Suicide is Selfish, But Also it Isn’t

Ten years ago, I was planning my suicide and it’s sort of amazing to me that I can no longer remember why I was depressed. I realize, of course, that depression doesn’t require a reason – in fact, any narrative we give to it is a post hoc rationalization, like some primitive person blaming himself for the snows of winter. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I don’t remember the story I constructed to make sense of my feelings. Did I convince myself of the hopelessness of living by being a college dropout? Did I perceive an historic, all-consuming romantic rejection? Even though the story was a lie, it bothers me to not be able to remember it, if for no other reason than because killing myself was the next act in that story. Chapter 5: He retrieves the Remington shells from the tattered box, the appropriately blood-red folded tubes with the copper end caps, from the ceiling shelf above the dusty lathe. He prays, “Please don’t let my grandma find my body. Please.”

These days, in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic and surprising self-asphyxiation, I’ve grown weary of the simplifications about depression and suicide coming from all around me. “Suicide is selfish: think of all the people he’s leaving behind, grieving, having to clean up his mess and pay off his debts.” Katie Hurley, writing for the Huffington Post, has a harsh rebuke for that line of thinking. “People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors,” she notes. “It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases.”

That’s a fair point, but then Hurley swings too far in the other direction. “Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.” She continues, “Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression.”

Every year in the United States, 30,000 people kill themselves. Take any population of 30,000 people, one that extends over every age, race, socioeconomic class, religion, and sexual orientation, and you have a group that will likewise span the selfishness/selflessness spectrum. Out of that many self-killings, I can guarantee you statistically that a significant percentage of them end their lives for selfish reasons. I can also guarantee you that another significant percentage honestly, whole-heartedly believe that their families, friends, and the world at large would be better off without them.

Suicide is not a one-size-fits-all problem. It is not monolithic. (And it may come as a surprise that not everyone who commits suicide is depressed, at least by the clinical definition. Compare it to murder: not all murderers are sociopaths, even though many are.) The gamut of motives runs far and wide. It can be a way to escape intense, chronic physical pain. It can be a momentary, impulsive reaction to intense grief, or financial loss, or bullying. It can be a political statement against oppression, like the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. Suicides occur as acts of religious faith. They can even be the result of what is known as the Werther Effect: a highly-publicized suicide will produce many copycat suicides (and, incidentally, one-car traffic accidents).

Selfishness and selflessness can play a simultaneous role, or they can play no role at all. It is thought that victims of suicide leave a note only 25% of the time. Even in those times, how much can we really trust that person to understand their motivations? We can’t even trust ourselves to know why we buy certain brands of mustard.

We want to simplify and categorize these things. Then we can pretend that what amounts epidemic is actually a small problem with a neat and easy solution. It is overwhelming to acknowledge that there are myriad root causes at work. We want a miracle cure, like with cancer. But, as with cancer, we cannot make any real progress towards a cure without first acknowledging that there are many forms: some with discrete and unrelated causes, others with a surprising amount of overlap yet still unique to itself. To sit back and judge someone for being selfish – or to absolve them by suggesting that selfishness played no role at all – is, if you’ll permit me to mix metaphors, arguing about the interior decorating of a home engulfed in flames.

I had picked a night to kill myself. My grandparents were away from home that night, so I wouldn’t have any interruptions …or startle them with the gunshot. That night, I was coming home late from work, driving north on Highway 61. The radio was off. I was driving the speed limit. As I approached Country Road C, I had the impulse to turn right and drive by my church, Maplewood Evangelical Free. “If no one’s there, I will go home and do this.”

I took the left down Hazlewood and turned into the parking lot. There was a single light on. I approached the door and found it locked, so I picked up a handful of gravel and walked to the window and started throwing stones at it, each making a high-pitched thwack as it bounced off the glass. It took six or seven hits until someone came out. It was the college-group pastor, a shorter man in his early thirties with a military haircut and a perpetual smile on his face. He recognized me. “You look like you need someone to talk to.” It was an answered prayer: Your grandma won’t find your body. You will outlive her.



One thought on “Suicide is Selfish, But Also it Isn’t

  1. Pingback: Signs and Wonders | The Dying Away

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