Some people think suicide is an act of consummate selfishness, that the person who took their own life failed to think about the impact on their friends, family, and whoever might find their body.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal since the suicide of my friend and neighbour, Barry, three months ago. And I can’t bring myself to agree with this verdict of selfishness.
It may be true that those who voluntarily leave this life at their own hand are so turned in on themselves that they aren’t thinking about the effects on others. Possibly they feel so unloved and unlovable that they underestimate how much people will miss them when they’re gone. Some may choose to describe this as selfishness.
Certain social structures add to the condemnation and judgement. There is a great deal of stigma around suicide, particularly from religion. In the orthodox Jewish faith, “people who kill themselves are buried separately and not commemorated by a family sitting shiva. The stigma attaching to a suicide can even affect the marriage prospects of siblings.” In Hinduism, “Some scriptures state that to die by suicide (and any type of violent death) results in becoming a ghost, wandering earth until the time one would have otherwise died, had one not died by suicide.” This Wikipedia page sets out various other religious attitudes to suicide, most of them prohibitive.
But I would imagine that it takes a great deal of courage to take your own life. Life wants to live, and it goes against most people’s deepest instincts to end their own life. So why do some people feel driven to do it?
Unable to Be With Pain
My friend Wendela is a clinical psychiatrist in the Netherlands, specialising in suicide. Her theory is that suicidal people aren’t necessarily more sad or depressed than other people – they just struggle more to be with the sadness or depression. They can’t tolerate the pain, and death seems like the only way out.
Is that selfish?
At the risk of extrapolating from a sample size of one, I don’t see Barry as selfish, either in life or in death. Of course he had a degree of self-interest – we all do – but he was incredibly generous with his time and energy in our village community.
NOTE: I want to emphasise that I’m talking about a very specific case here, concerning a friend and neighbour. I can’t even begin to imagine the complexity and intensity of losing a child, parent, spouse, or sibling to suicide, so I don’t presume to write about that. This is just my personal perspective on a specific situation.
It’s All About Me
My thoughts on this are that I’m the one being selfish about Barry’s death. I’m sad, of course, but also mad at him for not being here any more, for having deprived me of his company, for foreclosing the possibility of all our future conversations and adventures. In short, it’s all about me.
As the priest said at Barry’s funeral, he needed peace and quiet, in order to replenish his resources. Where he is now, he has his peace.
What right would I have to deny him that? Supposing I’d miraculously been in a position to intervene before the pills took effect – would it have been the right thing to prevent him from choosing the time and the manner of his exit? I don’t think so. That would have been me subjugating his needs and desires to my own.
Surely a good friend would want what is best for someone they love, even if it doesn’t align with their own personal plans? I might have a different view about what would have been best for Barry, but it was his life, his choice. And I respect his right to choose.
Me-centric or Tree-centric?
To end on a slight tangent… I was walking in the woods with a wise older friend the other morning, and as we returned along the lane we passed chainsaw-wielding tree surgeons in harnesses, amputating tree limbs, gradually dismantling trees down to stumps. I remarked that this made me feel sad.
She replied that trees – in fact, Mother Nature herself – operate on different timescales than we do. I might, as a human who loves trees, have an opinion about them being cut down, but trees grow back (well, unless we’ve paved over their space in the meantime). I might wince at the sound of chainsaws, I might not like the sight of raw stumps, and I might miss the trees that have been reduced to firewood – but that’s me seeing the situation from a me-centric perspective, rather than a tree-centric perspective.
I’m still not sure on this one. Does a tree feel distress as it is dissected, limb from limb? A quick google search shows that science says a plant can’t feel pain because it doesn’t have a brain or nervous system. But it is very anthropocentric to say the only consciousness that counts is one that looks like human consciousness, generated by human-like physiology.
What do you think? Can a tree be conscious?
And what do you think about selfishness and suicide? Do you think it’s selfish, or not?
Good news! Last Friday I finished the (hopefully almost) final draft of my forthcoming book, The Ocean in a Drop, due to be published by Flint Books on 27th October this year. Writing this book has been a journey…. at times on a par with rowing an ocean. Stay tuned for more updates as we approach publication date.
More good news! I’m speaking at a charity event in the New Forest in the UK on 27th May – details here. I rarely speak at open-ticket events, so if you’re anywhere near the south coast (near Southampton), it would be amazing to see you there!