Suicide is painless?
When I was a young student, I knocked around with a group of vibrant young things who were full of life and enjoyed all that it had to offer. Few of us, if any, had encountered the harsh realities of existence and we had nothing more to do than look forward to a hopeful new future: this was the early ’70s and life was good in the hands of the young. One morning, one of our number came to college to report that our friend, Bernie, had died: but not just ‘died’, he had committed suicide. To this day, no-one really knows the reason why and, after a period of confusion, shock and worry, we re-adjusted and got on with our lives. Sadly, suicide has reared its ugly head at regular intervals during my life: the priest is in constant contact with the mayhem created by those who take their own lives and few of us escape our time on this Earth without a family member; a friend or a close acquintance robbing them of their companionship in life. For myself, I have had to deal, sadly, with numerous parishioners who chose to die rather than continue to suffer and, notably, can count a professional colleague-a funeral director when I was curate-and a cousin amongst the sorrowful toll. Most recently, a former colleague took his own life to the devastation of all who loved and cared for him ,and this bright and intelligent man’s life was celebrated by a packed church full at St Margaret’s, Westminster. The predominant themes were compassion for him and bewilderment about his action.
As familar as we are with this course of action, it still leaves those who are sound in mind, healthy and broadly content with life and hopeful feeling numb and incredulous: what is it that switches off the over-riding impulse to live; can we imagine the state of mind of those who are brought to this pass,are they calm and in control as often seems the case, or are they at the far reaches of desperation and taking the only way forward that will ease their intolerable pain?
All these questions come to mind when we hear of the assisted suicide of the young, rugby player Daniel Jones. 23 years old, and no longer able to play his beloved game or live the full life he wished for, the young man took himself off to Switzerland to be enabled to die. How on earth can we come to terms with this?
Over the past decades, there has been an inexorable rise in the numbers of, particularly young, men who are taking their own lives. Of the presenting reasons, the chief seem to be unemployment; living alone or with parents and, for young females, being married. However, there are significant numbers of older, professional people who take this course of action: notably farmers in this country (and this is manifestly a cause for concern in this county). There also seems to be an underlying psychiatric reason for many of these cases, with substantial numbers of suicide deaths linked to alcohol dependence (37%); depression (32%) and anxiety disorders (10%). No doubt, feelings of failure and uselessness contribute to the tally. There are substantial intiatives taking place because the problem has been recognised, and serious attempts are being made to tackle it, from the Samaritans nationwide to local intiatives like ‘Working With Men’ in London. However, every single new suicide leaves us feeling helpless and recognising that the reasons are as numerous and diverse as the human beings who step out into the void in this way. Their actions leave those who are left behind with a lifetime’s misery and unresolved questions, and the dreadful (but invariably innaccurate) feeling that we should have noticed and done more.
However, I want to pose one possible way forward. The recent Credit Crunch has served to remind us that unbridled pursuit of profit and wealth for their own sake is devastatingly destructive to society and individuals and, yet, we continue to believe and are encouraged to believe, that success in life is about the size of our bank balance; the number of rooms in our house; the quality of our car and the luxury of our annual holiday. As not one bank boss takes a lower bonus now than before the crisis, we continue to teach subliminily that, unless we aspire to be like David Beckham and Posh Spice, we are living sub-lives and are perpetual failures. Never mind the satisfaction and meaning in life which accrues to those who care for the sick; educate children and young people; pursue the Arts; seek to write great and inspiring literature; bring up happy and sane families, and the thousand other greater ways of living and being on this Earth than the pursuit of ever more wealth. I just wonder whether at least one cause of suicide is the sense of failure in living up to the dreadful aspirations of our modern profit-seeking world and a failure to measure one’s worth in the way we are loved and cherished and contribute to the wonderful life experience of those around us?
The great 60s hippy heroes Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang ‘teach your children well, their father’s hell did surely go by’: let’s start teaching our children that the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is more than pursuit of the Dollar or Euro.