The other night, I heard an interview of Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet, philosopher, historian, and commentator. She is the author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, published by Yale University Press.
She said something about suicide which reminded me of something a man told me about the urge to kill his abusive father: that the only reason he didn’t do it was because he was mindful of the pain it would cause his mother and other members of his family. This thought gave him the strength to endure years of further suffering for their sakes, and to determine an alternative means of dealing with a situation which he had thought was beyond his control—but as it turned out, was not.
In her book, Hecht focuses on two themes.
The first is the harm that suicide does to those who are left behind. We don’t fully comprehend what we mean to others. If we find ourselves in the “bubble” of depression, we can’t see out of it, and focus only on ourselves. We become transfixed to the exclusion of all other ideas on the “right” of personal autonomy, oblivious to how our death will affect others. “Suicides happen in clusters,” she says, with one person’s suicide influencing others. Hecht argues that “when a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community.” If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives. People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around them. We must hold suicide up to the clarifying light of communal values. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.
Hecht’s second theme is that you owe it to your future self to live. People—but young people, especially—tend to think that things will stay exactly as they are now. They fail to realize that everything is constantly changing, and that this moment could just as well be the lowest point possible and that things will improve. We cannot know what surprises life may bring. Life offers endless possibilities for change. We must foster values of perseverance and courage, of bearing witness to the night side of being human and waiting for the sun. Life isn’t too hard to bear—only, as Hecht poignantly puts it, “almost too hard to bear.”
It seems to me that everything Hecht says about suicide can be said about parricide. Both are impulsive, egocentric acts. I do not suggest this parallel to freight the act of parricide with more moral approbation; I am only suggesting that egocentrism and impulsivity are characteristics to which the juvenile brain is developmentally prone.
In the absence of courage and communitarianism being fostered in our young people as countervailing values to their natural instincts, we can look forward to a further degradation of the respect for life in the general society… our own lives and those of the people around us.
Groove of the Day
Note: Maybe at first glance, you thought my choice of at today’s photograph was my way of setting you up for an April Fool’s prank. It wasn’t. The subject of this post was “as serious as a heart attack,” as they say.
Yet I don’t want this day to slip by without acknowledging this special day. The 100 Greatest April Fool’s Hoaxes are listed at the website for The Museum of Hoaxes, and is well worth a visit for several good laughs.
One of my favorites: #31. In 2005 Popular Photography ran an article titled “Can these photos be saved?” about how to remove unsightly wrinkles from photographic subjects. They chose, as an example of a photo that “needed to be saved,” Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo taken in 1936 during the Great Depression. Lange’s photo is one of the most widely admired in the world. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe it as the Mona Lisa of photographs, and the Migrant Mother’s stoic expression is what makes the image great.
Nevertheless, the editors of Popular Photography erased her wrinkles, softened her gaze, and removed her kids, transforming her from an iconic symbol of endurance into a smooth-faced, worry-free soccer mom. Their readers were horrified, not realizing the article was a spoof on the way magazines routinely touch-up celebrity images to remove blemishes and wrinkles. Hundreds wrote in expressing outrage at the defacement of such a classic image. To which the editors replied, “Look at the date it was published!”