Suicide, Truthfully (Part 2 of 2)

Conclusion of yesterday’s column.

Dr. Hurd: Reverend Swarthout is right that it’s senseless to blame yourself for the suicide of another. This is because the person who kills himself wanted to do so. It was his choice and he made it. You don’t hold yourself blameless because the person had the emotional equivalent of cancer. You hold yourself blameless because you didn’t kill the loved one. The loved one did.

Remember that in psychology, depression is defined as ‘learned helplessness.’ The person who ends his life has become convinced that nothing he does will make a difference. There is such a thing as rational suicide, in the context of terminal illness. A person is certain to die in the foreseeable future, and can spare both himself and others pain by ending his life sooner rather than later. In most cases, however, suicide is not rational. The person who wants to die has concluded that nothing he does will ever make any difference or matter again. ‘I will never value anything or anyone again,’ is the false assumption.

Interestingly, those who survive a suicide attempt or who contemplate it but don’t follow through often say in counseling, ‘I know that wasn’t the answer. I’m glad I hung on, because now there are things I value.’ Suicide, for many, is based on a deeply held conviction that nothing else matters, when in fact the suicidal person himself would actually see things differently in a week, a month or a year (if not sooner). Suicide is simply an escape hatch.

Most people will not find flaws in the logic of what I’m saying, but they will nevertheless express outrage and horror at my honesty on this subject. Why? Because most people find it horrifying to accept the reality that ending one’s life is a choice, and that we’re free to act on it at any time. Most of us are at least reasonably healthy and happy, and wouldn’t consider such a thing or wouldn’t want to hurt loved ones (even pets) left behind.

Still, the loved ones cannot bring themselves to face the fact that the person who killed him- or herself did so by choice. The unspoken reasoning is, ‘It’s not rational. How could it have been a choice?’ Wait a minute. Does this mean that something is only done freely if it’s rational? If a mass murderer said this, we’d have to set him free. He would be right to argue, on the same premise, ‘Obviously what I did was sick, irrational and twisted. It couldn’t have been a choice. Therefore, I’m not responsible.’ Ridiculous.

Reverend Swarthout: An open understanding of suicide should help us all walk more humbly and compassionately in grace and community, resisting the bias of the strong and unreflective who make the unfair judgment that people who are sick want to be that way.

Dr. Hurd: For someone who’s so in favor of compassion and nonjudgmentalism, Reverend Swarthout is very hard on the strong! What’s wrong with being strong? And his implication that being strong necessarily means you’re unreflective is profoundly wrong. Does he mean to suggest that self-reflection inevitably leads to a state of weakness? Maybe so, if you subscribe to his view that human beings are helpless over their emotions and actions.

To state that suicide is a choice is nothing more than a statement of fact. The fact that suicide is a choice does not mean the person wanted to be unhappy. But the choice is serving some kind of purpose, even if it’s a wrong-headed or impulsive one.

The person who kills himself is seeking an escape. He’s seeking an escape from emotional pain caused by mistaken, distorted and exaggerated thinking. For whatever reasons, he was unwilling or unable to change that thinking and to hang on long enough to chart a different course for himself or herself.

To pretend otherwise is not only intellectually dishonest, but also unfair to those who are depressed and who choose not to kill themselves. Some who refuse to kill themselves restrain for the wrong reasons. They say, ‘I don’t want to be selfish. Killing myself is selfish.’ Actually, being selfish and self-interested are just fine. The field of psychology is devoted primarily to helping people build self-esteem. Put in proper terms, the question is whether suicide is actually in your rational self-interest. It almost never is.

People, depressed or not, have to understand that emotions are products of ideas and thinking. If you’re severely depressed for no good reason, then the first thing to look at are flaws or mistakes in your thinking. And: how can you choose to act on different thinking in the future, in an attempt to get different results?

It’s fine for preachers, therapists, and others trying to look ‘compassionate’ and humble in the presence of others to say suicide is never a choice. They think it’s admirable to say, ‘Oh, no, suicide is an illness, and it could never have been helped.’

Baloney. People who say this don’t look compassionate. They simply look foolish.