The day is beautiful, the birds are singing, and you’re standing on the edge of cliff, with every intention of hurling yourself off. It’s not that your life seems unbearable to you; it is unbearable. Pick your demons, choose your wounds and name your reasons. Perhaps your family died, your lover left you, or your doctor called to inform you that he’s so very, very sorry, but yes, you have the same terminal illness that killed your mother. Perhaps all three.
But all this misfortune is rather unlikely to result in you standing on the edge of that cliff, looking down and wishing yourself dead at the bottom. It’s rarely the big tragedies that lead a man to jump, but the internal tragedies. Let’s be honest, then.
Perhaps your insides have been steadily and constantly gnawed by a nameless angst ever since you turned 13. Perhaps you are a product of the 21st century; a post-Christian, post-atheist, post-caring, only child of a divorced family, and you cannot recall a single moment of being loved. Perhaps you have a desperate need for someone, anyone, to pay attention to you. Perhaps you hate yourself, not wanting to be yourself, but not knowing who you’re supposed to be. Or perhaps you know exactly who you’re supposed to be, but have failed to live up to every expectation ever set for you. Perhaps you feel worthless, foul, haunted, and ruined. Whatever the motives, you are sick of having no control over your self, your situation and your life. So you trot up to the top of that chalky cliff, toes curled over the edge. For all your despair, you still fear the jump. The blood pools in your legs and your face feels numb and cold, though the day is warm. And you hesitate. You’re going to do it alright, but in a moment, in a second.
Some 700 miles away, a fault line in the earth’s crust shifts minutely, sending tremors throughout the country, 5.2 on the Richter Scale. The earth shudders and the cliff edge you are standing on crumbles and gives way. You begin to fall, and instinctively reach out and grab a root growing out of the side of the cliff. You kick your legs madly, giving your actions all the thought of a frightened animal, and scramble back over the edge.
You hear the thud of the earth hitting the ground at the bottom of the cliff. The earthquake ends as quickly as it began. Your toes are curled over the new cliff edge. Do you jump?
Or perhaps you live far away from the range of that earthquake, but have likewise decided that death is far better than waking up in your own skin once more; you’re going to poison yourself. You are standing in the middle of a road. You’re about to put an arsenic pill in your mouth and bite down hard when a semi-truck comes barreling around the curve, headed straight for you. Adrenaline pumping, you instinctively leap out-of-the-way, feeling the wind and the roar of the truck as it passes by. The pill is knocked out of your hand, and lies on the road three feet away from you. Do you, also lying on the road, heart hammering, pick up the pill?
While there are always exceptions, and especially so with such a miserable topic, I hold that for the majority of us, the answer is no, we could not resume killing ourselves. And this is an incredible thought. We would walk back from that cliff edge and leave that pill behind. Why? What changed? You are still the miserable, unloved wretch that you were before the earthquake, or before the truck. But something is different. This much is apparent, this much is undeniable; something has changed.
The earthquake teaches us something, or rather, our instinctive response to being thrown off a cliff or run down by a car teaches us something; that our life has intrinsic and manifest worth. The reason we would walk away is that we have been reminded of a truth long forgotten, that no matter how awful things get, or how deep suffering jabs into our hearts, our very bodies, our very nature, our instinctive, child-like reactions scream that “Life is worth living!” and are not easily silenced. In that moment of survival we transcend all the crap that drove us to suicide, we are given control, and we choose life. Suddenly the dirt and grime is cleared, and by an oncoming semi-truck. We cannot lose our lives once we’ve found them, even if we’ve only found them by accident.
But the really incredible thing is this: Imagine that you were considering jumping off the cliff, it fell out from under you, you saved yourself, decided not to kill yourself, and now you start to walk back down, along a steep and rocky goat-path. How do you feel? Or to make it simpler, are you depressed again or are you happy?
Now the reasonable response should be that you’re depressed. After all, you have failed what you intended to do. But it is a wonderful truth that man is not always reasonable – or rather, that he does not always conform to what the world believes is reason. This I hold to be self-evident; that you would be happy, and perhaps for the first time in many years. Again, why?
It’s not just that you saved your life, though that would certainly make you grin. It’s that walking up to the cliff edge, and all the years before that, you were an individual who did not kill yourself. You resisted. You lived your days in misery, considering death as a way out. It loomed over you, lived with you, whispered constantly in your ears. To resist that temptation merely because you don’t want to upset your family, or because you’re too scared – while these reasons are as good as any not to kill yourself – these would not make you happy.
Think about that. What joy is there in saying, “I really want to die, but…”? Phrases like that always wish death. Walking away from that cliff, however, you are not merely someone who “really wants to die” but someone who decidedly goes on living. You are someone who has actively chosen to live, for no other reason than that it is good to live. You have weighed the options and chosen to walk away. Now you are happy. Because death no longer has a hold on you. You lacked control over your life, and suicide was a desperate attempt to gain that control. But now you have absolute control. As the great southern Catholic writer, Walker Percy puts it, “All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.” What a difference between the man who does not kill himself, and the man who chooses to live!
G.K Chesterton famously said that “man is always something worse or something better than an animal[…]thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink.” I believe that his quote could reworked to read, “and thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as suicide – or so good as hope.” The truth is that if man is the only animal who kills himself, which he is, than it must also be true that man is the only animal with the capacity to actively choose to live. That’s hope. Sometimes it takes an earthquake to remind us that these lives are worth living. But it need not be anything so dramatic, it need only be an honest consideration of the terrible question, “What if I decided to live?” To anyone who has been considering the act of suicide, I ask you, have you taken the time to consider the awesome, fearful, and earth-shaking act of life?
As for the rest of us, I can only say that this is what it means to be pro-life. Life is not some sentimental state worth defending for the warmth of the thing. Otherwise we must be called to defend the ant about to be crushed. No, it is worth defending in a human person – and indeed, necessary to defend in the human person – because, amongst many other reasons, a human being has the right to actively choose life. You make that choice. To wake up each morning and decide, against all the powers and principalities that speak otherwise, not to kill yourself.