My project is not about suicide. At least I don’t think it is. However, I am not yet clear on my intent for my project so it might be. It is in there somewhere as it has been a feature of my life so I need to get it off my chest. In this post I consider my own relationship to suicide and then bring in a perspective by Simon Critchley in his book ‘Notes on Suicide.’ Jesse read and recommended this book and as is consistent with the subject he said it was one of few books he felt very uncomfortable being seen reading it in public. He was reading it for his project Forest Operations which he will be giving a lecture on on April 20th. This date would have been my wife’s 65th birthday.
Suicide and Me
Ten years ago my wife, Karen, took an overdose of drugs in an attempt to commit suicide. She had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis for twenty years and had had another bad attack leaving her without the use of her legs and paralysed in much of her body. She had been depressed for some time and I knew she was in a bad way on that day. Sensing something I skipped dinner with friends and came home early after a football game. Had I not done so she would have died then.
Karen never thanked me for saving her life and always said that was when she wishes she had died. Arguments by me about the happy times for her children and grandchildren by her being around longer did not change her mind.
I have been three paces from suicide on three occassions in the last seven years. Most recently in early 2019. On two occassions I stood beside a rail track near Biggleswade waiting for a high speed train. On the most recent I stood on the edge of a cliff dropping 500 metres to the sea. At the time I was unhappier than the sum of any unhappiness I believed I would create by my demise. Everything I was doing to make life better for the love of my life was failing as things just got worse and worse.
On the 27th January this year Karen died peacefully with an assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland. It was a beautiful way to die. It has taken me a lot of effort to be able to say these words. It is partly why I need to write this post.
Suicide is a taboo word. In 2019 I told a number of people I was in a bad way and worried about myself. Everybody turned away. I am as sure as I can be had there not been unexpected canoeists below me where I was intending to jump then I would have jumped. The canoeists broke the train of thought. I am here. I am glad I am here but also full of every emotion possible trying to make sense of what I have experienced. My project is something about this experience but not clearly articulated yet.
Notes on Suicide (Critchley, 2015)
Critchley’s book on the subject attempts to understand what suicide is and why people avoid discussing it. It is a surprisingly readable book given the subject matter. He concludes there are ‘obvious philosophical flaws in all the arguments for and against suicide based on conceptions of rights or duties.’ (Critchley, p64). He also ends the book by suggesting ‘don’t.’
A surprising reference he makes is to Cioran’s All Gall is Divided in which is written ‘Only optimists commit suicide, the optimists who can no longer be…optimists. The others have no reason to live, why should they have any to die?’ (Critchley, p72). As a lifelong optimist who on the whole has found a positive way to respond to every problem thrown at me in life I relate to this. I reached a point where I saw life as intolerable and only going to get worse. My optimism had been drained.
Before reaching his conclusion on philosophical arguments Critchley states his position. ‘Suicide, in my view, is neither a legal or a moral offence, and should not be seen as such.’ (p11)
He refers to the psychical and existential blockage most face in considering suicide. ‘ We are either desperately curious about the nasty, intimate, dirty details of the last seconds of a suicide and seek out salacious stories whenever we can. Or we can’t look at all because the prospect is too frightening. Instead we peek through the slits between our fingers with our hands on our face, as if we were watching a horror movie. Either way we are hiding something, blocking something, concealing something through our silence or endless chatter or, indeed, rage.’ (p15)
A source of taboo for suicide originates from religious beliefs. It ‘is still a criminal offence in most muslim countries.’ p(28). In Christian doctrine ‘a concept first formulated by Augustine and then refined by Thomas Aquinas, life, for the Christian, is something given – a datum – over which we have the right of use, usus, but not governance, dominion, which can only be the prerogative of God. To kill oneself is to exercise dominion over one’s life and to assume the power that is only possessed by the deity. This is why suicide is a sin. A true Christian must battle with pain and fight on like a soldier.’ (p21).
‘Christian arguments against suicide turn on the extension of the sixth commandment ‘though shalt not kill’ to the questionable interpretation that this commandment forbids self killing as well.’ (p31)
However….’The Christian martyrs chose to go to their deaths out of love of God and hatred of the state or any other form of temporal, pagan authority. If the crucifixion of Christ himself can be viewed as a quasi suicidal act performed out of love, then this is a fortiori the case with the deaths of saints and martyrs.’
Societies that are now secular are in many cases defined by historic morals and standards set by a religious past. The secular moral set has not yet fully matured.
Back to me
It is useful for me to know there is no human argument that is conclusive for or against suicide. Each view is based on assumption and belief. Each can have a personal position but should not impose their own on others. I do not believe in God. I was part of the universe, I am now and will continue to be in another form after I am not. I am not asking for anyone to bend to my position on this subject but I am asking for them to respect my view being as valid as any other.
Karen was in intolerable pain. Her choice was to suffer this or be unconscious without pain from the use of drugs. She was on the way to total paralysis. Medicine could have kept her alive for another 20 or more years in a totally paralysed state, in pain or asleep and unable to do anything for herself. I miss her painfully and only now, as I stand back from the daily suffering she had, understand the strength and bravery of her decision to die with dignity.
Having written this the thought forms that suicide itself is not the main subject of my project. As is clear here though it does contribute to the experiences I have had and that will inform my work.
Critchley, S. (2013) Notes on Suicide. Fitzcarraldo Editions. London.