Suicide And Our Many Personas

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine killed himself. As we, his many shocked and grieving friends, exchanged notes of commiseration and regret and nostalgic remembrance of a life we had all drawn pleasure from, one refrain made the rounds: “I guess I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.” Indeed. None of us did. None of us know each other, our lovers and friends and parents and children, as well as we imagine we do. We have many, many personas; to ‘know’ someone is to have some measure of acquaintance–emotional, intellectual, physical–with some subset of these. These personas equip us to play the multiple roles we are required to play in the course of our daily lives; there is no one ‘real person’ lurking underneath all of these; the sum total–if such a concept can ever be meaningful–of these personas is, for better or worse, us. (As such, the most common complaint made against the online life, that we are not our ‘real selves’ online, that our ‘real selves’ emerges only in face to face encounters, makes little sense–for these supposedly authentic interactions, require the careful deployment of yet another persona, the one we use for social, in-the-flesh encounters. The immigrant, a master of many personalities, knows this all too well.)

A suicide reminds us, all too often, of this fact. (So does, on a much less tragic scale, the demise of a long-standing romantic relationship.) From the ‘outside’ we saw a life adorned with the usual indications of success or happiness, many of which we desire for ourselves and as such, may even envy; and then, abruptly, we receive the intimation that besides the personas we had been exposed to, there was yet another one that lurked alongside, not beneath, them, that of the suicidal person, the one determined to take their lives. Those external markers? Flags flown by one of the many personas that made up our friend; they are lowered to half-mast on other occasions, by other personas.

In the face of this fact, we often take recourse in claims like ‘mental illness can be so well hidden’ or ‘mental illness is a silent killer.’ But in point of fact, the suicidal person is more close to ‘normal’ than we want to believe. Many of us have entertained thoughts of wanting to bring everything to an end; some of us act on those impulses. The suicide is not a mystery; we would be more honest in our assessment of its supposed inexplicability if we would just ‘fess up the fact that you don’t have to be mentally ill to want to, or actually, kill yourself. You just have to be human, as perplexed as any of us about whether of any of this is worth it, about whether the effort required to move back and forth between our many personas can be sustained.

Many philosophers have held that a singular question that confronts a being like us–if we let it–is whether this life is worth living. Many of us, like us in all the relevant regards, take this question on, and answer it in their own way.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

Julian Young on Schopenhauer on Suicide

In his concise introduction to SchopenhauerJulian Young notes he considered it “incumbent on any ‘ethical system’ to commit suicide.” Indeed, that Stoicism fails to do so, and indeed, even recommends it “in cases where  pain is intolerable”, is for Schopenhauer, proof of its “intellectual bankruptcy.”

Young rightly makes the obvious point: this seems like a strange view to be professed by someone who considers birth a terrible tragedy, existence a state of unmitigated misery. Wouldn’t such a conception our state of being entail a moral duty to bring this state of affairs to an end, to bring our consciousness to a merciful conclusion? (Yes, I know, this does sound a bit like Rust Cohle of True Detective.)

The problem is that the suicide is “ignorant of the truth of philosophical pessimism”; he has come to believe that his suffering is solitary; he has been picked out for a special dispensation of misery and pain; were he to be disabused of this notion and come to realize all around him are equally condemned, he would not count himself so unfortunate. As Schopenhauer pointed out:

We are not usually distressed at evils that are inescapably necessary and quite universal such as old age and death.

(On a related note, Montesquieu noted: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”)

Knowing the “universality of pain” makes a crucial difference: the potential suicide who is able to identify with the suffering of his fellow companions comes to realize  suicide is “futile”, an ineffectual attempt to cure an incurable affliction. More damagingly, as Young notes, it is “an act of extreme egoism, the most extreme failure of emotional identification with others, extreme lack of empathy. If I care equally about me and you…then my suicide is a complete irrelevance to solving the problem.”

Young then concludes:

There seems to me something insightful about this picture of the suicide as exceptionally self-obsessed; as someone who has become so isolated from the rest of the world that it seems to them that only their own pain matters, indeed that only their own pain exists. This is, I think, particularly true of men who commit suicide on account of business failures. The relative triviality of the motive requires that the suicide has become absolutely insensible to the vastly greater suffering of millions of others.

This condemnation of the act of suicide is interesting, of course, because the suicide’s death causes pain to others. Not just loved ones like fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, friends, but also those that might depend on him or her for aid and succor of all sorts: a doctor’s patients, a teacher’s students, a lawyer’s clients. The suicide might have realized all of this but perhaps have pressed on anyway, knowing his act will bring an end to the pain caused by this knowledge.

A broader point to be derived from this view of Schopenhauer (and Young) is also of interest: we are not isolated and alone, but inescapably linked to many others through a complex set of inter-relationships. We cannot coherently imagine our actions affect only ourselves; a diminution of us is a diminution of others.

Once More Into the Fray: Stepping Back From Suicide

In one of the opening scenes of Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey Ottway (Liam Neeson) considers committing suicide, sticks a  gun barrel in his mouth, and then decides against it. Later, in the movie’s final scene, after a harrowing journey through the Alaskan wilderness necessitated by an aircraft crash that has seen his band of fellow survivors slowly whittled away, and as an alpha male wolf closes in for the kill, Ottway repeats (for one last time?) his father’s poem: ‘Once more into the fray/Into the last good fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day‘ straps on broken bottles and a knife and prepares to fight. Fade to black.

That beginning and ending capture the movie’s narrative arc: a man driven to despair, to the point of killing himself, first stays his hand to continue among the living, and later, when presented with plentiful opportunities to just relax his guard and enjoy the most pleasant death possible in the circumstances i.e., a slow freeze to death (as one character does), Ottway declines again and again. Those that might have had stronger reasons to live did not survive; they found, in the wilderness, their will not strong enough to resist its relentless attack on their selves. It is not ever made clear why Ottway declines to kill himself the first time: Was it because he remembered his dying wife’s plea to not be ‘afraid’ and recognized his attempt at suicide as the act of a man who is very ‘afraid’? Or was the invocation of his father’s poem a post-facto rationalization of his fear of death? Ottway might have feared living, but perhaps he feared the void even more. Better the known misery than the unknown.

Those who step back from suicide rationalize their decisions in many ways: sometimes it’s because the utter irrevocability of that decision is frightening and paralytic, sometimes it’s because they let their minds turn to those they would leave behind and grieve for them, sometimes it’s because they realize that their cry for help has gone unheard, and disgusted and disappointed and weary, they turn once more to confront an indifferent world, looking for another gesture that will shake it from its torpor.

Those who explain their decision to stay their hand because of the pain of others have, of course, some explaining to do. Why should that matter once the deed is done? If the thought of the grieving is torment, then surely one way to bring that torment–and the others like it that have brought the despondent to this pass–to a close is to proceed with the self-annihilation? Once the darkness closes in, all will be forgotten, nothing will matter. But the hand still hesitates. Perhaps then, the second putative rationalization collapses into a variant of the first and third, and perhaps even more reductively, into the third.

A greater mystery persists. What prompts those who proceed to get past these barriers? What was it that made them transcend their fear of pain, of an irrevocable act,  and despair their cry for help would ever be heard?