Slippery Slopes Always Hit Home: Suicide

 Robin Williams, Born: July 21, 1951, Died: August 11, 2014. R.I.P.

From the May 2014 edition of The New Criterion by Emily Esfahani Smith “The Catastrophe of Suicide: How suicide hurts us all.”

“Over the past few months, there have been several heartbreaking reminders of the rise of suicide across this nation, a topic I wrote about in my first “Manners & morals” column in October (“Life on the island”). The most high profile of these suicides was L’Wren Scott’s. The forty-nine-year-old fashion designer was found dead in her New York City apartment, reportedly bought for her by then-boyfriend Mick Jagger.

A week later, the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, convened a private meeting of principals to discuss the suicide epidemic among the city’s students. Thanks to the New York Post, which broke the story, we now know that suicides are on the rise among the city’s youth: two years ago, nine students committed suicide; last year, fourteen did; and already, four months into 2014, twelve have committed suicide in New York.

In March, volunteers gathered in Washington to plant 1,892 American flags on the National Mall commemorating each veteran who had committed suicide since the beginning of 2014. Do the math: that’s twenty-two veteran suicides a day. Another tragic figure: Since 2001, the year marking the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more active-duty soldiers have killed themselves than have died in combat.

The rise in suicide has been accompanied by a loss of the moral questions that once surrounded it. G. K. Chesterton was one of our last full-throated critics of suicide. His insistence that suicide is immoral sounds strange to our individualistic ears: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” Chesterton wrote: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” Chesterton goes on to say that the act of suicide is selfish: “A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.” It would be difficult to imagine anyone writing such a polemic today. We do not consider suicide the moral catastrophe that people like Chesterton once thought it was.

Rather, our contemporary culture treats suicide as a medical problem—a “public health concern,” as Joshua Rottman, a psychological researcher, recently told The Atlantic. Rather, our contemporary culture treats suicide as a medical problem—a “public health concern,” as Joshua Rottman, a psychological researcher, recently told The Atlantic. According to his new research, religious and non-religious people have a moral bias against suicide, and the bias stems from “disgust reactions” they have when confronted with stories of suicide. Committing suicide, people think, taints the soul. To Rottman, this is a problem. These reactions are irrational and, therefore, harmful: “The million-dollar question,” Rottman says, is “how to de-stigmatize suicide as impure.” He went on to say, “That’s not to say that we should start thinking that suicide is perfectly OK, but I don’t think we should treat it as taboo (and therefore avoid bringing it up in polite conversation). Instead, we should engage with it as a public health concern and find ways to effectively increase prevention.” But Rottman is wrong to demoralize the notion of suicide. If we are serious about helping people overcome the dark nights of their souls, we must insist with Chesterton that suicide is a moral, not just a clinical, problem.

An important new book does just that. Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by the poet and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht challenges our culture’s acceptance of suicides and reinvigorates the moral arguments against it….

 

…Hecht reminds us that throughout history—in the West at least—there have always been strong social sanctions and philosophical arguments against suicide

… Christian beliefs about suicide were articulated most clearly by St. Thomas Aquinas, who thought, as Hecht writes, that “Suicide is cruel to the community, it is cruel to oneself, and God has ordained against it.” Those who violated the moral law, by taking their own lives, faced a grisly posthumous fate. Their bodies would be tortured, dragged through the streets, their estates seized by the church, their families left impoverished.

This view began to evolve during the Enlightenment. The secular philosophers of that age, like David Hume and Baron d’Holbach, did everything they could to argue Christianity into philosophical irrelevance. One of the casualties in the war against religion was the moral sanction against suicide, which Hume associated, as Hecht points out, with “modern European superstition.” It was a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To Hume and d’Holbach, suicide was a permissible way to escape suffering, and their justification was often chillingly inhumane. D’Holbach asks, “Besides, what assistance or what advantage can society promise to itself from a miserable wretch reduced to despair, from a misanthrope overwhelmed with grief, from a wretch tormented with remorse, who has no longer any motive to render himself useful to others, who has abandoned himself, and who finds no more interest in preserving his life?”

The pro-suicide view, which is “now a defining stance of secular culture, is a mistake and needs rethinking,” writes Hecht.

(all emphasis- bold typeface- mine)

I agree with Esfahani Smith, Hecht and Chesterton.

I suggest reading the article in its entirety.

Moral relativism, or The Enlightenment on drugs and as ‘artistically’ depicted by a Jackson Pollack drip painting and as discussed in my previous posts, makes for a very muddy, slippery slope, especially if one wants to justify anything…anything. And so does sentimentality.

Sentimentality & romanticism, sans truth and factual history, are characteristics that could describe progressive suicide in its utopian quest.

I would also say that today’s Progressives, trying to appear as pure scientific rationalists, whether in the fields of social science, economics, climate ‘science’, law, etc. with buckets of drip painting data to support their “settled science” theorems are mainly romantics and sentimentalists in disguise.

Are romanticism and rationalism compatible?

And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good — need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  Here Robert Pirsig, writing a bio, seeks to reconcile romanticism and rationalism in his quest for “quality.” His opening quote invokes a dialogue written by Plato. The dialog is between Socrates and Phaedrus. The book: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.” 

Pirsig, by the end of his book, comes to appreciate both the serial Romantics and the serial Rationalists of life. Pirsig saw a need for both romanticism and for rationalism. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L’Abri in Switzerland called these two approaches to life the “upper” and “lower story.”   Read more about that here: How Shall I Then Live?

Flood Plain Insurance: as Jesus illustrated in a parable: Build your house’s foundation on a rock and not on sand so that when the storms come (and they will) you and household will not be washed away (KV paraphrase).

Some related quotes:

“To those who have had no agony Jesus says, “I have nothing for you; stand on your own feet, square your own shoulders. I have come for the man who knows he has a bigger handful than he can cope with, who knows there are forces he cannot touch; I will do everything for him if he will let Me. Only let a man grant he needs it, and I will do it for him.” The Shadow of an Agony by Oswald Chambers

 

“We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.” G.K. Chesterton

 

As I noted in The Road Less Traveled, it is often the most spiritually healthy and advanced among us who are called on to suffer in ways more agonizing than anything experienced by the more ordinary.  Great leaders, when wise and well, are likely to endure degrees of anguish unknown to the common man. Conversely, it is the unwillingness to suffer emotional pain that usually lies at the root of emotional illness.  Those who fully experience depression, doubt, confusion and despair may be infinitely more healthy than those who are generally certain, complacent and self satisfied.  The denial of suffering is, in fact, a better definition of illness than its acceptance. M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie:  The Hope for Healing Human Evil

 

 Finally, age-wise I am within a year of Robin William’s when he chose to kill himself. I know that life is hard. I have lost a child in a car accident, I have been through divorce, I have lost jobs due to lack of work… I have experienced loss and tragedy enough for several people.

 Sometimes, despair, the Grim Reaper in sheepish voice, knocks at the door of my heart asking to come in. I tell him, “I am not buying it. Tomorrow is another day.”

 It is no cliché to say “Tomorrow is another day.” We need space and time and matter in order for us to stand apart from the overwhelming flood of issues, to climb to higher ground. From there we must be able to view the issues clearly. This viewing cannot be done from inside our grief. And, once viewed aright, we must deal – not run away from – with each and every hurt that takes our breath away, wanting us to drown in our sorrows.

 If you have read the Psalms you will notice that the Psalmists use space, time and matter (Read “The Case For the Psalms” by N.T. Wright) to speak out their frustrations, their hurts, their pain, their loss and also their unabashed hopes for the future, a future hope placed in trust with Someone much greater than any of their problems.

 “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones, Not one of them is broken.… Psalm 34: 18-20

 I remember many years ago hearing for the first time “He’s Been Faithful” at Chicago’s Moody Church. Pastor Jim Cymbal, Brooklyn Tabernacle’s Senior Pastor, and his wife Carol spoke about heart-breaking troubles involving their child. Jim spoke and Carol led the Brooklyn Tabernacle’s choir. Damaris Carbaugh was the soloist.

 This song has become my all time favorite. This song says it all for me.

 He’s Been Faithful Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

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