Posted by: Bill Tracy | September 30, 2014

The Forbidden Screen Door

I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself a long time ago.

-E.M. Cioran

 

“I’m in the train station, and I’m going to jump in front of the next train to kill myself.” That’s what I heard one day when I worked as a public safety dispatcher and asked a caller about the “emergency.” What do you say to that?

Suicide scares the sap out of most of us. We don’t understand it. We try not to think about it. But it has a persistent way of popping up, often at the worst times. September has been proclaimed “Suicide Prevention Month” by whoever proclaims such things. I’ve seen several mentions of this recently. I’ve also seen someone deeply troubled by the suicide of his friend last year. Culturally, we seem hell-bent on stopping people from killing themselves – whatever it takes, we say we’ll do it. Personally, I’m less adamant.

Perhaps some lives look like a dingy old prison cell block.

Perhaps some lives look like a dingy old prison cell block.

Like Cioran, I’m entirely charmed by the idea that we each have the absolute power of our own death. If I chose, I could be dead five minutes from right now. Tomorrow’s sunrise is at my pleasure. However, like Melville’s Bartelby, I would prefer not to. But, like well cut diamonds, suicide has many tantalizing facets, and the light is always eerily crooked. We humans have a powerful survival instinct that keeps us alive – or at least slows down any inclination to an early checkout.

Most folks, I suspect, don’t think a lot about the nuances of suicide. It’s just something you should never do they say. Even thinking about it (“suicidal ideation” in psycho lingo) can get you in trouble. Right or not, we all seem to agree it’s a form of mental illness. The Roman Catholic Church, at least when I had anything to do with it, declared it was the worst sort of Mortal Sin – the express train straight to eternal damnation, the fires of hell. Do not stop and chat with Saint Pete at the gates, do not pass Go, etc. Within the past couple of years I’ve had one Catholic priest tell me he now sees it like God simply saying to a child, “Oh, son, you’re home early.” Surely that would comfort a family when one of their own has decided to check out permanently. Times change, I suppose.

My fascination with suicide began over 40 years ago, oddly with an episode of the television program Kung Fu. The episode “Salamander” (aired December 6, 1973) begins with our exiled monk Kwai Chang Caine walking along a stream in the great American West. On a bridge over this stream, he sees a man about to slip a noose around his neck to commit suicide. Western culture would demand you yell at the man to stop, yet Caine only stands and watches. While he watches we view a flashback – a memory of his training days in the Shaolin monastery. One of the monks there has killed himself. A deeply troubled young Caine asks his Master why.

The old Master clasps his hands in a signal of yin/yang and says to Caine, “The yes and the no. In him the no conquered. He looked with his eyes, and we look with ours.” Caine again asks, “Why did he take his own life?” The old Master says, “Perhaps he looked down into our valley knowing that soon he would have to leave it. But instead of the beauty we observed, he saw ugliness. When old Master San looked out into our valley and saw ugliness he revealed something about himself to himself. He did not like what he revealed. Master San saw ugliness where nothing exists but a valley.”

Back to the suicide on the bridge, the man sees Caine watching and is puzzled why he does not try to stop him. Caine says nothing. Finally, the man tosses the rope away and tells Caine he’s not going to do this for his entertainment. A clever intervention? A few hours later they encounter one another in a nearby town. The man asks Caine why he did not try to stop him from killing himself. Caine answers with a question, “Perhaps you saw a world which I did not, a world you wished to enter?”

Lingering to the end.

Lingering to the end.

With our eyes, typically, we see visions of another world as only mental illness (or a “drug trip”). We see people pushed, pressured, mutilated to a point they cannot tolerate life for one more minute. One man told me he attempted suicide because he couldn’t stop drinking. The alcohol was causing so much pain for him and his family he desperately wanted it to end, but he saw no way out. So he was willing to enter a world where perhaps the pain would stop. Happily, I can report he did not die, and he got into a 12-step program. He’s been sober many peaceful and joyous years now.

Sometimes I wonder if people who commit suicide instantly enter another realm where they are roundly congratulated and celebrated for having the good sense to get out of here. Given our general abhorrence for suicide, such an outcome seems like juicy irony. Trouble is, you usually leave people here who are devastated by the suicide. People tend to take it personally. A man who gets hit by lightning on the golf course or who dies in a car crash doesn’t suggest he’s sending any sort of personal message. Life can end, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly; we all understand that. It hurts the loved ones, but the grieving process goes forward successfully in most cases. Suicide seems like our fault. What did we do wrong? What could we have done to prevent this? Why and how were we inadequate? And the answers to those questions do not come, no matter the passage of time. Healing, rejuvenation, seem impossible.

I don’t know the statistics, but we now seem to have more suicides than ever in this country. I saw a guy running down the street the other day wearing a t-shirt advertising some kind of a running event to stop the 22 military veterans each day who kill themselves. I’m surprised there aren’t a lot more after what our government has done to rape our military forces the last 15 years or so. We seem mostly powerless to stop people from checking themselves out permanently, yet we keep trying.

There are those, I suspect, who see a world we do not, and sometimes their vision is superior to ours even when we want to think theirs is mental illness. Suicide can be like a screen door. We can all see through it, yet no matter what we see we are forbidden by culture from passing through to the scene on the other side. I’m not sure everyone should be dissuaded from early checkout. Jack Kevorkian, the “suicide doctor” used to say, “Dying is not a crime.” We’ve started to see that some terminally ill people may have a good case for suicide. That goes against our deep instinct for survival, and loved ones never find it easy to voluntarily say goodbye. On balance, maybe it does make more sense for some folks to leave. After all, if you find yourself at a lousy party, no one forces you to stay.

"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. [From the poem, "Desiderata."]

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. [From the poem, “Desiderata.”]

Suicide, as I see, takes many forms. I see people every day who are literally drinking or drugging themselves to death. “My life sucks,” one man tells me all the time. Then he buys a case of beer and drinks himself into a stupor. Same thing next day. How long will it be before he gets his ticket out of here? I saw many people in prisons who were “doing life on the installment plan” as we would say. “Career criminals” the social scientists call them – after eight terms and 20 or 30 parole violations, you find yourself 60 years old and having spent 45 or 50 of those years incarcerated. Is that life, or death?

Maybe if we were nicer to one another it would help all around. This world can be hard and mean, and it seems to be getting meaner. Helping one another, going out of our way to do it, would help make this a more pleasant, a more attractive world. Try to keep the party inside more fun, and then the picnic we see outside through that screen door won’t be so appealing. If you see someone sitting in a corner, a bit blue, let him know you care. Ask him to dance. Change the music if you need to. I don’t know what the mental health professionals advise, but I’d broach the subject of suicide if someone seems so inclined. Let the person talk it out a bit. Suggest they might be doing a lot of harm to folks who love them. Get some help for them if that makes sense. And don’t overlook the power of a simple, genuine smile. Maybe that should be the slogan for suicide prevention next September – Smile Away those Suicides!

Finally, to clear up the mystery I started with…. What do you say to the man who wants to throw himself in front of a train? He did not die, at least not that day. I was able to make railroad police aware immediately so there might be a physical intervention if needed. I also talked to the man long enough to find out he had been in a drug rehabilitation program and had a favorite counselor there. I got that counselor on the line with him. We’ll never know what he did the next day of his life, but at least on that day, he didn’t enter that other world only he was able to see.

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Responses

  1. Bill, what a profound post. I agree that a little extra kindness would ease a lot of the sadness. You never know when an extra courtesy or smile would help another to feel included in this world. You cover so many areas that show the general disconnectedness in our society: the active duty and veterans who are used and abused, those incarcerated (especially those incarcerated by a judge on the take from privatized prisons), and the lack of respect we have for those who have terminal illness and have every right to check out early. I like the Kung Fu story – respect for choice is a kind of connectedness. But if we can make their pain better, either emotional or physical, if it is all the same to them, I would like them to stay a while.
    Love you, Bill!

  2. Thank you, Mary. Very well said!!


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