My friend Ariel isn’t on Facebook. Thus she was inevitably confused by my portrayal of a lot of the Robin Williams reactions in Wednesday’s post about suicide. To her mind, there weren’t a lot of people trying to stifle discussions of suicide and its real causes and she pointed me instead to this New Yorker article, their currently most popular online feature.
Of course, this article opens up a whole related but slightly different can of worms in the way people talk about suicide. Andrew Solomon takes the opportunity to use his piece to gently lampoon the notion that one could even have a reason for killing themselves. Consistently using quotation marks around the word “reason”, he states that an effort to explain why people take this very conscious, deliberate, and permanent act “seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination.” He takes as given that no one could have a reason, good or otherwise, for this action, and concludes the paragraph saying “as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little ‘reason’ other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”
Not only is a lot of this exactly what I was railing against in my prior post, but it smacks of the insidious way that the US media talks about terrorism and other acts they find abhorrent, unrelatable, and thus, they conclude, must be inexplicable. I wrote about this in the context of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings last year:
“This is why acts of terror are chronically called ‘senseless,’ ‘insane,’ ‘unfathomable,’ and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.”
-18 July 2013
What Solomon clearly fails to see is how insulting this perspective is on suicide and how demeaning it is to those wrestling with it. He clearly should understand this. He says “Suicide is not a casual behavior; for all that it may entail impulsivity, it is also a profound and momentous step for which many people don’t have the force of will.” And he goes on to praise Robin Williams as intelligent and brilliant, at least via inference, without the slightest understanding that he is saying Williams’ most momentous decision of his life was made, literally, without thinking. That he could not possibly have had a reason.
But reason is behind everything we do in this life, including the decision to end that of our own or others. The increasing narrative abroad in the land seems to be that acts we don’t like should be branded as done without reason so as to disregard them and discredit their doers. No wonder mass-murderers are feeling compelled to leave multi-hundred-page manifestos before they go on shooting rampages and suicide bombers film videos of themselves making explanations. It’s almost like they wouldn’t do these things without the reasons that they find very compelling for doing them. Not only does saying that there can’t possibly be a reason ignore the blatant truth of reality, but it causes us to fail to engage with things that harm society in any way that could lead to fixing them. If the only thing we can do in the face of mass-shootings or terrorism or suicide is to throw up our hands and go “oh, people without reason, guess they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do!”, then we might as well not try to solve or do anything at all.
Which seems, recurrently, to be the point of the way so many people are talking about suicide and why I had tangible suggestions for those actually dealing with it in my last post. Because so many of the people writing about suicide have no earthly idea what contemplating it is actually like, people approach it like a rabid three-headed chinchilla that can’t be tamed but some professional must somehow be able to deal with, maybe, but gosh, that’s so illogical. And Mr. Solomon demonstrates his poor understanding profoundly, with this trite and pathetic conclusion: “Williams’s suicide demonstrates that none of us is immune. If you could be Robin Williams and still want to kill yourself, then all of us are prone to the same terrifying vulnerability.” No, sir. The way you write about suicide shows that you are thoroughly immune. Which is great, good for you. Now please stop talking about this so that people who actually struggle can speak about the actual experience and what it really feels like.
I am not criticizing my friend Ariel for sending me this article, but I also know that she and I are on opposite sides of the cup-fullness debate. And I think this article may help a lot of people who have no preliminary comprehension of suicidalism feel like they are getting an understanding of the phenomenon. But it is wrong-headed to say that rational, intelligent, suffering people have no reasons for the choice they make as though depression were some kind of Imperius Curse that just forced them to have no alternative. Thousands of suicidal people who don’t die every day are proof that there is a choice and thousands of suicide notes are proof that there are reasons.
I’m curious whether Mr. Solomon wrote his piece before or after the revelation that Robin Williams was facing a Parkinson’s diagnosis on top of his other struggles and had years of slow degeneration to look forward to. I wonder if that meets his “reason” criterion or if we could learn that Williams was terminal and experiencing massive trauma in every single nerve-ending and Solomon would still brazenly trudge on in the belief that self-termination is always the ultimate proof that people can act without reasons.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to tie this issue to the Ferguson, Missouri question and how people are discussing it, but I don’t think I can really get there. I’m honestly exhausted with defending the notion that suicidal people may have good reasons to be sad, upset, and yes, even consider ending their own lives. I would like to talk about happier topics, like the Mariners’ possible playoff run and more intricacies of New Orleans, but my anger about how people are discussing this topic is having trouble subsiding.
The reason that I want to understand is why people feel so much better if they can just say that something is totally unreasonable. Maybe it’s coming from a debate background where everything is on the table and anything can be defended in one way or another that makes this notion so alien to me, but the idea that one can just dismiss out-of-hand the idea that another person has reasons for what they’re doing is the definition of unobservant behavior to me. You may not like the reasons and the reasons may not make perfect sense or even be right. But there are reasons for everything a person does. It’s kind of what defines a person.
But I guess if we’re all allegedly just materialist machines, then the mainstream belief is that thought and reason don’t exist at all. There’s only the machine, whose goal is survival and procreation, and it is either working as intended or broken. And any action that interferes with the goal is defined as being broken, so please make sure you go to the mechanic to get tuned up if you’re broken! You may think this is an oversimplification, but it’s a lot like what the logic of this mentality sounds like to me. And it should scare you if you believe in free will or non-conformity or even just a notion of basic personal liberties, at least a little. People are people, not machines. Hopelessly more complicated and always acting with reasons. You don’t have to like the reasons or agree with them, but it is so doggone demeaning to say they aren’t there.