Suicide And Our Response
Last month, a dozen or so good samaritans “saved” a man from committing suicide on a bridge just a few miles from where I type this now.
Only four months ago I lost a friend who’d successfully committed suicide in the same manner. He’d left a note for his friends and family on the website where he hosted his weekly podcast. Before I read his message I was distraught, full of self-deprecating thoughts: “I should have done something. Why didn’t I see his pain and extend my support? I failed him; I could have stopped this.”
But after reading his message I began to think differently.
He’d made it clear that he’d felt an abundance of love and support from all of his friends. He explained how he’d spent the prior months planning, slowly distancing himself from everyone so they would hurt less when he passed. His actions were clear, intentional, and compassionate. This was not some spur-of-moment weakness. He explained that there were simply some pains of this reality that he couldn’t endure anymore.
As hard as this is to admit publicly, after spending several days conversing with friends and partaking in deep bouts of solitary reflection, I realized that I was not only finding comfort in my friends passing, but I was actually becoming happy for him.
Well, because I realized he wasn’t hurting anymore. Perhaps this was just my defense-mechanism against the loss, but it didn’t feel that way. I knew that his decision had been well thought-out and that it was what he wanted. Why would I have had any right to stop him from controlling his own life? Can I lay claim to any part of his consciousness whatsoever?
Of course not.
Fast-forward to now, and these good samaritans got me wondering what right they had to stop this man from killing himself? Did they have any right to ship him off to mental health treatment? Was it clear he was mentally unstable, or was it just assumed that an attempt at suicide meant he couldn’t think clearly? Would I want this same thing to happen to my friend? Would I want someone who’d constantly given me rational, thoughtful, and intellectual conversation to be marked as “mentally unstable” in a system that marginalized his voice? What kind of life would he have had after? Once he’d been processed, could the state have somehow ameliorated those subtle pains that he’d no doubt already made many attempts at healing? Could they have given him more fulfilling love than he’d already found with his family and our community? Or would he perhaps feel even greater shame now that people knew he was suicidal; would his suffering only worsen until he found an opportunity to try again?
These are certainly not questions I could ever began to answer, but I don’t think anyone can.
And that’s my point.
Arrogance of Apes: Enforcing a Taboo Against Self
We live in a society dominated by people who think they “know what’s best” for everyone else. We love telling other people what they’re supposed to do, assuming our way is the most correct way as we constantly try to “save” others from perceived failings. From politicians and clergyman all the way to that egotistical-brogrammer down at the pub, our culture suffers deeply from a tenacious attachment to arrogance, rooted profoundly deep in a fear of agnosticism. We’d rather spout off the illogical tenants of religions and the propaganda of our respective subcultures than admit that we’re all apes guessing at the cosmos.
For talking monkeys to speak of truth is hubris of the highest degree. Where is it writ large that talking monkeys should be able to model the cosmos? —Mckenna
When I first started to reflect on why the interference of these good samaritans bothered me so much, I struggled to understand the root of my frustration.
Then I realized it wasn’t about stopping a suicide.
Of course that person could have been troubled and in need of aide. I truly don’t know; and if I’d been in that moment I likely would have stepped in to prevent the suicide as well.
But this situation drew to my mind a philosophical annoyance with our species’ long history of authoritative arrogance, our use of fear-mongering to control and limit the freedoms of the masses.
This wasn’t just an issue about controlling death, it was an issue about about controlling life as well.
It was about the laws that tell people who they’re allowed to love, who they can marry, what bathroom they’re allowed to use, what gender they have to act like, what they can do with their own pregnant body, what plants they can eat or smoke (even if said plants ONLY affect that person). It’s about what invisible lines we’re allowed to live inside, what lies we’re deceived with from marketers, from news agencies, from the producers of our food and from corporations and teachers and governments; it’s about what military complex we have to support with our taxes even if we’d prefer to support more humanistic and domestic solutions with our hard-earned money.
Why do we do this? Why do we assault the freedoms of others rather than listen and learn from other perspectives? Why do we not have a more democratic and socialistic society that lends its aide before you’re dangling from an overpass?
Obviously, money/profit is the surface reason, but what’s the root of this suppression of cognitive liberty?
Killing in the name of…
Largely I believe it stems from religion and the general existential sufferings that come from being overwhelmed by so many unknowns about our universe. This world is daunting—even just the notion that I have a voice inside my head that differs from the one in yours is enough to drive a (wo)man to the bottle for a lifetime.
So then it’s no surprise that once we find some comforting rationale that seems anywhere near justifiable or socially accepted, we’re ready to cling to its solace, thinking that we’ve just ridded ourselves of a bit more of the chaos that might force us to stumble out of our safe routines. Even better, it provides us with a community of peers who affirm our new solace.
But this instills an “Us vs Them” mentality, a “those who think like me” vs “those who think differently than me” conflict. And in this state of mind we become terribly afraid of someone thinking differently than us, because if their view spreads and evidence is found in favor of their beliefs—if their belief has any credence whatsoever—then suddenly that stake we’ve planted in the ground and based our entire existence upon is threatened. The foundation on which we stand might deteriorate and then we’d once more have to admit that “I don’t know,” and we’d have to spend even more time relearning and re-examining—which would get in the way of all we really want to do: drink, smoke, play, fuck, eat, and sleep.
And it’s understandable. After inhumane hours of indentured servitude to an unlivable wage, you need some sort of release, and those indulgences are all far more fun than realizing we need to set aside some of our limited freetime to challenge our beliefs with study, uncomfortable experience, and deep conversation. Plus “if mom and dad and Joe down the road are all Christian, then I should be, too, right?” Unless your local road is some other random location on this globe, then maybe you should be a Muslim, or maybe a Mormon or Buddhist. Or whatever other flavor the local fear-mongering decreed.
Lose the Box and Lose the Reason to Fight.
The point is: get off the damn road and go see what life looks like through your own eyes. Talk to people different than you and honestly listen to them. Ask questions(be curious!) and give honest answers. Then you’ll start to see you won’t need to attack and fear everyone who believes differently than you, because rather than wallowing in a fragile ego that gets frustrated defending the utterly ludicrous beliefs it was forced into rather than the beliefs it chose, you’ll instead bathe in the bliss of a personal growth that is rooted in personal logic and a comfort in who you are and why you are. And then your conversations will be about sharing and mutual growth rather than condescending preaching and judgement.
It’s the lack of self-discovery and this abundance of ego that has allowed religion to dominate culture for the last several thousand years, instilling humanity with this immense “I don’t know” fear of the afterlife. It’s instructed us that we have to “save” our peers from an eternity of hell, which is another way of saying: “Get more people to think like we do so there’s less chance of us feeling like we might be wrong about this whole afterlife thing.”
In this practice, we’ve collectively decided that death must be avoided at all cost; and so anyone who seeks it through suicide must be a heretic, a fallen, or mentally unstable. But that’s a harsh judgement, especially considering that in times-past many of the “great” civilizations actually worshipped death—even found it an honor: whether it was being a sacrifice to the gods for the growth of corn, or in battle so that you might sit in the halls of Valhalla.
And sure, you could say these were barbaric and primitive ideas created before science, but then why does half the planet still believe in the stories of Islam or Christianity? Both view the afterlife as a paradise, and yet each made up very unscientific, self-serving logic systems to get through the pearly gates. One will use a barbaric threat of burning forever in a furnace that never runs out of fuel if you commit suicide, while the other appeals to your primitive desire for 72 virgins if you kill yourself (and at least take a few of “those other people” with you).
Do Immortals Need To Be Saved?
Realizing that humanity’s beliefs in life and death differ so drastically over-time and between regions, where do we get the notion that any single one of us could possibly have the authority to say our rules and beliefs are the correct ones?
Can we seriously be so ignorant to think that things won’t change again? Considering the huge advances being done with gene therapy and the increased understanding of the telomeres enzyme, our generation is incredible likely to see ages far exceeding 100 becoming the norm. With synthetic cells now a reality, and with skin and organs now able to be grown or 3D printed, immortality might soon be a very real possibility.
So what do we do then? Will we still force everyone to live forever? How many people will fear hell when death isn’t a guarantee anymore? How will a christian ever see heaven when their two choices are immortality, or the denial of immortality(which is choosing to die, and thus suicide)? And one might say, well, I can simply choose not to get the treatment that would make me immortal and that’s not suicide.
Sure, but then why do you use painkillers, antibiotics, vaccines, surgery, etc, when you could just go straight to paradise now? Will everyone who believes in an afterlife suddenly start deciding they’re okay with dying from the flu or diabetes or cancer? If there’s no will to live and you’re excited to dance with your capricious god, then why not wander out into nature now and take on the elements rather than use the science that has brought you AC, refrigerated food, and heated water to your home?
Illegal Euthanasia — The Unsympathetic Prison for Neglected Elders
This all may seem like irrelevant philosophical questions, antagonistic bravado, and sci-fi predictions of the future, but it’s all incredibly applicable to the present and a very serious ethical issue regarding suicide that we need to consider.
As science extends human life, we’ve seen a massive increase ( to the point of becoming the most common forms of death ) in aging-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimers.
In some cases, the pain, dementia, and depression become so bad that the people suffering from these diseases simply want to die; they want to commit suicide. Yet because we live in this prude puritan culture afraid of death, we tortuously force them to endure the pain until the very end.
Throughout the entire world, only six states in America, Canada, and a small handful of countries in Europe allow for euthanasia/assisted suicide to stop this blatant crime against humanity.
I once watched a documentary called Terry Pratchett, Choosing to Die, where the world-renowned writer talked about his struggle with Alzheimer’s. I was profoundly struck at one point wherein he was talking about how eventually he’ll reach a tipping point where he’s not himself anymore, where he won’t be able to make the decision to take his own life; at which point he has to trust someone else to summon immense strength and choose to end his suffering for him. He discussed this person being his wife, but then she would be convicted of illegally assisting in a suicide he had asked her to commit.
Already struggling with the fears of death and the torment of leaving his wife behind, now these antiquated laws worsen his suffering as he must now also endure the illogical legal issues his wife could face in her attempt to help the man she loves avoid suffering inside a mind that doesn’t represent him anymore.
Pratchett summarizes the point of the documentary well when he says, “it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.””
As briefly mentioned earlier, it’s important to point out that financial greed is likely an aspect underlying this issue. It behooves Big Pharma to have people in need of a constant stream of pills and treatments for as long as possible(especially when we charge upwards of 700$ in America for a saline drip that costs 1$ to produce).
Studies show that roughly 13%, or approximately 40 million, Americans now take anti-depressants to deal with the most common form of suicide; similar studies suggest about 69% of those people aren’t even depressed. None the less, this mass of people are diagnosed, worsening their appreciation for life as they’re constantly numbing themselves and dealing with adverse side-effects of these pills. All of these pointless expenses and bouts of suffering when entities like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) have shown that one psilocybin trip ( the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can have the same mental-health benefits as 3 months of prescription pills. But again, puritan greed killed off the shaman’s wisdom when it was found to have a poor return on investment.
But again, puritan greed killed off the shaman’s wisdom when it was found to have a poor return on investment.
A Parting Plea…
It is for these reasons I plea with you to actively challenge the status quo’s perception of death and the unknown, and to promote in yourself and others a humility that will free us from the arrogance that traps our species in vicious cycles of suffering. Our religious fear and corporate greed are allowing for the beneficial practices of psychedelics, free-thought, and euthanasia to be repressed, even though these practices only effect the consciousness of the person partaking. This sense of authority over the sovereignty of another’s mind and body are becoming an atrocious staple of our species, and it’s time we stop letting our fear of the unknown drive us to think we know what’s best for anyone besides ourselves. To do otherwise will mean replacing our compassion with xenophobia and bringing back the dark ages we all enjoy watching so much on Game Of Thrones.
A FINAL NOTE ABOUT SUICIDE:
None of this is in anyway saying we shouldn’t have as much support as possible for people who have suicidal tendencies. I understand that for many there are actually substance abuse issues, chemical imbalances, and mental disturbances that actually do need treatment; I also realize that some people simply experience a series of lows (especially here in Portland’s winter months when vitamin D is in low supply) that could be overcome with aide until the person realizes that such darkness might be just a phase and they really do want to live.
For all of this talk, my instincts will still keep me being one of the first people to do everything in my power to pull somebody back from the ledge if I came across a suicide in progress.
The point of all of this is to use curiosity to look beyond our definitions of good and bad, and to draw into focus the sociological issues that were sparked in my mind by the story of the saved jumper.
If suicide is something you’re seriously considering, please—please please please—know that people really do care and want to help. Do not feel shy about approaching friends or hotlines (1-800-273-8255). Talk to people, reach out, and don’t be afraid to start taking some bold chances at life changes and being vulnerable. Your reckless new love of life may suddenly wash away all those prisons you feel trapped in. Sometimes all it takes is a small adjustment and a little human connection to help us see the bliss we can live inside.
And to Lucas Mccain, thank you to all you contributed to our community and to my life directly. Your words, your performances, and your company were always something I looked forward to. I hope the pain has lessened, wherever you may be.