have had someone very dear to me take her own life. I know the pain of surviving someone else’s suicide. But I never once thought she was selfish. I carried guilt and shame, pain and grief, for many years. But we still have to see this for what it is. Someone who kills him or herself is not being selfish. In short, suicide isn’t about you, Mr. Walsh. It usually isn’t about anyone still alive. (Except in cases where the suicide believes others would be better off after they’ve gone.)

“[Suicide] is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.” (emphasis his)

I have already said my piece about the choice thing. Here I want to focus on the “bad” part. Is living life always preferable to dying? Always? Let’s ask Socrates. I don’t care about his reason for drinking the hemlock (I don’t take his death to be suicide, but his observations are still enlightening). Socrates argues that the worst thing that can be done to a person is not to kill him, but to make him foolish. Put another way, there are worse things than death. For most religious people, I suspect they would rather die than denounce God, for example. Many people, I hope, would say that they would rather die than have to take the life of an innocent child.

So it’s hard for me to see why we should judge that suicide is “always a bad decision.” Are there truly no cases where taking my own life might not be perfectly rational and moral? Are there no cases where it would better to die than to live? I do not share Walsh’s easy dismissal of the possibilities. History has too many examples to offer illustrating that choosing life can sometimes be selfish and immoral.

But much of this comes to the most troubling aspect of these comments and others. So much of the anti-suicide argument focuses on shaming and guilting those thinking of it. “Suicide is bad. Suicide hurts those you leave behind.” I cannot imagine too many worse things to say to someone contemplating suicide. The only escape they see, and that too leads to more guilt, more reason to be depressed. That they thought of it at all becomes another thing to beat themselves with. People who are depressed already feel pretty badly about themselves. This sort of talk simply gives them one more thing feel bad about.

The final comment from Walsh that I will comment on:

“… joy is the only thing that defeats depression.” (emphasis his)

Walsh never explains what this means. He talks about joy, but not about how to bring it about. Is the implication that others must spread joy to the depressed person? Since he focuses so much on choice, does he mean that the would-be suicide must choose to see joy? Or does he mean God will give joy to those who are depressed if only certain conditions are met? I don’t know. I actually am afraid to speculate, since I truly do not want to misinterpret him, nor do I wish to set up a straw man. But given the general tone of his comments, I suspect it’s the choice thing. If I’m wrong, then I need to revise what I’m about to say.

We cannot chose to be happy. There are all kinds of studies on this, not just from psychologists, psychiatrists, but also economists. This isn’t about depression as a disease. Not entirely. We do many things to be happy. We eat, we love, we relax, we work, we learn… Many of these things we do because they make us happy. But more often than not, we do things to become happy, from the mundane to the sublime. If I think about times I have been happy, I wasn’t happy because I set out to be happy. I set out to do things, spend time with people, etc., and all of that made me happy. If I sit around my house trying to be happy, I’m going to fail. Happiness is a result of various means, not a means itself. I can’t just be happy; that makes little sense. Spending time with my friends or family makes me happy. Listening to music makes me happy. Doing my job well makes me happy. Just willing myself to be happy does little but give me a headache.

Depression is insidious because it saps your desire to do those things that often makes you happy. It both takes away what feelings of happiness you might have had, and makes it difficult to replace them with new feelings of happiness. I can’t just will all of that away. Medicine, talk therapy, other less formal mechanisms can all help depression. But there is no simple, surefire cure.

Simply telling us that joy is the way out of depression and away from suicide is not helpful. We might as well say not being depressed is the way not to be depressed. I agree, but how do we achieve that? How do we find our way back to joy? It isn’t a simple matter of choice, however much Walsh and others would like to believe that it is.

I will conclude by saying that if I have misunderstood anything Walsh has said, I am willing to revise accordingly. I think there are others who have taken similar positions, so it still might have been said, but I am willing to acknowledge that – while all we have are words – sometimes words are an inaccurate representation of what we think. So if Walsh believes his words have misled me, I am willing to change how I read him.

Say Nothing

He pulled on the cigarette and let the smoke swirl on his tongue for a moment before inhaling it into his lungs. Though the porch was unlit, light from inside spilled out, driving away the darkness. But the sounds of people enjoying themselves drifting to him couldn’t drive away the loneliness.

Footsteps behind him signaled that his absence had been noticed.

“The party is inside.”

He looked at her. Of course she would be the one to follow him. She was the only person he wanted to join him on the porch, and the last person he wanted to be around.

She studied his face for a moment, as though she were trying to read his thoughts. He hoped she couldn’t.

“Jake was wondering where you’d gone,” she said, taking his cigarette and drawing her own puff.

Jake was wondering…? Maybe he was. “I’m happy for you two,” he said in an effort to fill the silence between them. The noise from inside seemed to fade away.

She smiled and looked out into the night. “Yeah. We have a lot of planning to do before the wedding, but it’s exciting.”

“I’m sure it is.” He tried to muster some enthusiasm, but it sounded hollow to him.

She handed him his cigarette back. “You will come, won’t you? Play at the ceremony?”

He turned to face her folly. “Listen…” He raised his hand to touch her face, caress her cheek, apologize for not being able to attend the ceremony. But he stopped himself, afraid of the consequences. “Yeah. Of course I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it.” He dropped his cigarette butt and crushed it with his shoe. “Now let’s get you back to your engagement party.”

Without looking back over his shoulder, he walked back inside to join the celebration.