Monday, February 15, 2010

Time in reverse

By Steve Rensberry

What a strange and disturbing world we live in.

According to the World Health Organization an estimated 1 million people or more commit suicide each year and another 10 to 20 million make the attempt. Suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers and people age 35 and under.

Data from just five years ago shows suicide in the United States as the 11th leading cause of death, outnumbering murder by a rate of 2 to 1. More people die by suicide than from liver disease or Parkinson's. The rate has also increased worldwide, according to WHO reports, most noticeably between the years 1999 and 2005 and among persons ages 40 to 65.

In an April 18, 2009, article by Keith Hawton DSc and Kees van Heeringen, published in The Lancet, Vol. 373, Issue 9672, the authors cite the estimate of 1 million suicides each year worldwide but suggest that under-reporting likely means the actual number is much higher.

“Suicide accounts for 1.5 percent of deaths worldwide and is the tenth leading cause of death,” they write.

The authors also point to geographical differences, noting higher rates in northern European countries as compared to southern ones, and apparent differences in respect to latitude in Japan.

“More than 30 percent of suicides worldwide happen in China, where 3.6 percent of all deaths are by suicide. In developed countries, the male-to-female ratio for suicide is between two and four to one, and this seems to be increasing. Asian countries typically show much lower male-to-female ratios, but these might also be increasing; although in China more women than men die by suicide,” the authors write.

I'm raising the issue to make a point, but first let me make something clear. I am not urging people to commit suicide. I am not justifying it or saying that it is an intelligent or rational act. I am not saying that it accomplishes what those who follow through with it think it is going to accomplish. But what I do want to do is to knock some false notions out of the minds of the living about those who do choose to end their own lives, and to introduce, philosophically, a more sane and humane way of looking at it.

I have one more reason for raising the issue. Years ago I had a friend who killed himself. He was the boyfriend of my girlfriend‘s closest friend. "Everyone thinks I'm a jerk," he said in the note he left behind. Oddly enough, he was the last person I would have ever considered a jerk. Still in high school, he was amazingly talented at the guitar, had a devoted girlfriend and was just all-around cool. In the years since then, I have come across dozens more suicide cases in my line of work, each different, each a puzzle and most -- in my opinion -- grossly misunderstood and wrongly condemned by the culture at large.

No, I do not think there is a good reason to commit suicide. However, I do think there is a right way and a wrong way to think about it. If you want, call it sad. Get mad at nature and the inhumanity of life. Get mad at ignorant and callous human beings. Just don’t automatically condemn, rejoice over, ignore or devalue the life of the person who commits it. Suicide to me represents a significant, powerful act and the most blatant reminder there is of the fundamental inhumanity of our existence -- an existence which none of us has any choice but to endure within the parameters laid out for us.

The points I would like to make are this:
1. Suicide, attempted suicide and the thought of suicide is much more prevalent than people want to admit or think about.
2. Suicide is not necessarily a selfish act, the result of mental illness or an example of someone who is out of touch with reality.
3. It doesn’t help to treat suicide as taboo or too private to acknowledge.
4. Suicide is "needless" only in the sense that all death is needless.
5. Treating suicide as a crime against either man or deity is absurd.

There are certainly approaches which fall outside this framework which I admire, such as that from Australia's Wesley Mission services.

In their words:
"Dealing with the issue of suicide is both challenging and complex. Given that the nature of the topic in itself is distressing, the complex circumstances and psychological variables of people in crisis only make it more difficult . . . . Suicide is a complex issue which, while tragic, confronts families, friends and wider communities. It results most often from an accumulation of risk factors, and it intersects with problems and concerns across society: mental health, drugs and alcohol, family issues, employment, cultural identity, law enforcement and criminal justice, education and poverty."

I like their approach and this statement for what it says about the complexity of the act.

But why exactly does society seem to downplay it's prevalence? Why does murder, which occurs less requently, gets 10 times the explosure? Why do we not admit and deal with the reality of suicide, in all its implications?

I think part of the answer is because it occurs so suddenly. It's a shock to the senses. Death from old age. Death from illness. They're both gradual, expected events. Suicide, like a sudden accident, leaves us bewildered and at a loss to manage our attachments and emotions.

Calling suicide selfish or the action of someone who is mentally ill is also something which in my opinion is a profoundly ignorant and selfish act in its own right. It is blaming the victim. It is thinking so highly of oneself that anyone who who commits suicide stands guilty simply for exiting your presence. Blaming the victims allows the living to brush it off and ignore the difficult-to-swallow, existential implications of what suicide is all about. It is to create an artificial world for oneself with plastic categories and paper boxes and nicely painted little pictures that serve no other purpose than to insulate oneself from the brutality of physical reality.

Suicide is the ultimate existential act that in one singular moment places all of humanity, all of non-humanity, and every last particle of matter and energy that exists within the universe's infinite expanse -- past, present and future -- momentary under the absolute control of the person committing the act. In one irreversible instant, at one moment in time, a person is able to rise above the nature, the illusions, the unfathomable mass of self-gratifying putridness within which the great body of humanity resides, and return at last to the selfless realm from which we all came. If it is a place we are all destined to go, what is so wrong with allowing us to choose the exact time in which to make the transition? Yes it's shocking. Yes it's sudden. But is it wrong?

"Perhaps it is the rest of us who are deluded about the value of life by our evolved primate survival urges," writes Michael PJ on blog.talkingphilosophyl.com.

Another writer, Levi T, exclaims, "Well it is said that there is but one truly philosophical problem and that is suicide, judging whether life is worth living or not amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

My own opinion: Suicide has a whole lot more to do with what sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann called the social construction of reality than it does with any one individual's particular mind or psyche.