Some context here: in an attempt to hone my skills as a writer and maybe, just maybe, make a career out of this hobby of mine one day, I decided to create a challenge for myself. I asked friends and acquaintances on Facebook to post topics, any topic, that they’d like me to write about and I would randomly choose a topic and attempt to produce something readable. Out of the 20 or so responses I received, I wrote them all down on a slip of paper, jumbled them up, and picked three. Out of those three, I chose the topic I would write on, and that topic was “Suicide.” With that context in mind, I present my ramblings below.
Take a random group of Americans and ask them their thoughts on suicide. The first word that will inevitably pop up is the word “selfish.” It’s selfish to make the decision to end your own life when so many other people count on you and love you. The second most common descriptor will likely be “cowardly.” It’s cowardly not to work through the bullshit we all must slog through, to dig yourself out of the hole instead of putting yourself permanently down in it. These two judgments are intertwined…you had to be a coward to make such a selfish decision.
But is suicide selfish? Is it cowardly? These are the issues I hope to explore in my writing today.
Selfishness and Americana
The word “selfish,” outside of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms anyway, is used as a pejorative in America. Selfishness, by definition, is placing your own well-being ahead of the well-being of others. Immediately I wonder where the negative connotation comes from in a country that prides itself on individualism, on the development of the individual above all else (even our military ads, an organization not exactly known for its celebration of individuation, feature slogans like “be all that you can be”), and a nation that views with suspicion altruistic public policies (the Ayn Rand-ers). Seems that selfishness is the ultimate American ideal…that thing around which the American economy and psyche orbits.
So where is the disconnect between all of this, this cultural celebration of selfishness, and the use of the word ‘selfish’ to shame those with suicidal thoughts, to condemn those who’ve gone through with it (successfully or no), and to shout at the world (just for the record!) that you’re not ok with such a thing?
And here’s where my very undeveloped theory comes in: I think the only time Americans can understand selfishness as a virtue instead of a vice is when money is involved. If you’re spending nights away from your family because you’re trying to make that green, that’s not selfish…that’s progress, that’s dedication, that’s sacrifice. The fact that your family doesn’t actually need any of the shit you say you’re working for isn’t questioned. If you’re buying your clothes at Wal-Mart to save a few pennies, pay that no mind…after all, you’ve gotta look after you and yours before all else. If your kids were working in sweatshops to make those shitty garments for middle-class Chinese to buy, it wouldn’t be so kosher, but hey, there are all sorts of excuses and explanations you can come up with if pressed to explain why the Chinese do so. Not your problem. Keep on shoppin’! If your government wants to increase taxes to subsidize college education for low-income students, it’s perfectly acceptable to argue against it using some variance of the argument “it’s not my job to pay for others’ educations; if they want to achieve what I’ve achieved, they can do it on their own.” The fact that college graduates are more likely to be employed full-time and less likely to depend on public assistance doesn’t have to factor in to the argument to be seen as relevant; the social good of having more people in society gainfully employed has less resonance than the selfish, individualist view.
Selfishness is part and parcel of our economic system, but outside of that limited sphere, it’s seen as a vice. And suicide, while sometimes motivated by money troubles, lies outside of the realm of the economic. It’s a personal choice, it’s an individual choice, it’s a choice that is come to without the consultation of friends or family, it’s a selfish choice. But again, that selfishness inherent to the decision to end one’s life is, in some magical way, different from the selfishness that is inherent to the decision to work 80 hour weeks or buy toys covered with Chinese children’s finger dust.
Mental illness. Drug abuse. Failure. Protest. Terrorism. Honor. Off the top of my head, these are the main catalysts for suicide, the 10th most common cause of death in the world, claiming about 800,000 lives per year. Whether Genghis Khan visited you while you were riding the bus and told you to kill yourself (in perfect modern English, of course!); you overdosed on pills prescribed by your doctor (kinda by accident, kinda on purpose); you cannot see how your life can ever recover from the depths of despair you feel you’ve always lived in; you self-immolate in front of a military tank in defiance of the disastrous state of politics in your country; you strap a bomb to your chest in the middle of a crowded market to strike fear in the heart of your enemies; or you would rather die on your own terms than fall into the hands of your mortal foes, these are the most often stated reasons for suicide.
Take a look at Wikipedia’s page on “Suicide notes.” While just a selection of the most famous (infamous?) suicide note snippets, it’s a fascinating and arresting look inside the minds of people who saw death as a gift more precious than life. Depending on various factors like demographics and culture, 15-40% of all suicides leave a note. In an act so inherently selfish, why explain yourself at all? Perhaps it’s done in anticipation of the judgment your act will receive? Perhaps with the aim of helping others understand your motives?
Whatever the reason, writing a note of explanation displays a deeply unselfish component to the act…an acknowledgment that your action will inevitably affect others, hopefully to be smoothed over somewhat by an act of confession…of explanation. It says “I will make a decision for me and me alone, but by doing so, I recognize that nothing affects just me and me alone.”
That being said, between 60 and 85% of suicides don’t leave a note. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe they owed society (or friends and family, or whoever) an explanation…it just means they didn’t provide one (at least by note, anyway). Does that make the death any more or less selfish? We’re pretty high on judging the motives of people who make decisions differently than we would have, so I’m sure you have a ready-made answer to that question.
The Cowardly Lie-on
Life is precious. Life is a gift. There are no take-backsies, sorry. We, as a culture, do everything we can to stay alive. We put ourselves through the torture of chemotherapy (and the financial ruin that often accompanies it) to have the chance to live a few more months, a few more years. We fear death, as inevitable as it is, and when pressed, we can’t really explain why. At least I can’t. Maybe you can.
What kind of person wouldn’t fight for every minute of life they can get? Who wouldn’t want to squeeze every last bit of life out of this world?
Lots of people, that’s who. Over the past week, I’ve probably spent a total of 5 hours watching TV. Literally staring into a glowing screen that offers no recognition of my presence; it doesn’t engage me in a conversation or care whether I’m a human with the capability for complex views and rambling diatribes, or whether I’m a cat with the capability to lick its own balls and clear an entire room with its epic shits. It’s all the same to the ol’ Idiot Box…it just yaps and zaps and I just sit there, like a fucking zombie, or like a cat that can’t lick its own balls and whose shits aren’t quite as epic.
In the same amount of time, I’ve eaten some truly terrible food. I’m not talking about taste, here. The food tasted superb. I’m talking about minutes-off-my-life shit-for-food. Biscuits and gravy; those little pre-packaged sausages made from the toenails of piglets; salsa so hot it ruptured my spleen; beer and wine and liquor and soda which I guzzled with abandon. And I don’t exercise, unless you count walking to my car (which I do, by the way).
I waste plenty of life, every single day, on inane tasks and activities that bring me no great pleasure, that contribute absolutely nothing lasting to my life (except, perhaps, cirrhosis of the liver), and meanwhile, Old Father Time is ticking away.
We talk about living life to the fullest, but if we really spent every moment as jazzed as we are when we first feel the pangs of love, or as inspired as we do when we figure out what our “purpose” in life is, we’d die of a heart attack by age 30. Lives are full of highs and lows, ebbs and flows, and a hell of a lot of boredom lying in the middle.
So, what’s so cowardly about a person not seeing those highs as moments worth dealing with all the lows, all the boredom? Maybe their highs aren’t as high as your highs, and their lows are far lower? Maybe inspiration has never ignited, and being in love has always been an unrealized expectation? Is it possible, then, that making the decision to just be done with it is less an act of cowardice than trudging along, than sticking it out?
That’s up to you to decide, cause again, we’re really good at passing judgment. I only present the questions.