Thursday, August 14, 2014

On the Act of Suicide

This one might turn out a little heavy for readers accustomed to my usual breezy style here on the old blog.  If you're bothered by that prospect or by the subject of the post, then by all means, don't read it.  No need to add to your already dyspeptic state.

I write today about suicide, with Robin Williams' recent successful attempt fresh in the news.  I want to get on the record first and foremost that I while I have enjoyed Williams' work immensely and believe him to have been a uniquely talented individual, I do not confuse my one way relationship with his reproduced image on a screen with having been a human relationship of any real sort.  He entertained me, but we were not in any sense of the word, acquainted.  So while I am sad at his death, I am find it interesting the degree to which my fellow Americans have indulged in great flights of mournful fancy at his passing.

Williams' suicide has however, brought forward (once again) the whole concept of suicide and the degree to which those who succeed at it are acting in a profoundly selfish and rational manner.  There have been lots of stories in the press about people who feel this way, and their criticism of the media outpouring of affection for Williams that include the sentiments that he is now "free", that his act in some way represented a positive, empowering act.  The fear of course, is that others will see suicide in the same light and we will then have something of an epidemic…so the logic goes.

My interest in this story comes about as a result of a discussion I had with the Kitten recently--within the last two weeks--about suicide. The Kitten is multi-degreed in the field of psychology and does a good bit of grief counseling through the church.  She knows of what she speaks, and she has no problem taking issue with my variously strongly voiced yet thinly supported pronouncements on issues of mental health.

The subject came up as the result of a suicide in our town, the details of which are not important.  Our discussion centered around my perception of the SELFISHNESS of the act…I referred to suicide as the "ultimate" act of selfishness.  I have heard my very words from this conversation played back to me in the media over the past few days as those who see Williams' act in this light pontificate as I had.

Williams' death, however, has caused me to re-evaluate my position on this issue. I think the primary logical flaw in my worldview all along was that I felt that in the moment of despair, the suicidal person was making a rational, logical, choice to end their pain.  That they had weighed the consequences in a coherent manner, that they fully realized there would be ruin left in the act's wake, and that they chose death anyway.  This is where the selfishness comes in.

For whatever reason, I have been all along able to see depression itself as irrational….that the person suffering from it has a skewed view of the world and their place in it…but then at the moment of greatest despair and depression--I viewed that act as rational. Why I could see the sickness (depression) as irrational but the symptom (suicide) as rational is …in itself…irrational and illogical.  Robin Williams had everything to live for.  He was rich and possessed the means to stay that way.  He was immensely talented.  He was universally loved.  By every rational measure, he was on top of the world.  Yet he ended his own life anyway.  What could possibly be rational about that?

My view of suicide has caused me to be somewhat less than charitable to the memory of those who have died this way.  When the Chief of Naval Operations put a bullet in his own chest in the 1990's, I remember clearly thinking he had acted selfishly.  This view was challenged somewhat when a good friend of mine died by suicide a few years ago, but for whatever reason it wasn't enough to cause me to think differently about his death.  Williams' death--and The Kitten's counsel--have caused me to question my view of suicide at fundamental levels of understanding.

Although I maintain there are still instances of suicide that are acts of selfishness (mostly those that involve escaping punishment for some crime/act), I imagine those are much more rare than I thought.  I have come to believe that at that moment of greatest despair, investing a disconsolate person with the levels of rationality that I had, was simply the wrong thing to do.  I hope to be more understanding of the totality of the act in the future, and to judge less harshly those who die in this manner.

6 comments:

pam said...

Thank you.

Mudge said...

Well-written. I have never understood how people become so personally invested in celebrities so as to want to go out and buy a teddy bear and flowers and put it at some place the celebrity touched or sat. I don't understand how People or Us Magazines survive financially or why a show like Entertainment Tonight exists or who, other than friends and family, could possibly give one damn about whether Savannah Guthrie has a boy or girl. It's freaking freaky. Nevertheless, I am not so out of touch to realize that I am the exception to the human condition rule in this regard. There are legions of people who are undergoing very real, heartfelt pain over the suicide of some guy who wouldn't have known them if he knocked them over even if he wasn't hyped up on cocaine or whatever other drug of choice he was using. Everything people love about such people is fake. They are playing roles. That doesn't mean they aren't really REALLY good at it. But it's still fake. The real parts of this people are pretty uniformly pitiful. Unable and unwilling to keep commitments. Flaunting the laws they insist the rest of society must follow. Addictions to everything from sex to drugs to stolen merchandise. Sub-childlike behavior. They are abysmal souls. But people still worship them. Anyway, to get to the real point, I agree that applying logic to someone who is clinically depressed (as opposed to sad) is illogical. In that regard, that the cost to so many people who are afflicted with that illness is their life, in many cases their nearly envious life, is every bit as tragic as when someone dies of cancer, maybe more so. Still though, I'm no more broken up about Mr. Williams' death than I would be Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith or anyone else I never met.

"The Hammer" said...

Suicide is a complicated issue, but it's not always an irrational act. Selfishness is not really the issue, we all act selfishly all the time even when we do apparently selfless things. The question is, is it rational selfishness?
Let's say you're in a room blindfolded with two ISIS guys, one has a camera and one has a Bowie knife. They hand you a Glock 19. What would you do?
How about if you were on a train making your way across Poland on the way to your NAZI sponsored summer vacation...extended. If you knew the truth would you decide to check out?
Here's one. Suppose you had a desire to commit some heinous act. It was an uncontrollable obsession in fact it's all you thought of. So far you have been able to control the urge, but you were growing weaker by the day and you knew very soon you would break and do something terrible. You had been to a shrink but they couldn't help. You had "treated" your desires with drink and drugs and to date no one knew your secret, but it was killing you. You knew this was all wrong if known would bring shame to you and your loved ones but you just couldn't help yourself. If Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy were alive you'd be FB buddies. What to do?
In this instance wouldn't suicide be very rational? Wouldn't it be not only unselfish but perhaps the ultimate selfless act as we commonly understand the term? A flawed individual unable to control their darker side but wishing to spare others the pain and suffering he/she would otherwise inflict.
The point is it's complicated.

Griffin Clark said...

A very thoughtful essay, and I am glad to read how you came to re-evaluate previous assumptions about suicide as selfish.

In most cases, suicide is not a cognitive act. It is an emotional act, it happens when a person stops thinking and is only feeling. Obviously, what they are feeling is a horrible anguish. In that affective state the person reaches for suicide as relief from the agony of living. Nobody wants to commit suicide. Nobody thinks it would better to die. They feel it.

Griffin Clark said...

A very thoughtful essay, and I am glad to read how you came to re-evaluate previous assumptions about suicide as selfish.

In most cases, suicide is not a cognitive act. It is an emotional act, it happens when a person stops thinking and is only feeling. Obviously, what they are feeling is a horrible anguish. In that affective state the person reaches for suicide as relief from the agony of living. Nobody wants to commit suicide. Nobody thinks it would better to die. They feel it.

Anonymous said...

I like this essay. I like growth and change.

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