Suicide and an Argument To Our Future Self
Excerpts from the podcast “Stay”, with Krista Tippett
There is a philosophical thread extending over twenty-five hundred years that urges us to use our courage to stay alive”, writes poet, philosopher and historian, Jennifer Michael Hecht.
She has struggled with suicidal places in her life and lost friends to it. She’s now proposing a new cultural reckoning with suicide, based not on morality or on rights, but on our essential need for each other. She writes: “We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.” What Dr. Hecht wants to have is not so much against suicide, but for staying alive for each other. It’s choosing life, choosing living.
Statistics have made it clear that suicides can cause more suicides. It is also clear that talking to people about rejecting suicide can help them reject suicide.
There seems to be an aura of, or at least a possibility of nobility in suicide, even a kind of romance with darkness. There’s a noble lineage also, if nothing else: Sylvia Plath, it’s Virginia Woolf, it’s Ernest Hemingway, it’s Goethe’s, and it’s Marilyn Monroe, David Foster Wallace…
And yet it is not romantic or noble. Sylvia Plath’s son killed himself 40 years after his mother died in the next room. A great many people who kill themselves speak about their being a burden on other people. People sometimes consider suicide because they’ve been depressed a while, or because they’ve just had a humiliating blow and they think very poorly of themselves at the moment. Other’s want to die after a break up of a relationship or trouble at work. They cannot see that things can change. Then when you look at yourself, and you realize that you have fallen in and out of love with the same person, you have fought with friends, thinking you’ll never speak to them again, and then you love them again. “In a simple sentence, your suicide will be a much greater burden, exponentially greater,” says Ms. Hecht.
Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton, writes about, “How moral change happens in a society”. For example, the Atlantic slave trade, dueling, and foot-binding changed in a single generation. He concludes that change can happen when the idea of how to be a good person changes. It’s a matter of honor and shame, and it’s cultural.
Dr. Hecht proposes that we need to start a similar kind of deliberation about suicide. We need to make suicide-resistance part of our culture. It should not be imagined as noble or romantic, or a solution for suffering. We must attach a sense of honor to perseverance.
We need to actively reject suicide, and get this into our collective minds by reading it, speaking it, and hearing it.
We can start by noticing that maybe this isn’t appropriate. “Sometimes people argue with me that suicide is a right. (And if your physician and the people in your family think that it might be time for you to go, that seems to me a different conversation). But is it right for a teenager to do this? No. Is it right for a parent of a young child to do it? No. So, who is this guy whose people are perfectly fine with his decision and he’s of sound mind, and he decides he wants this? It’s a very rare person. And if we’re going to say that this is a right over and over to people, what are we giving them the right to? It’s not the right to free speech or the right to freedom — this is a right to die when they’re not in trouble.”
Next, think about educating the public. What we do in terms of trying to avoid heart disease, and cancer, and car accidents, and then think about what the average person who’s not in suicidal trouble at the moment does to prepare against the possibility of getting depressed and thinking this way. And for our children and for our friends, this is an unbelievably high-level killer. In the last 10 years, suicide is killing more college students than alcohol, and suicide is killing more people than car accidents.
We need to know we are part of this world, of our community. And there’s no such thing as wasted contributions. We need to be more aware that we all have these web-like connections to each other, and that sometimes when you can’t see what’s important about you, other people can. None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience.
Suicide has captured the attention of most of the finest thinkers in Western civilization. The story of suicide runs through Socrates and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Judas and even Jesus. Although a few secular thinkers have argued that we all have a right to suicide, (a form of moral freedom, a sort of pillar of our autonomy), a closer look reveals suicide was profoundly rejected by seculars such as Plato, by Aristotle, by Kant, by Schopenhauer, by Wittgenstein, and, by Camus as well.
“When you actually go back and read The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus definitely starts with ‘there’s only one philosophical question and that’s suicide’. But that invitation is very misleading, because he goes through the whole book arguing against suicide.” He said:
“Life is worth living, this absurd strange thing should be witnessed and it’s vital that you have some respect for your future self, who is going to know things you don’t know.”
History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings—the endless possibilities that living offers—and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the dark side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence to choose to stay. After that, anything may happen.
First, choose to stay.
Stay connected, talk to someone.
If you are contemplating suicide, or if you’re worried about someone who may be, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Help is available 24/7.