Member Rara Avis
I suspect my response may surprise a few people, especially considering the rather strict guidelines Passions has about suicide in poetry and prose. And, yes, in discussions, too. Before I talk about suicide, per se, I think it worth a moment to talk about why those guidelines exist.
There are two reasons we have guidelines.
The first is to avoid the utter garbage we all know exists for no reason other than to gain attention. While I welcome an honest exploration of almost any subject, I don't respond well to manipulation and shock value. It doesn't make me think, as the writers of that genre often claim. It just makes me mad. And it is rarely, if ever, honest. A bit over a year ago, myself and a handful of like-minded people decided we frankly didn't want to read any more of it and these forums were created. It was our sanctuary from sensationalism. Our membership has grown a tad, but I have always operated under the assumption that everyone who has since joined us appreciates that freedom from excess as much as did the earliest members. The first reason for guidelines, then, is very selfish and fairly simple. The second reason is more complex.
When doctors swear their Hippocratic Oath they are actually making two promises: To help people and - first and foremost - to do no harm. Were everyone who frequents our home as strong-minded as most of you, there would be little need for guidelines. If all of the teens and young people had parents who would take the time to discuss and explore what young eyes read here, there would be little need for guidelines. Were critical thinking still taught in our schools, there would be little need for guidelines. But lacking those criteria, as we most assuredly are, many of our guidelines are in place to help insure we do no harm. I don't believe people are stupid. But I do think some are often misinformed and highly impressionable. It's great when we're able to help people. And, judging by my email, I think we do that far more than many of you might believe. But, like a physician, we must be careful that our efforts to help cannot cause inadvertent harm.
There have been people over the past year who have argued that poetry glorifying suicide and other self-destructive behaviors should be allowed and even encouraged at Passions. It is cathartic, they say. It gives the writer the one thing they most need - someone willing to listen. And, perhaps most convincing, they contend it allows us all the opportunity to offer a helping hand to those who most need our support.
I wish we could help every troubled soul. Unfortunately, we're not really trained to do that. Listening isn't enough. We're writers, not therapists. We're poets, not professionals. The only valid answer we can offer is advice to seek help. Real help, not glib answers. To try doing more is to risk doing harm. Our very efforts to listen and be there for someone could encourage them to push for more, to push harder, to go beyond that final step from which they cannot return. I'm not a professional, but I do believe that encouraging troubled people to depend on others - on us - is the wrong answer. It takes training and experience to know when someone can be dependent and when that dependence should be severed. By trying to help them, we begin a process we haven't the training to control. Does that mean we should ignore them? Of course not. But I think our help should be limited to repeated attempts to get them into the hands of trained professionals. To attempt more is to give them only the semblance of what they need and encourage them to "get by" without real help.
A person in the midst of suicidal depression is dry tinder, and I'd hate to think a poem on this site glorifying suicide - or even an honest discussion exploring the moral dilemna of suicide - might be the match that sets them ablaze. The guidelines against suicide poetry were my attempt, however futile, to both prevent the propensity for glib answers and to insure no one would be encouraged to take there own life. The guidelines are there to to insure we do no harm.
I have always felt largely justified in disallowing poetry that encourages one person to hurt another. I think as a society we have the right and duty to dictate what one human being can do to another. I am, however, far less comfortable with trying to dictate what one human being can do to themselves. Suicide is a very personal thing. One could argue it hurts other people (as many of you have argued in this thread), but any choice we make has that same potential. By and large, suicide is a victimless crime - and to my mind there is no greater oxymoron in our society.
But does that make it right?
When I was 19 and stationed in San Diego, I found myself abruptly called home on emergency leave because my birth father was diagnosed with cancer. The Red Cross acted very swiftly, yet by the time I arrived in Michigan, he weighed less than a hundred pounds and had lost all semblance of human thought. He was 43 years old. That was my first brush with the big C and, for the next two decades, my only brush. In 1994, my doctor told me he had found a large, tennis ball-sized tumor in my bladder. The doctor was a GP and he immediately made me an appointment with a specialist - for a week hence. I'm sure that week would have been Hell for anyone, but I think it was worse for me than most because of my own ignorance. I was almost exactly the same age as my father. The only thing I knew about cancer was from witnessing his death. For those seven days I was forced to wait, I KNEW I was going to die. It wasn't just fear or worry, it was absolute knowledge, because that's all I had ever seen. I didn't consider alternatives, because I didn't realize there were alternatives. It's difficult, now, to describe my certitude because, in retrospect, I realize how foolish it was. But there was never a question in my mind during that week. I was going to die.
And, yes, I considered suicide. I had seen the pain my father faced. Even more importantly, at least to me, I had seen his complete and utter loss of dignity. I fully expected the specialist to put me in the hospital, never to exit. So I thought, very seriously, of avoiding that inevitable conclusion.
Obviously, I didn't. What I didn't know during those seven days, what the specialist explained when I met him, was that 80 percent of all bladder tumors are benign (as was mine) and most of the remaining 20 percent are treatable. Medical knowledge had come a long way in the 25 years since my father's ignominious death.
But that's certainly not the point of my story. The real point is that, even though I personally think suicide is both a copout and a moral quagmire, for much of seven days - I seriously considered it. And I think that's typical of the way suicide can sneak its way into our lives as an option. Humanity is composed of three interlocked building blocks: The mind, the soul, and the heart. What we believe, either intellectually or spiritually, doesn't become a reality until those beliefs are put through the test of emotional fire. I could cite a hundred instances, nay a thousand, from the man who doesn't believe in killing until faced with defending his small child to the atheist who turns to God on her deathbed. Until faced with that test of emotional fire, until we are held captive by overwhelming emotion - the belief system we've built throughout our entire life is little more than a wish and a want. We hope we will do the "right" thing. But we can never know.
While I dislike generalizations, I think it's safe to say that suicide is typically an emotional decision. Looked at intellectually, it makes little sense. Looked at spiritually, it makes less sense. But those in the throes of depression look at it neither intellectually nor spiritually. They are enslaved by emotion, feelings so strong and profound that the mind and spirit seldom have a chance. When we try to counter those feelings purely with intellectual arguments, we are going to lose. When we try to fight depression with strictly spiritual doctrine, we are going to lose. We must make a person feel better - about themselves and about their life - before mind and soul can be brought back into balance with a heart run amok.
"What is wrong with suicide?" isn't a valid question, especially if you're unwilling to accept opinion as a valid answer. (Everything, of course, is an opinion and everything is based on situational evidence. As a devotee of mathematics, I can unequivocally say that two plus two equals four is both an opinion and situational. The only place in the Universe where certitude exists is within our minds.)
Perhaps a more useful question would be to ask "When is suicide not wrong?"
Here is the seven-year-old, convinced her parents no longer love her because they've taken away her shiny red tricycle for seemingly no reason. She feels miserable, worse than she's ever felt in her whole life, and the week her bike will sit in the garage, unused, seems like a vast eternity to her young mind.
Here is the nine-year-old, left bereft by the too-early death of her mother, ignored and ridiculed by a father battling his own grief. She cries every night, wondering how she can possibly face the morrow without the love and understanding of the only person who ever cared about her. The one thing that overshadows her pain is the anger - at God, at the world, at a father who should have been the one to die.
Here is the fourteen-year-old, struggling with his differences, friendless at school, mocked by those few he respects. No one understands his pain. No one is even willing to listen, but instead offers him only platitudes and advice that it will soon get better. It doesn't get better. Life, once simple, once good, becomes a series of disappointments and disallusionments. He is alone and knows that is how he will spend the rest of his life. It's their fault, for not listening, for not caring. They should have to pay, if only with their own guilt.
Here is the sixteen-year-old, watching silently from a distance, as the only boy she ever loved laughs with his new girlfriend. She knows they are laughing at her. Everyone is laughing at her. There is this terrible pain in the pit of her stomach, a knot of tension so real it pervades her every thought, her every breath. If only she were prettier. Smarter. More popular. Then he would still be with her. But she is none of those things, can never be any of those things no matter what she does, and the pain and humiliation get worse every day.
Here is the twenty-year-old, sitting with a near-empty bottle of vodka and the memories of the wife and child he drove away. He knows he has problems. Drinking too much. The jobs that never last more than a few months. The anger he directs towards those he loves. The only thing in his life he ever did that was "right" was to marry her when she became pregnant. And, now, even that is being taken away.
Here is the thirty-year old, walking the dark streets with fear in her eyes and an even darker certainty this night will end as have all the rest. She had dreams once, and followed those dreams as everyone always told her she should. But they never told her the cost of failure. They never told her life could be a series of disappointments and heartaches, one misplaced step placed after the one before it, until there was no where to turn and no way to turn back. They didn't tell her how much it could hurt.
Here is the forty-year-old, his life half spent, trapped on a path he never chose. He didn't realized the years would slip by so quickly, that the daily struggles to just survive would become the sum total of his entire existence. He no longer cares about his meaningless job, if ever he did. His family is just the anchor that held him in place for so long. He's young enough to remember the dreams of his youth, but too old now to begin chasing them. Is this all there is? Is this all there will be - for another forty years?
Here is the fifty-year-old, walking up the steps to his second mortgage, his hand trembling as he reaches for the door. His wife knows something is wrong the moment she sees his face, but she never guesses just how wrong. Downsizing, they call it. Early retirement, some joke. But he knows it for what it really is - a man who no longer has any value. Who is going to hire an old man? Who is going to pay the bills? Who is going to look through his mirror in the morning and convince him there's any reason to get out of bed?
Here is the sixty-year old, sitting in his shiny chrome wheelchair, the smell of new plastic drowned beneath the odor of the colostomy bag hanging at his side. The house looks different after all those weeks in the hospital. Smaller. His wife reorganized the furniture, widening the pathway from their bedroom to the TV, the only path he ever follows any more. It was just one of the many, many adjustments she's made for him. He is no longer a husband, not in any real sense of the word. He's just a burden. And, according to the doctors, this will continue for another ten or twenty years, until the degenerative disease takes his mind as well as his legs.
Here is the eighty-year-old, standing naked in his bathroom and staring at the indelible ink patterns the shower refused to touch. The radiologist will touch them up this afternoon anyway, religning the bulleyes so the deadly radiation can better be aimed. The treatment will last only seconds, unlike the interminable drive to and from the hospital, his daughter making small talk as she weaves through traffic, trying to pretend nothing has changed. Tomorrow they'll make the drive again, this time for chemo, for the clear plastic bag of lethal poison that will slowly drip into his viens. There's a twenty percent chance these trips will grant him another two years of life, instead of the few months he'll have without them. His daughter thinks it's worth it.
The gamut of problems we face in life seemingly spans from birth to death. And, for all I know, perhaps beyond. In spite of the myths, in spite of the illusions we sometimes see from the outside looking in, there is no "and lived happily ever after" for any of us, at least not while we still draw breath. We all face obstacles, those which are temporal and those which truly end only with our passing. Most face their problems, some by remembering better times, some by reaching out to a greater force, all by finding a path that leads to hope. Most of us learn to cope. Most. But not all.
Some, whether right or wrong, find they cannot cope. Overcome by grief, frustration, lonliness, fear, anger, hopelessness - they simply surrender. Sadly, coping is something we must do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Giving up can take only moments. Are those who abandon all hope morally wrong? Always? No matter the situation? There was a time when I thought I knew the answer to that question. I'm no longer so certain. And I might suggest that until your own convictions are tested in the fires of crippling emotional overload, you probably don't know either.
And you know what? I don't think it matters even one iota.
It does no one any good, either them or especially me, to sit in judgement and try to determine whether someone's actions are "right" or "wrong." That's not my job. And until I'm able to take an afternoon stroll across Adam's Lake, I'm not really qualified either. What I can do, what I must do, is instead judge my actions. What I do in response to others is the only thing that matters, the only thing I can ever label right or wrong.
Allowing others to make their own decisions - and their own mistakes - is both a wisdom and a copout. The difference lies less in the results than in your own motivation. Do you grant freedom and promote growth? Or do you absolve yourself of responsibility?
None of us would watch a child run into the path of on onrushing vehicle and tell ourselves it was, after all, the child's deciscion. Most of us would stop the blind man from walking over the edge of a cliff, the city-slicker from wandering into a nest of poisonous vipers. Ah, but those are people making mistakes, you whisper. We're not usurping their freedom, and they will surely thank us for our intervention. But what of the sibling abusing drugs, surely just another kind of suicide, or the drunk friend crawling behind the wheel of a car? What of the teenager picking up her first pack of cigarettes, or the aged aunt unable to put down her last pack? Are these individual exercising freedom of choice? Or are they, like the child, mistakenly running into the path of an onrushing vehicle? Do we try to help people? Or do we shrug our shoulders and walk away, allowing them the "freedom" to self-destruct?
I firmly believe that every human being is ultimately responsible for their own actions. Whether you take your life or ruin your life, you and you alone are responsible. Not your parents, not your teachers, not the government, not that mythical creature we call society. And certainly not me. I refuse to feel guilty for what you have chosen to do. That is true whether you are a stranger I've never met, a close friend, or even my own sister. But if I accept that you are responsbile for your actions, then I must also accept I am responsible for mine. I won't feel guilty if you take your life. I will feel guilty if I don't make an effort to help you survive.
When is suicide not wrong? Frankly, I don't know. Nor do I know anyone who does know. But I do know it is always wrong to turn our back on those who would destroy their lives. It's wrong whether you do it through apathy, through hate, or through some misguided notion about freedom of choice. Trying to help someone isn't usurping their choices (ya ain't gonna stop them if they don't wanta be stopped). Trying to help them is offering them more choices.