Is Suicide Possible?

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Vincent van Gogh - At Eternity's Gate

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) (1890), Vincent van Gogh

Is suicide really possible? By ‘suicide,’ I mean the intentional taking of one’s own life, which is the standard understanding of the word, but I also mean something slightly deeper than that. I mean it in a sense in which the person chooses death, not because it’s the only option she or he sees, but because she or he prefers it to life. Allow me to illustrate with a familiar scene.

A man stands before the frame of an open window, looking down from several stories up. He was driven there by the smoke and flames of a fire that continues to rage towards him. He must choose: fall or fire? The choice soon becomes obvious, but, of course, there is no real choice here.

Perhaps all suicides are like this, but not always obviously so. Perhaps many so-called suicides result from a complex array of tiny, barely perceptible forces that, as they accumulate, inch their victim day by day closer to the moment in question. When that day comes, the victim, overwhelmed, blinded, and choked by the now massive firestorm that envelopes him, sees only one way out.

This would seem especially true of suicides of mysterious or apparently trivial motives. While others arise out of less opaque origins, such as in response to chronic pain; in deference to — or fear of — authority; as a cultural norm; or as a matter of political protest. It’s the mysterious sort I’m most interested in here, but my hunch is that they all, in their own way, are viewed in the eyes of those who commit the act as their only viable option.

This can be especially hard to imagine in the case of elaborately calculated suicides.

Ramón Sampedro comes to mind, a man for whom quadriplegia was unbearable enough to motivate a 29-year campaign to end his life, which some friends eventually helped him manage. The plan Sampedro orchestrated was so ingenious and elaborate that, even when charged, none of his accomplices could be found guilty. I won’t argue here for whether Sampedro was right or wrong, but I will say that, had he seen a more bearable escape — perhaps, say, a painful operation that might have restored mobility and sensation — I bet he would have gone for it.

Sampedro’s case is on the less mysterious side, though one might wonder why he sought death while other quadriplegics hang on as long as possible. Still, his situation wasn’t trivial, so perhaps we can sympathize. But what about someone like John Kennedy Toole, the brilliant writer who ended his life at age 31, at least in part, it seems, because he hadn’t managed to get his novels published. Can we sympathize with him?

Of course, most of us don’t get novels published, or record contracts, or any of the other things we dream of; yet we don’t kill ourselves. But maybe most of us have enough positives to balance out those disappointments. He had other issues, other disappointments, allegedly connected to being gay in an era in which that was an unacceptable trait. Maybe had just one thing been different for him — had he gotten published or lived in a more tolerant culture — his other problems would have been more bearable, their accumulation suppressed.

Even more mysterious is the story of a man I heard about many years ago who, before disrobing and jumping in front of a speeding train, left a note citing his malfunctioning washing machine as the source of his fatal dismay. Clearly this man had more going on than a broken home appliance. But where to begin?

I wouldn’t begin by calling him ‘crazy,’ by the way, as this leads to question-begging: “He killed himself because he was crazy; How do I know he was crazy? Well, because he killed himself.” Besides, it’s well established that the vast majority of those who commit suicide are perfectly sane.

It’s also tempting to call some of these out as cowards. But, before stigmatizing the self-terminated, we must be careful not to commit what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, in which behavior is attributed to the person, rather than the person’s circumstances (note, however, that we are more likely to attribute our own questionable acts to circumstances). What I’m suggesting is that the forces that both constitute and arise from those circumstances are so complex — involving culture, biology, social interaction, and more — that we simply can’t know why someone kills herself, nor what she was experiencing at that moment.

I should note here that I don’t intend this question to be a back door to the problem of free will. I’m a compatibilist about free will, but that’s hardly relevant here. Even if we emphatically reject free will, our attitudes toward suicide — whether we sympathize or stigmatize — will still differ depending on the circumstances surrounding the event. For example, our intuitions can’t help but respond differently to a scenario in which a person jumps from the window of a burning building, and one in which that same person jumps, for no obvious reason, from the same window minus the fire. Furthermore, free will, if one has it, can be exercised only to the degree that one is furnished with physically viable choices (in this case, if you choose to stay in the fire, you choose death; if you choose to jump, you choose death; the choice is between a more or less painful death).

What I wonder, though, is if our ordinary conception of suicide applies any more in one case than it does the other. I don’t think it does, though there are yet many more questions left to ask. For example, there’s the metaphysical question of whether one’s bodily state counts as an ‘external’ factor. You know, in the way that fire does. It seems clear to me that it does. Pain is internal; the body is not. Think of it this way: You can feel the pain of a phantom limb. This is internal pain that corresponds to an external body part that doesn’t exist, yet the pain is very real. Our internal reality does not always correspond to the reality of the external world.

Whatever the case, I think these sorts of questions are worth keeping in mind next time you hear of someone having committed suicide, regardless of how clear or murky the circumstantial details may be.

And, by the way…

Don’t Kill Yourself

Just because we don’t see a safe escape from our own personal conflagration doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Indeed, there usually is. A ladder can be erected, or the fire can be quelled, or a life net unraveled, if only we could endure a moment longer. Or perhaps the smoke’s so thick we simply don’t see the fire escape two feet to the left.

If you’re contemplating suicide, especially if you’re under 25 (that is, before your prefrontal cortex — the brain area responsible for judgment — is fully formed), do everything you can to get help first. Remember, the goal isn’t merely to stay alive. What’s the point in that, in merely being alive? The point is to actually live, to do, to create, to love, and all that. But the first step to living is to not be dead.

Of course, I, nor anyone else, can know your situation as well as you do. Maybe you have good reasons to exit life, but you probably don’t. Here are some links you can visit. Hopefully the people you encounter there aren’t condescending phony types who merely tell you to “see the good things in life!” without knowing anything about you:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Hopeline
Listing of Regional Suicide Hotlines in the U.S.

And here’s one for Suicide Prevention, in case you’re trying to help someone else.

If you’re outside the U.S., here’s an international listing. Depending on the country you’re in, cultural pressures might make your situation more challenging and confusing. According to reports, suicide is the leading cause of death in males aged 20 to 44 in Japan, and in Greenland, at least 1 in 5 attempts suicide at some point. But that doesn’t mean you should.

Good luck to you all.

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Dan Jacob Wallace

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