Every night Mike would go swimming in a lake. Some nights he swam out as far as he could. “I kept going. It got colder and colder. And I’d just lie in the lake. And I was trying, it’s really clear now, I was trying to drown. … Ever since, I’ve never felt as tethered to this place as other people do. Everything seems like a long, improbable afterlife.
“What happened on that lake showed me that there’s a door,” he said. “And the door is open a crack. And you can feel it. You can just die. You see? Once you accept that, it brings clarity. You want to do something in the world? Be willing to throw your life away.”
This sort of narrative, the one where the speaker has a new insight into mortality, is common to survivors of dangerous diseases and almost-fatal accidents. You feel immortal, you never seriously consider that you’re going to die, until something beyond your control seizes your attention and turns it toward what, after all, will happen to all of us.
There you are staring into the deathly unknown. You achieve perspective. I’m alive now, you say. If there are things I want to do, people I want to be with, I have to get to it while I’m alive because Death.
Suicide doesn’t lead to this narrative. Not usually. Unlike accident and disease, the killer is not an other, not a foreign agent on the attack. Suicide is a decision we make for ourselves. Suicides are often reviled or, at least, pitied, so piping up about how failing at your suicide made you a more courageous person is, yes, a difficult story to get people to listen to. You face skepticism. You really had to go that far? Didn’t you think what it would do to your loved ones? Arguments. Not the nodding agreement the cancer survivor sees, not the relieved sympathy given the person pulled from the wreck of the flaming mini van.
When one looks at Depression as an often-fatal illness (suicide being Depression’s conclusion), rather than as a character flaw (cowardice! indifference to the suffering of others!), then one will be more open to the insight narrative. Depression itself might be seen as the foreign agent, a medical version of demonic possession, something one can lose a battle to. But does Depression have a hand that can loosen a lid on a bottle of barbiturates? Can Depression buy a gun at a gun show and bullets and load the gun’s chambers?
What are we doing when we know what we’re doing?
The quote’s concluding sentence reminds me of another narrative, a narrative about principle, about sacrifice. In order to live an authentic life, there has to be something for which you are willing to die. Give me liberty or give me death — that sort of thing. Or maybe, I would give my life to save hers. This has been called “altruistic suicide” and has been seen as utterly different from the suicide Mike talks about. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies is devoted to life not death, right?
Is Mike entitled to use the narrative of the altruistic suicide? You want to do something in the world? Don’t kill yourself. Unless that’s what gets it done.
source: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
2015. Riverhead Books / Penguin, New York.