Talking of suicide

The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay that was published in the book “The Myth of Sisyphus” in which he ponders suicide as a philosophical problem. Essentially he poses that he will think through the problem, come to an answer, and then carry out that answer, even if it means to die. He wasn’t, of course, the first philosopher to consider suicide as a rational problem.

Famously Socrates, after being found guilty of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and of “corrupting the youth” by a vote of 280 to 220 of a 500-person jury, joked and refused to take seriously the sentencing portion of his trial. It was assumed that he could easily have escaped the death sentence by choosing exile. However, he did not make that choice and ended up being sentenced to death by drinking a cup of Hemlock. In essence the sentence was to suicide. He would become his own executioner. And that indeed is how he died. We don’t have much information about his thought process other than Plato’s description told through the fictional character Phaedo. That description actually focuses on the mechanics of the death more than the philosophy or thought.

Nonetheless, philosophers have, over the centuries, contemplated suicide both in terms of their own deaths and the deaths of others. Jennifer Michael Hecht has done an extensive study of the philosophy of suicide in the book, “Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.” Most philosophers have come to a similar conclusion to the one drawn by Camus in his famous essay. For Camus, killing oneself is an unwarranted “insult to existence.” Even though life is painful and filled with sorrow and struggle, even though he knows life can be exhausting, repetitive, anxious and depressing, he comes to the conclusion that love and joy can arise from life. He urges his readers to embrace life, even if it makes no sense. Camus believes that human awareness is the essence of living. Being aware of one’s life is the goal of each human. Being alive and feeling life is more important than any particular experience.

Of course this brief summary of Camus’ thought doesn’t really do justice to the ideas of one who invested considerable energy in thinking and writing about life. Further, I’ve never really found myself to be fully in the camp of existentialist philosophy in the first place, so it is difficult for me to be unbiased and clear in discussing the ideas of such philosophers.

However, I would submit that there is an error in the essay that is consistent with errors made by most other philosophers who have contemplated the idea of suicide. The approach is rational. The philosophers try to come up with a point of view that has logical connections and makes sense from the point of view of the analysis of thought patterns.

My experience with survivors of suicide (those left behind when someone dies by suicide) leads me to believe that suicide is rarely a rational act. Even when it is carefully planned and executed with what seems to be careful forethought the act of dying by suicide is not the product of rational thought. People don’t think their way to the end of their lives by suicide. They engage in an act that defies logic and is, at its core, irrational. To say that someone who has died by suicide wasn’t in their right mind is literally true.

Had that person been able to see the consequences on those left behind and weigh them in the decision, the action might have been different. Had that person been interrupted and given a chance to look at things from a different perspective, the result might have been very different.

Survivors of suicide invest a large amount of energy in trying to figure out what happened when their loved one died, including trying to analyze how that person could have come to the decision to die. Eventually, such analysis becomes futile because we can’t know exactly what another was thinking. The evidence was lost in the death and cannot be retrieved. We will never know for sure what that person was thinking. Speculation can lead us to possible answers, but they all fall short of being the complete truth.

I think having a philosophy of life is important and a meaningful activity for any person. However, I do not believe that getting the “right” philosophy is sufficient protection from dying by suicide. Our lives hinge on much more than simply having acquired the right thoughts and ideas.

Connection, relationship and community are the best answers I know for the process of preventing death by suicide. A depressed mind can isolate an individual from contact with others and convince that person that they don’t make a difference or don’t matter to others. They become isolated and lonely and in that isolated state think, draw conclusions, and act in patterns that can further the lack of connection with others. Knowing that others care and continue to seek to understand can make a big difference for one contemplating suicide. Having someone to talk about suicidal thoughts, who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions, can provide needed perspective. Making a plan to stay alive in the face of honest expression of suicidal thoughts is literally life saving.

It isn’t a matter of changing another’s mind, or of convincing that person to have different thoughts. It is a process of careful listening and then making deep connection. Knowing that another person cares about your thoughts and actions - knowing that what you do affects that other person - changes the choices you make.

Unfortunately we do not have the knowledge and insight to prevent every suicide. There are times when the opportunity to intervene simply is not presented. However, awareness and openness to talk about suicide can help to reduce tragedy. Lives are saved by bringing attention to suicide in private and public conversation.

Even thought I see the world differently than Camus, I am grateful that he had the courage to think and write about a topic that too often is considered only in silence and loneliness. May we, too have the courage to speak openly.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!