If I wanted this poem to be more intimate,
I would address the reader directly, and
invite the reader into my inner world.
I would use second-person pronouns and
share the deeper and darker aspects of
my personality. I would regale the reader
with stories of elation and spiritual fulfillment
along with brutally honest accounts of
self-doubt, anxiety, fear, and loathing.
I might make it a little shocking by offering
raw accounts of emotional terrorism,
suicidal ideation, perversion, and criminality.
I might make the reader uncomfortable,
embarrassed or outraged. But today I want to
keep my distance. I will only tell the reader
the weather is crisp and cool and fine enough
for a pleasant walk. The livestock are neighing,
and braying and crowing in a delightful
cacophony of good cheer. The holidays are
just around the corner, and it’s best
I keep my distance.
People overstate the importance of first impressions. It’s possible to change your impressions of someone, for better or worse, on second or third impressions. It is even possible to change your mind about someone after 25 years. I’m sure of all that, but some people sure do make memorable first impressions.
Sharon pretty much introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, I’m a Black bisexual woman who just wants to make trouble and maybe help make a better world.” Some people would say that for shock effect, but I don’t think she really cared about that. She just liked to vet new friends. It’s sort of like those signs that say, “You must be this tall to get on this ride.” If you were bothered by her introduction, then she didn’t need to waste any more time on you.
As far as I could tell, she loved life. She loved men and women. She loved humanity. Somehow, the world can’t accommodate people like that, though. Some of us just never find a safe place. One day she would talk about all the drama women cause. The next day she would lament all the baggage Black men bring on dates with them. What’s the difference between anger, fear, grief, or love?
Blame the structure of the world. Blame biology. Blame the devil. Do what you want, but it is hard for some of us to feel connected to anything. It’s like that Jimmy Cliff line about how loneliness would never leave him alone. You know, we’re all in this together—it’s just that we seem unable to share the burden of that, so we’re all seekers.
So, anyway, at her funeral, her aunt gets up and tells all the family and other busy bodies that no one knows where Sharon is now but Sharon and God, and no one else even needs to worry about it, so just shut your mouth and show a little respect. I guess some people think Heaven is a hotel that rejects people who couldn’t find safe shelter on Earth. Some people believe in a God that locks the door for his most sensitive children.
I guess that’s just our nature. We all want to feel we’re blessed. We want to feel protected in the end. We’re not like the others, somehow. Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin had this vision of good Christian folks like herself having their virtue “being burned away” as they descended into Hell while her inferiors sang and praised their way into Heaven. Some of us find out we are like the others before it is too late. Some of us don’t.
It’s not like I was his confidante or anything. It’s just that I did know him and talk to him from time to time, and I didn’t expect to hear anything about him on the news. But there he was.
A white teenager with reasonable grades from a “good” (meaning middle class, of course) family and neighborhood goes off the rails and does something crazy. And there were people on the TV saying how they were completely shocked. They never expected anything like that. It was totally out of character.
I mean this was way before “normcore” was a thing, but he was one of those guys with plenty of money and everything who just wanted to blend in and not bring any attention to himself. If he had any interest in fashion or trends, you couldn’t prove it by looking at him.
So I never gave him much thought until out of the blue they’re on TV saying some fool robbed a McDonald’s with a sawed-off shotgun and then kept pointing the rifle at the cops. They shot him in the leg and he fell and sort of slithered backwards into a cleaning closet all the while keeping that gun pointed at the cops. Anyone other than a middle-class white kid never would have made it that far, but couldn’t have lasted much longer. Texas cops run out of patience with guns pointed in their direction in short order, even when racism and classism aren’t factors.
So he died a bloody death in a hail of bullets, which must have been what he wanted. I couldn’t ask him, but it sounded just like what this other guy I met later said. Little Joey, the boxer, was always going on about how he’d show ’em some day. Joey would often wax poetic about dying on his front porch, surrounded by well-armed cops, shooting indiscriminately at them until he got blown to smithereens from all directions.
I lost touch with Joey, so I don’t know if he ever fulfilled his dream, but I did see a picture of him kneeling down with his fist in the air in front of a regiment of cops in LA. He made it into the LA newspaper and he didn’t even have to die for the privilege. I think his tri-colored Mohawk and metal spikes caught the attention of the photographer, but I can only guess, because I wasn’t there.
Some people just want to die impressively, but I never saw the point. Do they think they’ll be looking up from Hell, nudging their buddies, and saying, “Yeah, I really showed those cops a thing or two”?
On the other hand, I guess it’s better than how many of us die—in a hospital with no loved ones around, no control of bodily functions, and with little awareness of who anyone even is. But how does that matter, either? You go and then you’re gone. It’s simple and I decided a long time ago to stop fussing around about it.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. The title of the anthology reflects the staggering statistic that suicide takes 84 men each week in the UK. The causes of suicide are many and varied, and you surely have your own opinions about prevention, but one paragraph from Helen Calcutt’s introduction stuck out for me:
“Women cry, men do not. Men hit women, women don’t hit men. Both examples of what we would consider a socially accepted norm, denies either party their natural complexity. Women do hit men, and though a violent and harmful act, it also highlights a particular type of vulnerability (perhaps a trauma too) that needs addressing. Men weep. It’s probably one of the deepest, moving sounds I have ever heard. Denying this as a normal attribute to male behavior, almost refuses them the bog-standard right to grieve, to shed a skin—to let it out.”
In the end, this is a book about grief but also hope. Many of the poems are from people who have experienced loss to suicide, some from those who experience or at least describe the feelings that lead to suicide, and some are about the possibilities for better lives and better approaches to male vitality.
I don’t want to quote or describe the poems as I think it takes from their power for the reader, but this book is not only for a great cause, it is great poetry. If you love poetry, you are likely to see names you recognise, but you may also be delighted to discover fresh talent. As you would expect, the poems are moving, but never maudlin or overly sentimental.
I’m a depressive. It has been some time since suicidal ideation, depersonalisation, and derealisation enveloped my pshche and smothered me in a warm fog. Still, being a depressive is like being an alcoholic. It never really goes away. “My name is Randall, and I’m . . . .”
When my depression comes, it usually greets me in early spring along with the new blooms of fresh gardens and reinvigorated old trees. I have no idea why spring is such a difficult time for those of us who struggle with depression, but I do know I am not alone. When most non-depressives think of depression and seasonal sadness, they think of winter when the skies are dark and the holidays strain the resilience of family ties and over-burdened budgets. But it is spring that brings the spike in suicides.
I don’t think anyone can say for sure why suicides peak in the spring. Some say it is due to allergic responses to pollen. Some say people tend to take action in the spring after a relatively dormant winter. You can click here for a brief overview of theories.
Whatever the reason, please be aware of the increased risk of suicide as spring rolls on. Many of the warning signs are straightforward: talking about suicide, buying weapons or poison, becoming withdrawn, expressing feeling of hopelessness, or mood swings. A less obvious symptom, though, is an increase in energy and mood after a period of depression. Sometimes people may feel happier or energised after deciding on what they see as their only way out. You can click here for a list of suicide warning signs.
Women report suicidal thoughts more often than men, but the majority of completed suicides are men. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take women seriously if they are having suicidal thoughts, of course, but it may be that men are less likely to seek help or admit to feelings of weakness, so it would behoove us all to make support available to men and to help men feel more comfortable seeking help.
Finally, some people may threaten suicide in a bid to get attention, or they may be judged that way, anyway. I can only say that if someone will go to those lengths to get attention, they desperately need attention. Please try to give them some. Attention in the form of care is a human need as real as the need for water or air.
Recently a woman in the UK known only as C won the right to effectively end her life by refusing dialysis treatment. Owen Bowcott, writing for The Guardiandescribed it as a “highly unusual judgment,” but, in making the decision, the judge said, ““This position reflects the value that society places on personal autonomy in matters of medical treatment and the very long established right of the patient to choose to accept or refuse medical treatment from his or her doctor.”
The judge is correct; the right to refuse treatment is one of the bedrock principles of medical ethics. In most medical decisions, autonomy trumps all other considerations, including efficacy of possible treatment. In other words, you are not obligated to accept treatment simply because it will prolong your life. This is the way things work in the world of medicine, but there could be other approaches.
Given the facts of this case, it seems a suicidal person sort of “lucks out” when an unrelated medical issue arises. Unlike C, not everyone seeking death is able to find a legal way out. Those who are so physically incapacitated that they cannot possibly end their lives without help often find too many roadblocks to death to ever carry it out. Even when healthy people try to commit suicide, the rest of us are obligated to prevent it when possible. If we find someone who has taken a drug overdose, for example, we try to save him or her. If someone is trying to jump off a bridge, we try to prevent it. And if someone asks for drugs to commit suicide, only a few places in the world allow them to be prescribed.
It is clear that we do not always respect the autonomy of suicidal individuals. Even in the case of C, the judge said, “My decision that C has capacity to decide whether or not to accept dialysis does not, and should not prevent her treating doctors from continuing to seek to engage with C in an effort to persuade her of the benefits of receiving life-saving treatment in accordance with their duty to C as their patient.” The judge seems to feel that the doctors ought to continue trying to save C, even while recognizing that she has the right to refuse treatment.
Clearly, the law in this case is built around autonomy, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Autonomy assumes a rational and unimpaired person making a fully informed decision. The judge notes that C is fully functional and has no cognitive impairments. At the same time, though, C is facing a diagnosis of breast cancer and a severely damaged self-image. It isn’t clear that she may not modify her view with a little time and, perhaps, psychotherapy.
If her mental health is impaired, she may not be fully autonomous in the first place. If she isn’t, then perhaps she needs care more than freedom. An Ethics of Care would possible guide us to respect her wishes as well as her needs. A little more time may be needed to assess whether her decision, which is not reversible, is truly the decision she wants to make. With a little time and support, she may come to believe that sparkle is still possible for her.
I also think a focus on capabilities might be relevant. An ethics focused on capabilities would try to enable her to have a fulfilling life by maximizing the abilities she still has. Care and capabilities both emerged as feminist approaches to ethics and justice. While on the surface, this may not seem to be a feminist issue, but the judge also said, “It is clear that during her life C has placed a significant premium on youth and beauty and on living a life that, in C’s words, ‘sparkles’.”
It is clear that C has operated under rather sexist values for most of her life. That is her choice, to be sure, but it might be possible to find new values. Many who have experienced crippling injuries have sought suicide only to later find their lives are valuable and meaningful even without the activities and relationships they once held dear.
My interest in the topic of this blog arose several years ago from a conversation with a scholar visiting from China. She had studied Christianity in China and was interested in meeting Christians in the United States and learning more about their beliefs and culture. She admitted to me that she felt some disappointment to learn that a promise of a blissful eternity did not seem to decrease the fear of death for most American Christians. If life is filled with pain and challenges, why would Christians not welcome a release to a joy of eternity?
Lucretius would not be surprised by their fear. He noted that those who boast of fearlessness in the face of death will react to death in pretty much the same way everyone else does. He says:
Of course, we also know some turn to suicide, which may or may not reflect a loss of fear of death. It may only mean a fear of the misery of life has overtaken a fear of death, but I will return to that idea later.
On the other side, I can remember discussions with Christians describing the attitude of suicide bombers in armed conflict. I have heard at least a few people who equate a willingness to die for a cause with a lack of respect for the value of life rather than a lack of fear in the face of death. If we value our lives, must we fear death? Is there a greater moral advantage to reducing the fear of death or to emphasizing death as a loss of something of great value, life?
While he doesn’t have much in common with Samuel Johnson, German philosopher Martin Heidegger also sees some advantages to our uneasiness with death. When we contemplate our own annihilation, he says, we are filled with dread, which forces us to confront what is authentic. When we are projected into Nothing, we are transcendent. If we were not “projected from the start into Nothing,” we could not relate to “what-is” or have any self-relationship. Only through confronting annihilation do we have any hope for authentic existence.
Fear of death propels us forward through life, even in the face of injury, disease, and extreme hardship, and as it propels us forward it also gives meaning to our struggle. By working to overcome our fear, we establish ourselves as free beings capable of making meaning of our own suffering. And if we will ourselves free and full of meaning, we will strive for others’ freedom as well. Indeed, Beauvoir says we extend our own freedom through the freedom of others.
As a final note, let me say that part of willing freedom for others is an effort to remove obstacles that make suicide seem like a triumph. It is for this reason we should work to promote human capabilities and, specifically, to relieve the pain and suffering of depression.
I don’t know if it is the changes in the weather, the length of the days, or what, but we
sometimes find the world slipping away from us. As we reach, objects, people, and activities seem to continuously recede into the distance just beyond our grasp. We forget how to be engaged with even the most basic tasks. Seasonal changes can leave us feeling depressed and melancholy. As the poet Phillip Larken put it:
For reasons that aren’t completely understood, spring seems to bring a surge of depression and suicides, but winter gets all the attention for warnings about seasonal depression. Some researchers have noticed that suicide spikes coincide with increased pollen production. Apparently, allergies release cytokines, which affect appetite, activity, sex drive, and social engagement. There may be a philosophical question in there as to the difference between having “depression” and having a response to allergies that looks a heck of a lot like depression. Sufferers of either will probably not worry the distinction too much.
Some theorists suggest that suicide peaks in spring because of a “broken promise effect.” When spring doesn’t bring the joy and energy it generally promises, the depressed are moved to suicide. Others have suggested that springtime brings more energy and agitation (and a corresponding drop in melatonin), especially to people with bipolar disorder, that moves them to act against their own lives. Still others speculate that springtime increases in serotonin give people the energy to kill themselves.
I don’t want us to turn away from people who are depressed during the holidays. Rather, I just hope we can remember that some of us occasionally feel depressed and hopeless throughout the year. The extra effort we make through the holidays may be worth making year round.
Still, I know it is true that many of us mourn with greater intensity during the holidays as we count all those who are no longer with us and grieve for our losses, so maybe we should be a little extra careful during December. A little care can go a long way to avoiding a holiday crisis. But we should remember to keep caring and reaching out during the new year, into spring, and for the rest of the year. When we help each other, we are all stronger.