Wednesday, December 03, 2008


This time of year suicide rates go up, partly -- I suppose -- because the darkness is closing down over the northern hemisphere, partly because everyone eats too much sugar and drinks too much alcohol, partly because of the relentless reminders from marketers that money is the only way to express love, and partly because everyone is just too darn busy to pay attention to the ones among us who are always walking on the tightrope of existence. The opposition to suicide from religious sources is so strong because the temptation to just die is so strong. Especially when staying alive is expensive. (Another article in the NYTimes about how much the last six months of life with a fatal disease can cost, thanks to pharm companies who produce pills of great price and little impact. In Britain they have simply imposed a cap. So many thousands of dollars and you will be helped to stay alive. A dollar over that and goodbye.)

When people commit suicide, they think they are all alone, but in fact they are not and even people they have never met are affected by their death. This is part of the reason that suicide is stigmatized so much, to the point of suppressing any knowledge about it. And, indeed, one famous suicide can trigger many copycat suicides who are known only as statistics. It is defined as a failure of the person who died rather than a failure of the larger picture: family, local safety nets, society. Rarely except in the circles of existentialists of a dour disposition is it seen as something built into human beings, the same as their cells have a built-in self-ceasing called “apoptosis.” Apoptosis of the person: “I’ve had enough. I want out.” Freud called it “thanatosis.”

It has haunted me that just across the border in Mexico where they sell quack remedies and cheap China-made versions of drugs, one of most popular -- if quietest -- products is a little bottle of lethal veterinary barbituates for $30. Of course, by the time such a solution is probably justified by rising pain and falling outcomes, a person is too sick to go get it. One either needs a co-conspirator or one must plan ahead. What if times get tough enough in this recession for the same folks who bring meth to all who want it (an uglier and slightly slower way to die, possibly killing others) to bring us these little bottles of death? In case your state has not passed the law allowing assisted suicide.

There is always the danger that someone may be “assisted” who was NOT suicidal, but merely a nuisance. My father-in-law died at ninety and took years, paralyzed in bed, speechless. The home “nurse” who was most “successful” simply kept him asleep with nembutal suppositories. Why end a perfectly good job? But why torment him with therapy and experimental drugs? (Actually, there WAS an effort at therapy for months.)

Eons ago when I was preparing for the ministry, I was in a “growth group” guided by two leaders, one male and one female. Just before I joined this group, one of the previous members had committed suicide. There had been no sign, no way for the leaders to know this was coming, but they were deeply affected. Since this can happen to a minister as well -- probably will sooner or later -- we spent time reflecting on the issue, but the puzzle was not solved because the motives and definition of a "solution" was not clear. We only stirred up more questions.

Another story on the radio yesterday was about a young college student who suffered a concussion which caused him to be depressed and suicidal. The college immediately threw him out. (I almost said “terminated.”) The American way: denial and ejection. Circle the wagons: fort up.

When my younger brother died of a heart attack, I remarked to my other brother that our sib had occasionally been suicidal and that maybe we should have reacted in some other way that we did. He had a head trauma that had destroyed his ability to think clearly but he also said, “I have a right to live!” which is a hard thing to remember. My sib said tartly, “If you wanted to kill yourself, would you have wanted anyone to stop you?” I wouldn’t. So I have to remember that, too. But is this brother speaking personally? Is there something I ought to do about it?

When I was suicidal (I am NOT, so don’t rush over to save me!) I saved myself. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t playing games and hoping to be saved -- no doubt redeemed and loved at last. I couldn’t be sure I would really die all the way and I didn’t want to dangle between life and death for years. I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be of use to someone in the future. If you’re willing to die, why not spend your life working for peace in a dangerous country or helping the abysmally poor get a foothold against disease? And the biggest reason is that I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. What if I were awarded a big prize or some person showed up whom I would come to dearly love?

So staying alive is in large part a matter of surviving the uncertainty of living, letting it save you instead of taking you under. I explain this to others by saying it’s like swimming: if you fight and thrash, you will sink and it will be impossible for others to save you without drowning themselves. But if you stop fighting, relax (What a stupid word! How little it describes surrender to the forces around one instead of trying to decide and control everything!), and open awareness to the -- well, to the universe, then everything changes. New possibilities are waiting there.

So this is partly why I step away from the Christian Christmas, so corrupted, so focused on defying the darkness and denying death. (“If Heaven is so great,” the naive might ask, “Why wouldn’t a person just go there?”) Instead I like the solstice, which underlies all religious interpretations anyway, and try to obey it’s injunction to be patient. All things are cycles (even recessions) and all wheels turn to bring up new light, new circumstances that have nothing to do with human intentions.

Suicidal? Well, wait a while. Maybe wait until Candlemas, when it’s clear that the light is returning. Then maybe you can see what you’re doing.

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