Is it just me, or are there a lot of articles on suicide lately? I’ve come across four in the last month–suicide in Japan, suicide among veterans, suicide among teens, and increased suicide rates among middle-aged Americans. In what was surely an effort by my unconscious to dilute the morbidity of the subject, after the last article (suicide in Japan) I thought about a question that relates to suicide but has much broader implications for our lives. How do we perceive death? Just a small question, right? So my mind broke it down further–On an individual basis, do we see death as an end (of life) or a beginning (of something else)? This question relates to suicide (is the suicidal one running away from something or toward something?) but also has implications for the lives–our attitudes and actions–of all of us.
First things first–death is for everyone both an end and a beginning (even if this beginning is only the absence of life and reality as we’ve known it). However, I doubt any of us view these two conditions in exact balance at any time in our lives. One or the other aspect of death will prevail whenever we stop to consider the question. Further, the aspect that prevails will probably change over the course of one’s life, perhaps year-to-year, or even day-to-day during times of heightened sensitivity or stress.
There’s one more layer to apply to this simplified philosophical and practical question–Once an individual determines if death is perceived as an end or a beginning, is that condition viewed as positive or negative? In other words, if death is seen as an end, is the individual happy or sad about that; if seen as a beginning, is that hopeful or feared? I had one friend who saw death as an end and loved life so much that he was terrified by the idea of that end. I had another friend who was in such deep and ongoing pain that he longed for the end that death would grant. Alternatively, for those who see in death a beginning, I’ve known deeply religious people who looked forward to that beginning; I’ve also known people who saw death as entrance into a dark and ominous unknown, and viewed the prospect with dread.
Suicidal individuals must, at some level, perceive death as either a positive end–the final escape from a deeply pained life–or a hopeful beginning–entrance into something better than their current experience. But what about the rest of us? Do we see death as a frightening end and respond by clinging more desperately to the loves we have, seeking more assiduously the joys we know? Or do we see death as the beginning of something unknown and therefore unsettling, and run from it (insofar as that’s possible) or at a minimum avoid thinking about it?
And now here’s the interesting part–what events in our lives or psyches cause us to change our view of death? What physical or spiritual unveiling might cause a suicidal person to long for an end one night and cling to precious life the next morning? What experience might cause a non-suicidal person to run from death’s unknown one day, then check out every book in the library on death and spirituality the next? If these sorts of 180-degree changes occur, what triggers them? Can such reversals be intentional? Facilitated by outside forces or only from within? Biological or psychological or spiritual? Drug-induced? Age-related? Environmental? Seasonal? The list of potential factors could be long indeed.
And what do answers to these questions–still ponderous despite attempts at simplification–say about us as individuals, families, societies, cultures? Maybe little, maybe a lot.
I’m preparing to publish a short story titled “The Annunciation.” It’s very short, a vignette excerpted from a longer work. In the climax of the vignette, a young woman who has survived a suicide attempt reflects on the meaning of that act and its outcome, not so much for herself as for the enlightenment of an old friend she’s chanced upon, or maybe been sent to. I’ll get you the link once I’ve published it.