Note: Starting at the top of this year, I invited folks to ask me questions that I would answer. I view my “answers” as points in informed discussion rather than “look no further. All you need is HERE” responses – particularly on things that are less about me personally and specifically. Which is not to say I don’t mean or stand behind my answers. ‘Cause I do.
Question: “Why are people so quick to call people selfish when someone commit suicide? Should a person have to suffer so as to not be called selfish? In return doesn’t that seem selfish?( I hope that makes sense)” -by Catrina (“Tinka”)
Answer: I think labeling suicide as selfish comes, overall, from not understanding mental illness/wellness and psychology/sociology. Many don’t get (or look into) the relationship between society and individual mental health. Mainstream society doesn’t take mental and emotional well-being as seriously as it should, otherwise we would reform or revolutionize policies, structures, and systems we have in place – and our attitudes. And in many situations we just don’t know what the hell to say or do so we say something that is unfortunately not helpful (that we may have heard before and chose to repeat) while we’re searching.
Often if we don’t experience something directly, we question or condemn the response to it. It can be easy to come up with hypotheticals of what we would do or what should be done when there’s enough distance between us and the situation that we won’t have to test or be affected by the “solution.” Saying suicide is selfish is a judgment on the response to living in severe anguish because that action doesn’t match “solutions” of the judges.
It’s also an attempt – even if not deliberate – to cast blame upon the victim, rather than acknowledge fault and shortcomings in the world around them. If you blame the victim of suicide or suicidal ideations for their own pain and/or death, then the problem lives in/dies with the victim. It’s not anyone else’s to deal with and “fix” and, if they die, the cause is not left to linger and haunt the rest of us or afflict anyone else.
I think we’re too afraid or ashamed to explore the aspects of humanity that exist in shadows and solitude. We’re hesitant to go a few steps into those parts of ourselves that scare us, disorient us, undo us, and teach us. It’s too uncomfortable to consider. Being taken to a depth where you fully question your own existence (even for a moment) is something people avoid or won’t admit. But some people have no choice whether or not they do or how far into that depth they go. It becomes a matter of what they take with them.
To add a different flavor of nerd for a moment, I recently watched the animated series The Legend of Korra. After she had been tried and broken down severely and repeatedly – physically and mentally to the point of several years of depression and physical handicap – Korra told her teacher “I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was so that I could become more compassionate to others.” And she wasn’t just talking about her friends and allies. She was talking about the “villains” because she saw herself in them and them in her. The traditional hero-villain dichotomy tries not to allow for this sort of recognition. Similarly the dichotomy of Person Who Commits Suicide and Person Who Doesn’t tries to avoid this recognition. It tries to establish a moral and spiritual superiority – a heroic persona – for the Person Who Doesn’t because that’s a clearly better person for not being selfish, for sticking it out for “us”, for not being so weak as to die. It paints the Person Who Commits Suicide as someone who just failed to positively think themselves into the next day.
So, getting to the 2nd and 3rd parts of your question, yes, it does seem selfish to me to ask someone to endure suffering from which they may get respite but no true relief – particularly by those not selfless enough to brave their own shadows or who have never endured true suffering that sits on your soul and crushes it. It’s blaming people for how they deal with pain you’d not even face. It’s making their pain/response about you and your feelings. I’m not saying that I encourage suicide (I don’t. I like life. I like people staying alive.) but I think we should have more compassion about it and the pain at the root of it. There are ways of saying “I want you to live” without also saying “You’re a terrible person if you choose not to live in pain.” There are ways of saying “I encourage you to stay alive” without also saying “These people were inconsiderate because they chose not to.” Part of saying you want someone to stay alive is doing the work to build a world where people can live – not for “us” but with us (if they choose) for themselves.