Friday, March 21, 2014

Is Suicide Really the Ultimate Act of Cowardice and Selfishness?

"I'm not scared of dying, but I've built such a beautiful life, and I'm not ready to leave it." -- Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author, How We Die

My brother Alexi posted the quote above on Facebook one week ago, and it's been a constant presence in my head ever since. It went into heaviest rotation following the death of model-turned-fashion designer L'Wren Scott from an apparent suicide on March 17 at age 49.

When I first read about Scott's passing on MSN's homepage, I recognized her name, if not her face, but I didn't really know who she was. I certainly wasn't aware that she had been Mick Jagger's girlfriend for 13 years. I didn't even realize that Jagger had a girlfriend. If anyone had asked me about his romantic status one week ago, I would have thought, It's complicated, but he must still be married to Jerry Hall. So Scott's death is noteworthy to me less because of her own celebrity than for the way she died, the coverage of her passing, and everyone's reaction to it, from Jagger to Nicole Kidman to the Greek chorus of website commenters.

I've read a number of out-there takes on Scott's suicide over the last few days, most of them coming from the peanut gallery. A few have suggested that Scott's suicide was a stab at rock & roll immortality, her attempt at being the Mick Jagger ex that he and everyone else would never forget. (According to some reports, Jagger had recently broken up with her.) There also have been assertions that the black satin scarf she was wearing around her neck when she reportedly hanged herself from a door in her New York City apartment was an homage to the 1966 Rolling Stones classic "Paint It Black."

And then there have been the old standbys, the fall-back accusations we hear every time someone famous commits suicide: What cowardice! What selfishness! Suddenly, the suicide becomes as much about the people who are left behind as it is about the person who's left us. For the purpose of this post, I'm thinking of "selfishness" not as in Ayn Rand's "virtue of selfishness," which deems charitable acts -- whether for one's own good, someone else's good, or some communal good -- to be ultimately for one's own good (kind deeds done for others benefit our conscious, and by extension, us) and therefore rooted in selfishness. For the purpose of this post, I'm thinking of "selfishness" as it's commonly thought of, as an unnecessary evil.

I think it's time for us to rethink those old standby reactions to suicide. I've never had someone close to me commit suicide, so I couldn't say for sure how or whether it would affect me differently than the death of someone I care about by natural causes or the hand of someone other than his or her own. But I can try to put myself in the shoes of the dearly departed and try to make some sense of the utter desolation anyone who would resort to suicide as a means of escaping this bitter earth must feel.

Our lives are interconnected, and yes, we depend on one another, but there is one inescapable truth about life and death: We enter this world alone, and we must leave it the same way. The degree to which the space in-between is a communal adventure hinges on our dependence on or tolerance for others, but regardless of how many people we use to fill out our existence, the mental, emotional and physical sensations of living are largely solitary experiences.

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen." -- from the traditional spiritual

I'm a lifelong migraine sufferer, and when I wake up in the morning with a pounding headache, no one else can carry the burden of that pain for me. It's all mine. I can tweet about it or tell the world about it in a Facebook status update, and everyone can "like" it, "retweet" it, "favorite" it, and send "Feel better" platitudes before forgetting about it entirely. None of that does anything to alleviate my physical pain. I'm still hurting.

That's how it is with any illness, or any terminal disease, or drastic life-altering events like losing the ability to move one's body from the neck down or losing one's sight. No matter how many people you have in your corner, at the end of the day (and life), you're on your own. That's why I support euthanasia if it's the euthanized person's decision. That's why I understood the fictional choices of Hilary Swank's character in Million Dollar Baby and Meryl Streep's in One True Thing.

I'm not saying that I would support assisted suicide for someone suffering from clinical depression, which is a serious medical illness, or that I fully get exercising the option to end it all. I once had a friend who jumped from the third-floor balcony of a mutual friend's apartment in Buenos Aires and landed, still living, on the patio below. I distinctly recalled criticizing her actions as being unbelievably selfish at the time, but not for the effect it had on her family back in London. I hated what she did because of what it did to our mutual friend, who had to come out of the bathroom, go onto her balcony through the open door, and see her friend's body lying on the ground below, as well as for the people who lived in the building, myself included, who had to watch her being carried out on a stretcher.

How dare she do that to us? If you're going to attempt suicide at least have the courtesy to do it in the privacy of your own home and not leave a mess for someone else to clean up. Based on her personality and her actions in the weeks leading up to the suicide attempt (which included faking the death of her father and holding a "memorial service" for him in order to get her circle of friends to rally around her), I'd say my former friend was desperately seeking attention in a most dramatic fashion. But only she knows for sure what was going on in the dark depths of her soul.

As someone who has struggled with intermittent depression and chronic melancholia my entire life, I can relate to the impulse that leads to suicide. I've had mornings when I've woken up and cursed the new day. Sometimes, not being alive, it seems, would be the easiest option. But the idea of taking my own life seems unfathomable (barring some physical circumstance that drastically reduces the quality of it), and there are three reasons, none of which involve bravery or selflessness:

  1. I wouldn't want to risk damning my soul, which is one of many remnants of my religious upbringing.
  2. I wouldn't want to put such a heavy burden of grief on the people I'd be leaving behind who actually care what happens to me. Most of them don't constitute a regular presence in my life. Most of them barely speak to me -- on Facebook or off. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't be devastated by my passing, especially if they thought they could have prevented it by being there for me more.
  3. I always believe that tomorrow is a new, and possibly better, day, for I've got to have faith, and hope.

Clinically depressed people, sadly, don't have the luxury of faith and hope, and someone who is on the brink of not choosing life, probably doesn't have the presence of mind to carefully weigh the ramifications on those they leave behind. Somebody else's suicide is not about you or me, so to categorize it based on its effect on other people is misguided.

"Dying is easy. It's living that scares me to death." - Annie Lennox, "Cold"

I also don't believe that choosing the so-called easy way out necessarily screams cowardice so much as it does a lack of endurance. Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, are terrified of death. So it seems to me that going willingly and not-so-gently into that good night via suicide, while hardly an act of bravery, isn't cowardly either. It takes guts, not cowardice, to put a home-made noose around your neck and hang yourself from a door handle.

In the end (literally), death is the wrong occasion for any of us to pass judgment on someone we've never met. Compassion strikes me as being a more appropriate reaction to a complete stranger whose life has ended by natural or unnatural causes, whether or not by his or her own doing. If we must assign labels like "selfish" and "cowardly" to anyone, why not start with (and limit them to) people who are still around to plead their case and possibly change their lives for the better?
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