The title of this post might sound sardonic; there’s an irony intended, but I have no interest belittling the death of a complex and troubled actor and jester, or the suffering it has caused both family, friends, and admirers. I will, however note one thing: That Williams had serious problems, and that they were leading him in this general direction, was clear – to me at least – in his public appearances for the past ten years. I think people wanted Williams to be funnier than he needed to be, and so could not imagine the pain that was (again, clear to me) fueling that humor.
Which brings me sideways to my presentation today. One of the bothersome things about the media reaction to Williams’, was that it allowed them a moment of collective ‘public servicing’ about the horrors of suicide. Pundits religious, sociological, psychological were brought forth to adumbrate the usual truisms about ‘watching for the signs of suicide,’ ‘how to intervene with a potential suicide,’ ‘what to say to a depressed person contemplating suicide,’ etc., etc. Usual, because such rubrics are always brought out when the suicide of a public figure occurs (and sometimes when a suicide of not so public figures occur, as has been happening due to the high rate of suicide among vets).
All these ‘watchings’ and ‘intervenings’ and ‘what-to-sayings’ presume that suicide is itself some disease that needs to be cured. But what if that’s not the case? What if suicide is a reasonable alternative to a painful life?
Of course there are suicides that are just tragic, because stupid – especially among the young. Suicide pacts between troubled lovers, the bullied nerd or gay who can’t take it anymore, the person whose great love-partner has walked out forever – these people haven’t thought the matter through. Time heals a great many wounds, and makes many serious issues seem trivial on reflection.
But as one gets on in life, the question does arise, concerning serious chronic physical and/or emotional pain, whether it is worth the effort. The more it becomes apparent that change is simply not in the cards, one has to decide to hold on to a hand that causes almost unendurable misery, or simply fold.
There are some ways to ‘live with it.’ Some turn to god, others turn to drugs, others develop a support group -personal or professional – to keep themselves alive.
Disclosure: I have lived with certain emotional pains, and recurrent physical pains, all my life, which have become increasingly painful over the past eight years. What gets me through the day is the detachment I have acquired through Buddhist study; but I don’t advocate it. It has helped me, but others might not find it useful.
But on that same principle, I can’t say to possible suicides, ‘well, just find something, anything, that will get you through the day!’ – because in truth there might not be anything that can get them through the day. Sometimes, for some people, life has reached a point that it becomes impossibly painful and simply cannot get better. Suicide is a reasonable alternative.
Before going on, let us acknowledge some grey areas here. The parentless, homeless child in a famine ridden area, say in east Africa, surely has little hope of things getting better; but the child hasn’t developed the reasoning to make a choice in the matter. And the hopeless drug-addict may indeed be hopeless, even objectively, but her or his reasoning is chemically impaired, and again cannot make a choice. And what does it signify to say that their lives are hopeless ‘objectively?’ Such judgments and such decisions belong to the individual. We might be able to measure the statistical likelihood that things may improve or not for an individual; but the individual himself or herself is the only one to decide what ‘getting better’ might actually mean.
But by the same token, we can not judge of an individual that, granting their ability to reason, even in a state of extreme pain, that he or she simply cannot determine the quality of his/her life, or the hopefulness or hopelessness of his/her situation. The decisions can be made, and the individual has every right to make them.
At this point we need to talk about larger issues. Unfortunately such discussion is closed off in the public arena.
The ideological bias against the possibility is a reasonable alternative is predicated on an odd jumble of premises inherited from Christianity, some of them contradictory:
i) suffering is good; it makes you a better person
ii) suicide is self-centered
iii) suicide insults god
iv) ‘look on the bright side of things!’
and of course, v) people can help you
But what can they actually help you do? Suffer longer, obviously. and you should stop being selfish and suffer for them! Because God’s the boss here, so you should suffer for him. If you exit this hell, He’ll send you to another one. But look on the bright side, He might send you to heaven (if you’ve been good, i.e., suffered enough – and are lucky (the roll of God’s grace-dice)).
When I look over this list of truisms, I just want to jump off a bridge! No wonder I stopped believing in god, what ‘creator’ could be so cruelly unsympathetic to his creation.
Now toss in the more modern presumption that suicidal thoughts constitute a mental illness in and of themselves – that is, the presumption that someone contemplating suicide is simply a defective personality needing isolation and cure; this is really only a scientistic determination pre-determined by our Christian inheritance: ‘sin’ becomes ‘disease,’ ‘salvation’ becomes ‘cure.’ Now we have a veritable firestorm of ideological signifiers pointing away from, and obscuring, the real questions concerning life and the ending of it; e.g., what, beyond a primitive will to live, makes a life worth living? At what point can we say, this living no longer makes sense for the one living it?
But remember what happened when Dr. Kevorkian tried to ask that question, on behalf of the terminally ill, dying slowly of painful illness. He was slapped down twice, first by the media, and then by the law. Apparently raising important questions about life and death can not only be a sin but a crime (although admittedly Kevorkian also took action that brought in the law).
Yet it is the raising of such questions that reasonable men and women need, in order to confront the severe difficulties of their lives and the choices they can make in confronting them.
Perhaps we’ll return to such questions for later clarification; here I merely wanted to note that they may be raised, that perhaps they should be raised. As further suggestion this is the case, I close with quotes from two thinkers, Arthur Schopenhauer and David Hume; the quotes themselves are not definitive, but the two essays they’re taken from, considered together, may very well be.
From Schopenhauer’s “On Suicide” (http://www.egs.edu/library/arthur-schopenhauer/articles/essays-of-schopenhauer/on-suicide/):
As a rule, it will be found that as soon as the terrors of life outweigh
the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life. The resistance
of the terrors of death is, however, considerable; they stand like a
sentinel at the gate that leads out of life. Perhaps there is no one
living who would not have already put an end to his life if this end had
been something that was purely negative, a sudden cessation of
existence. But there is something positive about it, namely, the
destruction of the body. And this alarms a man simply because his body
is the manifestation of the will to live.
Meanwhile, the fight as a rule with these sentinels is not so hard as it
may appear to be from a distance; in consequence, it is true, of the
antagonism between mental and physical suffering. For instance, if we
suffer very great bodily pain, or if the pain lasts a long time, we
become indifferent to all other troubles: our recovery is what we desire
most dearly. In the same way, great mental suffering makes us insensible
to bodily suffering: we despise it. Nay, if it outweighs the other, we
find it a beneficial distraction, a pause in our mental suffering. And
so it is that suicide becomes easy; for the bodily pain that is bound up
with it loses all importance in the eyes of one who is tormented by
excessive mental suffering. This is particularly obvious in the case of
those who are driven to commit suicide through some purely morbid and
discordant feeling. They have no feelings to overcome; they do not need
to rush at it, but as soon as the keeper who looks after them leaves
them for two minutes they quickly put an end to their life.
From Hume’s “Essay on Suicide” (http://www.econlib.org/library/LFBooks/Hume/hmMPL48.html):
What is the meaning, then, of that principle, that a man, who, tired of life, and hunted by pain and misery, bravely overcomes all the natural terrors of death, and makes his escape from this cruel scene; that such a man, I say, has incurred the indignation of his creator, by encroaching on the office of divine providence, and disturbing the order of the universe? Shall we assert, that the Almighty has reserved to himself, in any peculiar manner, the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event, in common with others, to the general laws, by which the universe is governed? This is plainly false. The lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion. The fall of a tower or the infusion of a poison will destroy a man equally with the meanest creature: An inundation sweeps away every thing, without distinction, that comes within the reach of its fury. Since therefore the lives of men are for ever dependent on the general laws of matter and motion; is a man’s disposing of his life criminal, because, in every case, it is criminal to encroach upon these laws, or disturb their operation? But this seems absurd. All animals are entrusted to their own prudence and skill for their conduct in the world, and have full authority, as far as their power extends, to alter all the operations of nature. Without the exercise of this authority, they could not subsist a moment. Every action, every motion of a man innovates in the order of some parts of matter, and diverts, from their ordinary course, the general laws of motion. Putting together, therefore, these conclusions, we find, that human life depends upon the general laws of matter and motion, and that ’tis no encroachment on the office of providence to disturb or alter these general laws. Has not every one, of consequence, the free disposal of his own life? And may he not lawfully employ that power with which nature has endowed him?