I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year reading books and articles on suicide. One book is Stay, which was written by Jennifer Hecht. She chronicles the history of suicide and the philosophical, religious, and civil arguments for and against it (post renaissance philosophers were the only ones that advocated for the right to kill oneself). I won’t rehash them here.
But I do want to summarize her two main arguments against suicide.
- “We owe it to society at large, and especially our personal communities, to stay alive.” (6)
The death of a friend or loved one causes great pain. There is the searing emotional agony, as well as growing recognition of permanent absence. Depending upon how present the departed was in another’s life, the more empty time is left. For many, it is a dreadful struggle back to a regular routine. That person’s pain and hardship is passed on to others, even those that didn’t know the deceased. The shockwaves ripple outward.
Ms. Hecht also wrote about the domino effect of suicides. “One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide.” (x) I would argue that there are proximity and mass domino effects as well: The closer that a completed suicide is to you, the more likely one is to attempt. And the more people you know that completed suicide, the more likely you are to attempt as well.
2. We owe it to our future selves.
Over a decade ago, I read Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. It is a novel about four people who meet at the top of a building in London on New Year’s Eve. They all planned to kill themselves, but didn’t because they were in the presence of others (suicide tends to be quite private). Mr. Hornby’s book (which has numerous comic moments) was well researched and took the subject very seriously. A key point was made, which is that most people that contemplate suicide move on if they survive the next 90 days. Many of us know cases where people considered suicide for years, even decades, but they tend to be outliers.
Since 2010, I have been telling friends with children that they should make deals with their kids. “I’ll buy this toy for you now, but you must promise to work five hours every Saturday in the garden at ages 14, 15, and 16” or some deal like that with their seven year old child (and get them to sign a paper and video record it). Kids have little to no sense of the time and long term consequences. Imagine how irritated your 14 year old would be when you produce the contract and the video.
“I can’t be held to what I wanted when I was 7!” they’d probably shout. The same probably goes for a deal made at 19 that is called in at 27, and so on and so on.
Back to suicide. I’ve worked with well over 100 people who were truly suicidal that did not kill themselves. Most of them are long past those thoughts and impulses, and have expressed gratitude that they did not go through with it. I have heard some version of the phrase, “I’m really glad that I didn’t kill myself. Things are so much better these days” then most will probably believe. But hopefully you will believe me.
Ms. Hecht’s book concludes with this:
None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises that 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 night 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 there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.