Some notes on suicide and an autobiographical narrative. (First note: though strongly considered, and through no fault or credit of my own, I did not commit suicide.)
Hamlet’s most famous speech begins with these words: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” (See the entire speech at the end of this blog.) But as he goes on in his soliloquy you can see this was not his question at all. And it is not the question that haunts the suicidal. It is clear to Hamlet’s mind that he exists and will continue to exist into eternity. After all, “He [the Creator] has set eternity in the human heart.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Rather the real question comes in lines 64 and 65: “To sleep, perchance to dream – aye, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” And THAT is the question!
“The rub” was a sportsman’s name for an obstacle in a game similar to bowling, but played on a lawn. The rub was anything that diverted the ball from the bowler’s intended course. So the “rub” for the person who is suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or for one considering taking up “arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them; to die,” is not whether or not he/she will continue existing. What diverts many from committing suicide is a fear of what may be beyond. What “dreams may come” when one leaves this world? No matter how miserable life is, some people prefer it to death, because there is a chance that the life after death could be worse.
However, in spite of fear of Shakespeare’s “dread of something after death,” every year over 1,000,000 people choose his “undiscovered country, from whose [borders] no traveler returns.”
• The global suicide rate is 16 per 100,000 population.
• On average, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world.
• 1.8% of worldwide deaths are suicides.
• Global suicide rates have increased 60% in the past 45 years.
And most of these are in developed nations, not third-world countries where one might expect poverty and hopelessness would prompt such drastic action.
So what would convince someone to take this leap into the unknown, and end his/her own life? Have you ever been so sad that the sunlight shining in your bedroom window seemed like an intrusion? Did you ever feel like you were completely alone, even in a crowd of friends and associates? Were you ever pinned in by choices, and not one of them seemed acceptable? Has your future ever appeared so unlike what you first imagined it to be that you wanted to change course in almost any way you could? Where did all my hopes and dreams die?
We have all experienced moments of depression from the affirmative answers to these questions, but somehow, most of us find the strength to soldier on through the rough times and we experience the relief that eventually comes, like Billy Joel’s Second Wind. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhxjNYvJbgM) If the depression continues for some time we may find help in a professional counselor, or through medication that brightens our outlook.
But there are those of us who through circumstances of our lives or our choices experience a hopelessness that dims any chance of ever brightening; a bleakness that blocks out any sunshine; a dryness that wilts even the root of anticipation that anything will ever get better. And there I was.
Let me be clear that it is NOT self-hatred nor bravery that motivates the suicidal, though that is what popular psychology and psychiatry will tell us these days. Either the psychologist is wrong or the Bible is wrong, and I would place the odds highly in favor of the Bible knowing more than the psychologist. Ephesians 5:29 says “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.”
Then how do we understand the guilty or impoverished who commit suicide? Think about this compartmentalization of our personalities. When I consider taking my own life, I am divided in my understanding of myself. The view of the suicidal is that my circumstances, whether self-inflicted or exogenous, are more than I should have to bear! There must be some relief to this misery, and death appears to be it! Furthermore there is no consideration for anyone other than oneself; no thinking of how one’s death will affect others, only self-interest. Thus suicide is an absolute and complete act of self-love, not self-hatred.
As for bravery, which is worse: slowly burning to death in a high-rise building or jumping to one’s death? For the suicidal, remaining here on earth is a slow torturous death, and the suddenness of a gunshot, needle, pills, or bridge jump is a much easier way out. Thus, it is not courage that makes it possible to commit suicide, but cowardice of the greater pain. And there I was.
At 33 years old my life was in the toilet. Thirty years of trying to be better, of attempting to trust God for something, of hoping that someday I would not be a hypocrite and stop living a double-life . . . it was all crashing in.
The specter of the damage I had left in others’ lives and the lack of any way to make anything right again was like a thumb stuck in front of my face that blocked out the entire sun. I found myself walking along these train tracks in Iowa and wondering what I would do if a train came along. The world would be a better place without me in it, would it not? Would my death be enough vengeance for those I had injured, the lives that were tattered to shreds by my selfishness and disobedience to what I knew to be right? Who would care, beyond a very few family members, if I was no longer around to be an embarrassment? Why should I keep wasting oxygen by breathing? Wasn’t it better to give something back to the world, even if it was only the chemicals of my body to feed the grass?
That is hopelessness. That is suicidal. That is selfish. That is cowardly.
I was fortunate. A police cruiser happened to drive by the railroad crossing where I was in sight. Too depressed to even run, I thought maybe the officers would lock me up for trespassing and I could die in jail. But the perceptive policemen took me instead to a clinic where a godly counselor began to work with me. (Note, one has about a 50-50 chance of getting a good psychologist, as many go into this field to compensate for their own short-comings; i.e., they were helped so they want to help others, but may lack the intelligence or perspective to do so. But many are wonderful guides to understanding life’s complexities and seeing past one’s blind spots so that one can grow in mind and spirit.)
Eventually, the thoughts of suicide began to fade over the next two years. A dark fog still lingered around me for another year, and like a prisoner in a dungeon I marked the days passing; but not to count how many days since I was captured; only to mark one less day the world had to endure me being in it.
What saved me from the “final solution” after the police delivered me to a counselor’s office was less of the advice of the psychologist, good though it was, but a verse of the Bible that came out of my memory, even though I did not remember memorizing it: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Proverbs 18:13)
So with a good counselor’s help, I began to find that God really is merciful, even to me, running a close second to Paul’s confession of being the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). At times the guilt and shame of my actions, attitudes and assumptions still overwhelm me, and the darkness begins to crowd into my mind again, and I wonder if the world will be better when I am gone. But at those times, I return to my Lord, who took all my shame (YES! even mine!) and nailed it to His cross so that I could be forgiven.
Next week, I will offer some additional thoughts on the worldwide epidemic of suicide and preferred methods.
So if you know someone who appears depressed, try a smile and kind word. Be direct: ask, “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” You do not have to be a psychologist to care about someone, and most of all, that is what a suicide wannabe is hoping for. If you are discouraged beyond hope, let me tell you from my narrative, the fires may be hot, but they will not destroy you. There is mercy. Get help. (Next week, February 15, 2016, some last thoughts on To Be Or Not To Be.)
“My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26
Hamlet Act 3, scene 1, 55–87
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—aye, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dis-prized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.