Suicide is a disturbing topic that most of us would rather avoid thinking about. Recently I spoke with an old friend of mine. He was shaken up because just the previous day a work colleague and friend, a middle-aged man, had committed suicide. He said he was a cheerful, fun-loving person, hence his death came as a great shock.
Like all those who are close to people who commit suicide, my friend wracked his mind to see if there had been any warning signs that he should have observed and done something about. He also tried (and failed) to understand what might have pushed his friend over the edge and take such drastic action. It is true that he was in the terminal stages of divorce proceedings following an unhappy marriage but that it was pretty much over and he seemed to be looking forward to being single again. There was nothing in his life that seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle or to make life not worth living
Clancy Martin, who has tried to kill himself more than once and comes from a family that has suicides writes in Harper’s that we should talk more about it, because “Suicide is on the rise in America: more Americans die by suicide than in car accidents, and suicide by gun is almost twice as common as homicide by gun. (It’s hard to know how to feel about that last statistic.) Middle-aged men in America are committing suicide at an accelerating rate.” He goes on:
We tend to talk about suicide most when a famous person kills himself. There was, we all remember, the flurry of argument about suicide — much of it indignant, even outraged — when David Foster Wallace took his own life. His friends were deeply hurt, and many of them were writers, so they wrote about it. “[E]very suicide’s an asshole,” wrote Mary Karr, in a poem about Wallace’s death. “There is a good reason I am not/ God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.” Suicide, seen as among the most selfish of acts, pushes a button in us that even murder doesn’t.
Or take the clever and witty Stephen Fry who seems to be riding a long wave of success in so many fields. He oozes urbane rationality and yet he revealed that he had tried to commit suicide last year and was rescued just in time but that he still struggled with it. He discussed his own case openly with an audience and said that at root, suicide is an irrational act.
“You may say, ‘How can anybody who’s got it all be so stupid as to want to end it all?’” Fry told the audience. “That’s the point, there is no ‘why?’ That’s not the right question. There is no reason. If there was reason for it, you could reason someone out of it.”
People tend to get angry at the person who committed suicide for throwing their lives away and causing immense grief to their loved ones. They also blame themselves for not seeing it coming. Martin says that people who commit suicide feel that their lives serve no useful purpose to society. They are not unaware that the act will cause their loved ones to feel grief and anger and guilt. But paradoxically, the very fact that they are willing to sacrifice their loved ones’ happiness merely confirms to them that society would be better off without people like them.
The sense that life is precious and worth living is what keeps us going but I don’t know where that feeling comes from and how best to convey it to others who may not feel it. All that we who have it can do is encourage people to hold on to it, however bleak and pointless life may seem to them.