Arguments Against Death

Susan Hill’s politics are absurd but her blog often includes interesting accounts of rural life in England, particularly those aspects that aren’t normally discussed:

Two months ago the amiable, cheerful seventeen year old son of some friends sat round the kitchen table with his family enjoying a convivial supper. His sister was home for a weekend from University, with her boyfriend and his father had come back from a few days in Scotland seeing his own parents, so ‘John’- let us call him – was having a night off from working for A Levels. He ate a good roast dinner, drank a couple of glasses of wine, helped his mother load the dishwasher, and then said he had something he must do. He went into his father’s office, got a key from the desk drawer, unlocked the gun cupboard, took a shotgun, went outside, put the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Suicides tend to be male and young. Of every four suicides three are men. Men are twice as likely to kill themselves as women and half as likely to seek support. According to the Young Minds mental health charity, the suicide rate in 16-24 year olds in 2004 was 3.6 per 100,000 in women and 11.9 per 100,000 in men. The charity also says that in 2003 suicide was the second highest cause of death (after accidents) in men aged 15-34.

Suicides have been around the fringes of my life since I was a boy. A kid at my school hung himself over his SATs exams. A seventeen-year-old friend of a friend jumped off a bridge. An uni acquaintance of my sister’s walked in front of a train. 

Hill lives in remote Gloucestershire where many people legally own firearms. In the city the method of choice seems to be death by train. I have lost count of the times that myself or someone I know has a journey delayed because someone has hurled himself in front of the 17:09 on the Manchester/Sheffield route. As yet, no suicide has impacted on me directly but I have seen the devastation and enduring aftershock that almost always results.

I don’t agree with the cliched condemnation of suicide as the ‘coward’s way out’. You must need courage, or at least a reckless bravado, to throw yourself into the darkness and whatever might be waiting for us out there. Suicides often have money, careers, relationships and their whole lives ahead of them. I don’t want to give you a bunch of why-oh-why paragraphs and can offer no solutions except for high fences on station platforms. Why do this? Why not get help? Why is it always the last person you expect? We don’t know. It is brutal confirmation of the limits of what can be understood about others.

I do think though that most people have a streak of impish self-destruction. It’s the impulse to touch the live wire, take the long jump, press the button marked DO NOT TOUCH (WILL DESTROY UNIVERSE). Why do so many young men kill themselves? The possible answer is terrifying in its banality: because they can.

While suicide may not be cowardly it is certainly selfish. Most people have others in the world who love them and possibly depend on them. Worst affected will be the parents, lovers and children. Next hit are the close friends and work colleagues. The ripples head out, like some minor nuclear explosion. Let’s not forget the train driver, who is blameless but could wake up screaming about the incident for the next ten years. And this hypothetical doesn’t take into account the suicide bombers and gun nuts who insist on taking everyone else with them.

I understand that someone at the end of their life and in constant pain may want to check out with dignity (our gentle and compassionate Anglican church is conflicted on this point, but that’s a whole other argument). But most people who kill themselves have a possibility of change and good experiences in the future. If you died now there would undoubtedly be something you would miss out on. Some of you will have come here using ‘suicide’ as a search term, perhaps late at night, after a few drinks. Do not do it, no matter how much you feel you have to.

Christopher Hitchens has a story about William Styron that brings some hope and relief to a very gloomy topic:

I remember sitting with him in a diner in Connecticut when the pasty-faced boy of a waiter came over and said that reading Darkness Visible had decided him against committing suicide. Bill told him to sit down; they chatted in such a way as to make the lad’s day all over again. I have never seen a celebrity writer behave with more grace when confronted by a reader. When it was over, I asked Bill if this happened often. ‘Oh, all the time. And I now get police departments ringing me when they have surrounded a house where the man says he’ll blow himself up.’ Could he talk such people out of it? ‘Usually, yes.’ One may well believe that literature is life-giving, but few of its practitioners can claim actually to have saved lives.

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One Response to “Arguments Against Death”

  1. BenSix Says:

    But most people who kill themselves have a possibility of change and good experiences in the future. If you died now there would undoubtedly be something you would miss out on.

    But there’s also the possibility (or, heck, likelihood) of meeting greater harm. To defend potential life on the basis of its – well – potential, one might have to argue that the experience of living – through the good times and the bad, or even through consistent badness – is of such utility that it beats non-existence…

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