Treating every suicide like a failure of the individual is perhaps the most disrespectful phenomena we have all agreed to accept as completely normal.
When somebody takes their own life the public’s first response is almost always to condemn that person and their choice in a back-handed way. By suggesting that every person who commits suicide should have been coerced into a desire to live is a tragic feature of our culture’s complete disrespect for personal agency. Death is inevitable, and if we are expected to have no choice in our own demise, then we send a clear message that life is a prison from which escape is a shameful personal failure.
In and of itself, that almost makes life seem not worth living. The taboo against suicide might also be one of its contributing factors.
My father died when I was eight years old. I grew up with a very sketchy set of explanations for what had happened, and it was not until a few years back that I learned the truth. He had committed suicide, case closed. This did not come as a shock for a couple of reasons.
First of all I imagined myself in his situation. He was in his early twenties, had three children and the kind of tumultuous and sometimes volatile relationship that often happens when you get married and have kids way too young. He had been working hard to support a family for years, had barely ever been away from his hometown, and seemed to have little else to expect out of life but more of the same. Considering all of that, I cannot say I blame him.
So what about leaving us behind, wasn’t that wrong?
Personally, I don’t think so, because we each have to meet our own needs before we can be there for others. I can see another path where he spiraled out of control in ways that brought more suffering and pain into our lives than his death did. And since I like how my life has turned out so far, which it would not have otherwise, I often think he did me a huge favor. I know that probably sounds cold and callous to some of you, but placing unbearable expectations on other people seems cold and callous to me.
However this writing is not about my dad’s suicide. I only mention it so that readers may understand that my position is not based on ignorance or inexperience. However, before I move on, I need to mention a few other things about that experience that bother me.
When he died I was handed a lot of narratives that did me a great disservice. Being told that, because I was the eldest, that I was now the man of the house put a great burden on me. It put me at odds with my mom and eventually my stepfather, and created a lot of confusion in my young mind.
I was also encouraged towards mourning and grief in ways that were unhealthy. It was made to appear to me that I had befell some grand tragedy from which a full recovery could never be made, and that I would have to spend the rest of my life feeling shaken up about his death. As a result his death came to define me on many levels. Loss informed my sense of identity, and at the same time, became an easy card to play to excuse my own questionable behaviors.
In general I was given an oft reinforced sense that death was supposed to be a real bad deal. But since it is inevitable, this created a sense of existential dread and fear that loomed over me. Death was to be avoided at all costs, despised when it occurred, and instilled shame when desired or even just accepted easily.
This is the state of human affairs. We are caught in this existential feedback loop in which we are terrified and absolutely opposed to the only thing we know will happen, which is that someday we will appear to be gone forever to those who continue to live in this world.
It is this fear, this rejection and denial, which causes us to treat those who take their own lives as though they failed themselves and everyone else. But by measuring life’s quantity, rather than its quality, we undoubtedly create the very conditions which drive people to escape this world.
Life is not precious. It is absolutely neutral. The quality of any given life will depend on the experiences of the individual living it. And none but that person can judge whether or not their experiences are worth continuing having. To pretend that we can judge that for others is so condescending and insulting to that person’s experiences, and thus their life, that is shows a disrespect for their very being. Which is probably what they were feeling from the world when they decided to get out.
Might thing get better? They might. But this is not solid reasoning. They might also get much worse. And just because they might get better doesn’t mean you should want to carry on. If you must force yourself to relinquish who you are just to deal with living, is that really worth it? Often in bad relationships the very same ‘it could get better’ comes up. As a result some people spend their entire lives involved in toxic, abusive relationships. Is that better than giving up?
If we can get rid of the idea that we owe our continued existence to others regardless of how insufferable it is to us, as well as the idea that its worth remaining miserable because maybe it might not always be that way, then there is a way to understand and accept each and every act of suicide. Some say that suicide is a selfish act, but I say judging other peoples experiences because they do not validate or please our own is an even greater selfish act.
Maybe if we were all as concerned with making the world a better place to live in as we are with shaming those who cannot bear it, there might be a whole lot less suicide. And perhaps if we respected people’s personal agency and life choices without constantly judging them, we might make the world a better place to live in.
One thing I do know is that this feedback loop between suicide-shaming and suicide ain’t gonna kill itself. Love is about understanding and acceptance, even in death, and the only life that is about you is your own. Live in order that you may live life to the fullest, not just as a compulsive denial of death, and let others do the same.