“We must demedicalize and destigmatize voluntary death and accept it as a behavior that has always been and always will be a part of the human condition. Wanting to die or killing oneself is sometimes blameworthy, sometimes praiseworthy, and sometimes neither; it is not a disease and it cannot be a bona fide medical treatment; and it is never adequate justification for coercion by the State.” Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom
These words from the beginning of a Szasz book I have just started reading suggest an experiment: I will discuss suicide before I read the book, based on my previous experience and thinking, and then reconsider the subject afterwards, based on my reactions to Szasz’s arguments. This will allow me to take stock, and then perhaps change my mind.
The problem is that I will probably have few disagreements with Szasz, for I basically agree with his thesis, above.
Suicide is condemned by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. There is a kind of macabre humor in this, especially in the Christian and Muslim theologies, for they assert an afterlife, a heaven, and this notion of a sweet hereafter is a great comfort to many. Why not cut to the chase and arrive in Paradise early? Elaborate evasions have been set up to respond to this. It seems obvious to me that no one is really supposed to want to go to heaven very much. That’s supposed to make life here a little more bearable. Those who take it too seriously, seriously enough to want to take charge of one’s own timetable, are looked upon by most acolytes of these religions as zealots and fools. They have taken a good idea (heaven as a palliative) too far (to heaven as an immediate alternative). One is supposed to say, “Yes, I want to go to heaven — but good heavens, not yet!”
And most people conform.
But Christian and Muslim suicides exist (however briefly, until they snuff their lives out), to the consternation of the living.
I see scant reason to believe in an afterlife. So my consternation is doubled. End of life is simply that: End of life, the abyss of existence, non-existence. To choose to end one’s life is to dissolve the most amazing fact of the world, one’s own very self. And to do so for a fantasy, a dream, a made-up notion, seems especially sad.
We live in the age of Muslim murder-suicides, and at least these are slightly easier to understand than those rare folks who really believe in heaven and want to get there ASAP. For these folks harbor deep resentments and nurture hatreds fed by their enemies’ injustices, so taking one’s life in a cause that will hurt someone else, this I can see, somewhat. They don’t tempt me, but I at least understand.
A friend of mine attempted his own death a few years ago. But it was a public confession, of his own incapacity to navigate his own life. I understood it immediately. And because I had been a supporter of his navigating his own life, and not becoming a complete ward of the state, I recognized it as a message primarily to me: My way was not to be my friend’s way.
I have had a few other people reject “my message” of individual autonomy over the years, though usually not so strongly.
I wonder how often it is that suicides and attempted suicides are expressions of the rejection of an idea, or of a way of life. The person feels trapped in an unsatisfactory situation, and cannot imagine how to extricate himself from it. So takes the truly “ultimate” way out.
The local sheriff committed suicide, a week ago. I knew him casually, but liked him — which, for me, is no small thing, for I am suspicious of the police by nature. (Those who wield force by profession are given much power, and power tends to corrupt. Further, current society has many, many bad laws, and those who are called upon to enforce bad laws tend to become as bad as those bad laws allow.) He was a cheerful man, and seemed level-headed. And yet, last Tuesday, his wife called 911, saying he was suicidal. His deputies — his friends — found him in his workshop, and as they entered the building, the sheriff shot himself.
I immediately suspected some scandal roiling beneath the surface, something that would have besmirched his honor. But I have little to go on. Like most members of the community, I was not only puzzled to the point of shock, I was deeply saddened. But, sadness aside, the puzzlement remains: What I knew of the man seemed in conflict with his act. (Several reports seemed contradictory, and I also have to suspect some level of cover-up. I will probably never know what really happened, exactly.) It is difficult to fix despair onto what I knew of his sunny disposition.
And despair is what usually precedes a suicide, no? A sense of being trapped. Seeing no way out. Years ago, I advised a young gay man who I suspected of harboring suicidal thoughts to run instead. “If you need a way out, then remove yourself, physically, from your oppressive location. Perhaps that physical removal will allow you to gain some perspective.” He didn’t take my advice. He was away at college, and I hadn’t seen him in a year, but I heard that he had attempted suicide by self-defenestration. He did not die. He became, instead, a college professor.
So I have known three would-be suicides, only one “successful.” The sheriff I was not close to; the young man who jumped out a window, I was not close to when it happened. But my friend who left me a message on my answering machine, about taking care of his cat, that failed attempt struck close.
And yet, in a sense it did not. By making this attempt, my friend was distancing himself from me. Rejecting me.
I wonder how many suicides are expressions of rejection, not merely of life, but of the others who make up one’s life.
Novelist Gregory McDonald’s Running Scared tells the story of a young man who lets his college roommate die, saying something to the effect of “it’s a free country” or “it’s his life,” and turns over as his ostensible friend dies in his bed. This was a fine little book, and it offers an interesting and live challenge to people like me and like Szasz, who believe that one’s life must ultimately rest in one’s own hands. If you want to kill yourself, I will try to talk you out of it. But, if you remain adamant, if I’m your friend it seems to me I should at the very least get out of your way, or, at most, help you. The problem in McDonald’s novel is that the protagonist who let his roommate die did so without blinking. No argument. No remonstrance. No inquiry, even.
And it seems to me that a suicide owes it to those around him to clarify why he would take his own life. Just as a republic must declare a war, an individual must declare his own demise. Much of civilization rests upon the assumption that life is worthwhile. All ethics rests upon it. As soon as you say life isn’t worth living, then you appear as a standing threat to others, for all of the precepts of ethics are there to promote life, a good life.
Which is one reason why suicide disturbs us. It shatters a presupposition: Life is worth living.
Similarly, philosophy disturbs many, for, early on, the philosophers asserted: The unexamined life isn’t worth living. And folks can do simple syllogisms:
- The unexamined life isn’t worth living.
- Most lives are unexamined.
- Therefore, most lives aren’t worth living.
And that’s the counsel either of despair, or of a demand for uncomfortable change (at the very least). Philosophy, no wonder, does not have a great reputation.
Of course, religions say something similar:
- Life without God isn’t worth living.
- You don’t have God in your life.
- Your life isn’t worth living — here’s God…
Philosophers don’t usually offer as big an inducement for change. They don’t offer up a god, much less than oft-promised “personal relationship” with same. All they can muster is a handle on truth.
So, back to the here and now: Suicide is disturbing in that it lays bare the reasons for living. It tears open the underlying assumptions of normal society. It wounds friendships. It horrifies mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters . . .
I used to think about it a lot. Some folks think of suicide when young. I didn’t contemplate it in that “I’m gonna show them” way not uncommon amongst teenagers, teens who feel trapped by school, clique, family, church. . . . I never felt trapped by all that. But I have felt trapped, and I saw, early on, that life itself could seem a trap, in some circumstances. My readings in existentialism increased my interest in suicide, of course. It’s so ontologically dramatic, and that’s saying something, for ontology, like mereology and many another ology, isn’t usually dramatic.
I’ve probably forgotten most of my ruminations on the subject, alas, and now that I’ve typed my way far down the page, this whole experiment seems pointless (if not suicide-inducing pointless — that’s mighty pointless indeed!). I believe that one should take charge of one’s own life. This seems to entail a right to suicide. But I am keenly aware of how easy it is to let each situation or habit dictate one’s own behavior, how easy it is to assume the role of marionette to the social and economic forces around us. Suicide seems to attract folks who feel trapped by family, or work, or a mistake, or the concatenation of errors. When you see no other way out, and the immediate situation feels oppressive, kill oneself. It’s a way out of the trap. Suicide is the marionette cutting his own strings.
Once one begins to see existence itself as a trap, then non-existence appears as a blessing. And yet, it is surely worth noting that the idea of “existence as a trap” is not a radically unfamiliar one. Buddhists and Christians might agree, on some level. The world is not perfect. There is misery and pain built into the fabric of existence.
So what do we do about it?
Buddhism suggests that you want out. The whole philosophy strikes me as an elaborate suicide. But the ancient idea of reincarnation throws a whole, larger level onto the trap that is life, and Buddhists seek extinction from the eternal recurrence. On one level, the philosophy is a remarkable achievement. On another, since it rests upon a silly idea — reincarnation — Buddhism also seems like one of the nuttiest ways out.
Christianity’s way out is way-out in a different sense. It involves a conception of justice, and atonement, and the hereafter. The basic worldview of a just deity judging the humanity that the deity itself created strikes me as nearly as bizarre as Buddhism, if more baroque.
The philosopher Epicurus offered more practical advice. Yes, life is full of traps. Indeed, it evolved to continue itself. Many of its mechanisms are best understood as lures to trapping people into doing things that aren’t obviously in their benefit. We seek sexual satisfaction. The urge is quite strong in us, especially in our youth and early adulthood. So we engage in sexual activity. Nothing could be more natural. And nothing could be more natural than pregnancy and birth, and the beginning of true adulthood, with the nurturing of children. There are many joys attached to this whole process. But, also, many, many agonies. Biology being an imperfect thing, death was a natural risk of childbirth. Historically, many women have died delivering their children. And many more children have died at birth, or soon after. And, disease being what it is, ever-present, a parent who survives to see his or her own children will likely have to survive burying more than one. This is nature. It’s a trap. What begins in desire and urge and passion ends in sorrow and misery. And then cycles repeat. Over and over, for most who live.
And then there’s the inevitable failures involved in living. Even successful folks live to see their children fail, sometimes fail miserably, and into misery.
Epicurus suggested that wise folk avoid the many traps of nature and civilization. He advised against marriage, against procreation. He advised against getting involved in politics. The general idea behind all this advice is that some pleasures necessarily lead to complications that risk (or even necessitate) many unwanted pains and evils. The best pleasure is the pleasure of peace, of ataraxy — that is, of sating the basic desires as cheaply as possible, and learning to avoid the most dangerous desires and most convoluted complications.
And Epicureans offered the Tetrapharmikon, a summation of his ethical philosophy: Do not fear the gods; do not fear death; good things are easy to get; suffering is easy to endure.
But unlike the Stoics, Epicureans have not promoted suicide. And yet, why not? Suicides are people who do not fear death. They are halfway Epicurean!
But their lack of fear is not an Epicurean stratagem. And it is combined with a failure of the last two measures: They do not understand (or practice) making good things easy to obtain, and they have not mastered pain. Indeed, a person committing suicide has lost track of the simple pleasures, and has got caught up in the pain and anguish of the traps of life and civilization. Understandable. Most do. The best an Epicurean could say to such a person is: “It’s never too late to learn a practical philosophy. You can still think, and take pleasure in thinking, in solving problems. You can still simplify. Indeed, if prison is your lot, or loss of a beloved inevitable, you can still get by. It’s amazing, once you get rid of twisted desires to secure every pleasure, how much pleasure one can take from mere memory of a pleasure, or the appreciation of a natural beauty, however fleeting and unowned. And, as long as we are alive, the pleasure of a breeze, of a sneeze, of oatmeal or eggs of cheese — these can be enough, if you combine them with thinking, and can find a few friends to share them with.”
That, as near as I can make out, would have been Epicurus’s advice to those who feel a need to kill themselves.
We do not live in Epicurus’s simple times, though. The misery of life has been greatly diminished by markets and technology and even government. Politics is still a vexation and a curse, but most people do not find themselves willy nilly put into the stone-solid category of victim, as was the case in the days of the ancients. Indeed, nowadays, we have some reason (temptation?) to think of law and order as something we are a part of. And we feel ourselves legislators in the kingdom of ends, citizens with political voice, and a stake in law. And law’s interests we wish to make ours, or else change the law to conform to our interests.
So, in this environment, how do we think of suicide?
I start with self-ownership. People should be free, and held responsible. My concern with suicides — after the threat has been made, or the intent intuited, and after we have aired our personal concerns and philosophies — after we have talked to those feeling trapped, and in despair — what remains, legally, is that the chief problem with suicide is a question of . . . littering.
I may have a right to my own body. Oh, yes, indeed. I should have that right, anyway. But, like other property I acquire, my right to abandon my body helter skelter is limned by others’ rights.
I am drinking a Coke. The can it comes in? I should not dispose of it on your property.
Similarly with my body. If I intend to abandon it to the world, to others — wanting no more use of it for myself — common courtesy as well as property law suggests that I should do so with care, and with respect to others’ rights. If I’m renting an apartment, and kill myself in it, do I have any reason to believe that the mess I’m causing — often, depending on the method, involving blood or feces or both — was covered in the cleaning deposit? Extrapolate from this the use of public property for body abandonment (my term for suicide), and the necessity of peeling motorcyclists off telephone poles, or fishing bridge jumpers from waterways, or hosing off building jumpers from sidewalks, and the expense, and sheer inconsiderateness of suicide, becomes clear.
How much better was the death of H. Beam Piper, a science fiction writer who carefully shot himself in the bathtub, after draping a tarp to contain the mess. To me, the mark of a decent act of body abandonment is be seen in its attention to details.
We are, all of us, walking around, living — but could drop dead at any time. Whereas suicide was something I thought about in my youth, when the likelihood of me “just dying” was low, I think about it much less, now, in my later years, when the odds of just keeling over while sauntering a city sidewalk is much, much higher than before. After 50, why worry about suicide? Death will come soon enough.
When we die, we disappear in a grand systemic dissolution, and leave our bodies, in whatever inconvenient manner that happenstance decrees. And that’s just a tort on others’ property. We don’t intend to die, leaving an inconvenient corpse. But when we commit suicide, the tort become trespass. It becomes crime, because of intent. Szasz’s statement, quoted above, doesn’t seem to incorporate that element of suicide. Leaving a corpse is an inconvenience to others. We forgive such torts, because we are all, equally, unable to control these inconvenient body droppings. But with suicide, there’s less excuse. And with less excuse comes less forgiveness, and a different attitude on the part of those institutions that deal with enforcing property rights, and dealing with threats of same.
As I read Szasz’s book, I’ll look to see if he ever confronts these two issues of suicide:
- intent, and
- property abandonment.
I will also be on the lookout for the issue that became a major lawsuit against Szasz. Szasz, a psychiatrist, had counseled a manic depressive person, allegedly to try to live without medication. The “patient” committed suicide, and his family sued Szasz for malpractice. Why would Szasz forswear drugs that help so many cope with depression? Is this book in some sense a response to this legal case? Before I finish the book, I’ll research the case in question, and hope to get a handle, better, on not merely this author, but upon this vitally important subject.