How To Kill Yourself

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Imagine this:

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.

Marc Barnes

Marc Barnes

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11 thoughts on “How To Kill Yourself”

  1. Avatar

    This is beatifully crafted… I really like the connection you’ve made to a pro-life stance, and the challenge you’ve issued with respect to perhaps living a mildly disordered life to the fullest in faith.

    However, while obviously not intending to, I feel you’ve managed to trivialize the very serious issue of suicide. You’ve implied that for anyone who is in the grip of such thoughts, and seriously contemplating such action, that there is some rationality involved, and that they have a ‘choice’. You’ve even implied that the reasons over which one may commit suicide aren’t usually the ‘big tragedies’ in life, but something internal and somehow less significant.

    As someone who has lost family members and friends to suicide, and considering the target audience, I urge everyone writing for virtuous planet, with respect to further treatment of this subject (and any subject for that matter), to tread carefully and with more respect for the real dynamics involved.

    For the person in the throes of suicidal thoughts, there is nothing rational, or indicative of choice. Such individuals also rarely really want to die… they are compelled… and the solution is never as simple as choosing to live instead…. and ‘simple’ is how you make the the choice sound. In fact, what you offer served up as ‘hope’ is likely to make a person seriously caught in the grips of suicidal thought to feel more hopeless and trapped because they are incapable of choosing otherwise. While the great southern Catholic writer, Walker Percy, makes perfect sense to someone who is rational and living less than a fully engaged life, his ‘wisdom’ is completely lost on someone trapped by suicidal thoughts.

    For the suicidal person, killing oneself is not an act of will, nor is living despite their torment. Suicide is not an ‘invention’ of an escapist attitude. A suicidal person is not actively choosing to deny life. Suicide is not a ‘right to life’ issue. Suicide is NOT an issue of wanting control – desperate or otherwise.

    Suicide is an issue of brain chemistry. It is the issue of a broken brain needing medical and pharmacholigcal intervention and support. Let me say this again: Suicide is an issue of brain chemistry. It is the issue of a broken brain needing medical and pharmacholigcal intervention and support.

    A person contemplating suicide can agree with, and understand everything of which you have spoken, and STILL kill themselves.

    NO ONE working a suicide hotline would EVER take such an approach. That you would write an article with so little regard for the realities of suicide is arrogant, thoughtless, lacking in compassion, and just plain irresponsible… and, I wager, not the focus of this project. By all means talk about faith and how it can change life as we know it, but do not approach serious medical issues unless you have some real expertise (and can offer something beside ‘just don’t do it’) to back it up.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks for writing that.

    I did not intend this post to be a method of convincing people not to commit suicide, but rather I tried to use the reality of suicide to point out the fact that our lives have intrinsic value. I am sorry for the confusion, but i know this is not a suicide hotline. I know there are awesome ministries and medical help available for people considering suicide, and I’d ask you to perhaps list them here, if you are aware of any?

    But again, do not think that I believe this post is a method of suicide-prevention. Though if the ideas expressed are ever used for that purpose, then praise God.

  3. Avatar

    I find both this post and Ramona’s comment fascinating. It’s a subject that I struggle with a lot, actually, having always battled depression. If I had lived in the 19th century they would have called me a “melancholic”; now, the term is something between depression and manic depression.

    I was only ever on antidepressants once, and when I was on them I needed them. I could not have made it through that time without them. And yet, I have to disagree with Ramona saying that they were something which “fixed’ my broken brain…nothing was fixed. It was a bandaid, a soul and mind-numbing ice pack that I absolutely and desperately needed until I could regain enough confidence and control to face my demons. It was only when I came off the antidepressants that I began to really try and fix things…and it was work. That I did, with the help of priests and friends and my husband and most of all, God.

    I guess what I don’t understand is the modern tendency, even among Catholics and Christians, to completely cut out any talk of the soul when depression comes up. The mind doesn’t exist in a void; the soul is inextricably linked to both mind and body, and what affects one affects all. If the brain is broken, the soul must likewise be wounded, and the body must be suffering. All three should be addressed. I think Marc’s essay really does address the “soul” part of the equation. I’m still not sure how I feel about anti-depressants on a long term basis, but I do think that to completely shut out talk of spiritual health when the idea of clinical depression comes up is not helpful, and in fact can be very harmful.

    And I do think that perhaps, Ramona, you were a little hard on Marc. This really isn’t a suicide hotline, although I understand that having lost friends and family members to suicide makes you sensitive on the subject and his words could have seemed, to you, very harsh and uncaring. The thing is, the idea of clinical depression and all the medications and therapies that go along with them aren’t even a hundred years old, and have been developed in the absence of any cultural recognition of God and the soul whatsoever. So it really is up to us, the non-medically-trained laypeople, to try and figure out just how to reconcile what we know to be true (that the soul exists, that wounds to it impact us deeply and severely, that God alone can heal us) with what we have been taught by the medical community-that depression is the result of a malfunctioning brain, pure and simple, and nothing else is considered.

  4. Avatar

    As usual, Marc, this is fabulous stuff with a firm grounding in Walker Percy, but I would argue taken to the next level. His passage on suicide in Lost in the Cosmos impresses me deeply every time: “The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

    The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

    The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”

    Great stuff!

  5. Avatar

    Yeah, Lost in the Cosmos was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I think he’s one of the most underrated Catholic minds.
    Calah, thank you so much for your comment. I’ve been praying about this post all day, and you just confirmed something God’s been telling me.

  6. Avatar

    I’m reading “The Thanatos Syndrome” right now. He really is quite good. Doesn’t it seem that most of the 20th Catholic novelists (besides JRR) write about really disturbing aspects of the human condition but end up writing brilliantly and most of the time, hopefully and with Grace in mind?

  7. Avatar

    Great article! I don’t work for a suicide hotline either, but in my work as a hospice nurse, the issue of suicide as a control issue comes up from time to time. It often surfaces as a matter of timing, an extension of the birth control mentality, as in, “Why shouldn’t I end my life at a time of my choosing?” When others agree to “assist”, it becomes an encouragement that says, “You’re right – it will soon become unbearable to live. And there’s no point in continuing your life. It has no value at this point.”

    I have seen some suicide attempts among hospice patients over the years, and most were unsuccessful. I think this speaks to the divided heart; wanting to control timing, and at the same time longing to live. One woman asked, “Why am I still here? Why won’t God take me?” When I asked if she wanted me to pray for Him to come get her, she snapped, “Keep your prayers to yourself!”

    The vast majority of people living with a terminal illness do not choose suicide, because hope and the will to live persist, regardless of external circumstances. It is the responsibility of hospice workers, and the circle of care around a terminally ill person, to address physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. Our very presence says, “Your life has value.” Our job as community is to honor the person’s journey until God calls them home.

  8. Avatar

    You are all just a bunch of amateur philosophers and doctors. ‘Ramona’ can’t even spell ‘pharmacological’.

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