Saturday, April 6, 2019

Suicide and Suffering

Recently a friend took his own life. We weren’t especially close. I hadn’t seen him in years, although we occasionally interacted online. I’m not going to give his name here, out of respect for his family at this difficult time and because I don’t want to make his life or death about me.

Before going on, I want to make it clear that I am not a mental health professional. If you are experiencing serious depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please stop reading this immediately and talk to someone, anyone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline ( at 1-800-273-8255. Visit a school counseling center. Talk to somebody.

My friend had many talents. One of them was philosophy. Whether suicide could in principle be justifiable might be a question he considered. I can’t remember if we ever discussed it. Maybe we did, maybe over whiskey one afternoon at the bar.

Whatever the case, the topic of suicide has always haunted me, philosophically speaking. I’ve dealt with depression but I’ve never been suicidal. It’s always been theoretical for me. If it’s more than theoretical for you, please read the second paragraph above. 

For me suicide is one of those theoretical questions that nonetheless hits hard emotionally (like skepticism, personal identity, or the problem of evil/suffering). It unfortunately became a little less theoretical with the loss of my friend.

Philosophically-inclined people can’t just stop thinking or asking questions at will. There’s no turning off your brain for such folks. You have to push through, hoping eventually for answers, exhaustion, or the kind of mental coolness cultivated by ancient skeptics. If you are the kind of person that can simply stop asking questions and go life your life, maybe it’s best to close this tab and read something else, something cheerier than the fare I offer below.

But if, like me, you have to think through an issue rather than around it, here are some of the questions I’m working through. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

At what point does the suffering of life become too much? What do we owe our loved ones when deciding whether to go on even if life seems not worth the trouble? Is life itself so valuable that it must be continued at all costs even in the face of terrible suffering? Is life always worth living, whether examined or not? Is depression sometimes too enveloping, too stifling for even the best treatment and the most caring loved ones?

Could suicide be, as Camus asked, a reasonable response to the absurdity of our place in the universe? Or is it, as Camus answered, better to live in defiance of all that? Does the current direction of politics, society, economics, or global climate change enter into such deliberations? Will the rest of the 21st century be worth living in?

Is it possible that suicide may be rationally justifiable in rare circumstances (for people who didn’t finish Camus, for ancient Roman Stoics preserving virtue, for disgraced Samurai, in cases of terminal illness that cause great suffering, etc.), but that we are better off believing that suicide is never justified, anyway? Even if suicide is not always preventable, are we better off believing it is?

Is suicide always an irrational decision made at the behest of mental illness and its attendant sufferings? Is evaluating suicide in terms of rational justification or lack thereof simply an entirely wrong metric? Is it more like a hurricane or earthquake – a natural disaster of the mind that’s nobody’s fault, nobody’s decision?

And for those of us left behind, what about our suffering? Are anger or guilt ever justified? Or is melancholy acceptance the best response? If compassion is the appropriate emotional response to the suffering of suicidal people, what is the appropriate action?

Does anyone understand the reasons for suicide outside of the person contemplating it? Does that person even understand? Are there reasons at all?

I don’t know how to answer these questions. I don’t know if my friend ever answered them for himself. Or if that quest, too, was cut short. One of the great tragedies of suicide is that it forecloses the possibility of finding answers for oneself -- or of changing one’s mind about these answers later.

I hope my friend’s all-too-short and troubled life was not without its occasional joys. I hope his endeavors in music, crafts, and philosophy made his life more meaningful, at least insofar as these endeavors enriched the lives of the people around him. Mostly I hope he found the peace that life wasn’t giving him.

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