I did not go to church today. I meditated and prayed; I read and contemplated. And I napped in a way to facilitate the neural connections to put truth into my long-term memory. But I did not do this for myself alone. Had I done it for myself alone, that would have been inauthentic. My partner made breakfast for us, a consistent gift that nurtures my body, mind, and soul. Staying home from church, my meditation and prayer were for her as well.
Trigger warning: I am going to write about suicide. I do not intend to treat suicide lightly. But you will read about my approach to suicide as a potential choice.
We are the Lord’s. Deuteronomy 30 tells us that we have set life and death before us to choose life. The word of God is in our hearts and in our mouths so we may obey it. Romans 14 reminds us that we do not live to ourselves alone but we live to the Lord. We belong to the Lord. It moves us in the opposite direction of the self-made person and the culture that nourishes the non-entity of the person who lives only for themselves.
I think this is connected to suicidal tendencies in our culture. As indicated by OECD suicide rates, the choice of death is increasing. A person who thinks of herself secretly as a completely autonomous self, with unlimited possibilities (for this concept is what society teaches), finds herself in an impossible situation. She is “as a god” and thus everything is within reach. It turns out, however, that anything she can successfully reach by her own effort and volition is not quite worth having. What she really seeks and needs – an authentic identity, love, a life of meaning – cannot be gained by merely willing and by taking steps to obtain them. No amount of ingenuity can purchase them; no psychological or sociological manipulation can contain them, no inspirational religious self-help, meditative practice or minimalistic ascetic technique can get the job done. And so, the autonomous individual of unlimited possibilities is led to despair and suicide.
One may object: suicide can happen at any age, right? After all, that suicide is happening more frequently now can be explained that there are just more people, and that life is more ruthless. In the West, though, we need to face the fact that life is less ruthless now than it has ever been. For many people who are economically advantaged – and they are the ones most suicidal – a life of comfort, security, entertainment, and choices ought to make life more livable, and even happy. They can have almost anything they want. Almost. Yet, there are some things that cannot be gained on demand, no matter how much one might be willing to pay.
“The things we really need come to us only as gifts,” writes Thomas Merton. To receive them as gifts, we need to be open to them. Being open requires us to set down our image of ourselves. In an attitude of renunciation, we need to die to our own self-image, our so-called autonomy, and our addiction to our self-willed identity. Merton writes: We have to be able to relax the psychic and spiritual cramp which knots us in the painful, vulnerable, helpless “I” that is all we know as ourselves.” I know this deep in my bones.
When I was thirty years old, I had made myself into a liar who was working hard to fashion myself as someone who had everything under control. I had repeatedly lied to my ex-wife, my closest friends, and my birth family in order to demonstrate that I was in control. I was able to succeed based on my own efforts. But I spiraled further and further into despair. The spiral had become a knot. It was a pointless affirmation of my fictionalized identity as a non-entity. I had tried to affirm my status as a non-entity against everything else – and my frustration became absolute. I existed as a rejection of all that was real. I had pretended to be a professional philosopher, a “respectable” citizen, and a genius. I existed as a nihilistic negation (to use philosophic language). I existed as a “no” to everything, or in other words, as a pitiable “yes” to myself, which was a makeshift identity that was actually nothing. I nearly made the choice to kill myself.
There are certain refusals that affirm a higher truth, are epiphanies of reality, and are witnesses to God. The individual who is knotted up in frustration may confusingly intend her cramped freedom to be a noble refusal; she may seem right in her protest. She may seem to be protesting what is unjust in her situation that impoverishes and destroys her. With this as her legitimation, she hardens herself in total refusal. She builds for herself a final identity out of being in a knot, that is, in resentment and negation.
It is at this point that one will be pressed by the logic of the knot. The knot begins to demand a final solution. Since the bind itself is intolerable, and since she cannot relax it, she can only destroy it. The individual has reduced herself to the point where she is nothing. The binding character of the knot destroys her.
One must learn to stop saying “no”; one must learn to refuse the knot. For me, I gave up the pretense of being a professional philosopher and became a teacher instead. I stopped the Western Ph.D. path and went to East Asia. I sat on the plane and prayed to God that I would go where He led me.
In my case, I had learned to say “yes”. I began to say yes to God and to life. My negation was the refusal to be humble, to be open, to be ready for God acting in the world around me. I decided, in faith, to be ready for life to greet me. I chose life.
Openness and self-forgetfulness give up the stubborn claim to perfect autonomy and begins to believe in ”life.” The mentality that informs suicide is built into our technological society – the mass and social media, which is always focused on violence and crisis. It destroys a sane faith and keeps everyone in the knot of fear and suspicion. There is one remedy – the surrender that seeks faith in God as a gift that we do not deserve.
We must therefore recognize that the individual is not absolutely alone, and that one cannot live and die for herself alone. My life and my death are not simply my own business. ”For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone… so, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14: 7-8 NIV).
We are almost unavoidably tempted to despair – but there is a choice. We will always have the strength to choose life unless we are so pathologically destroyed that we have lost all touch with our authentic identity. The real tragedy of suicide is the needless and arbitrary refusal of this gift and possibility: the chance to prefer life even in defeat. In other words, one refuses this gift precisely because it has come not from ourselves. One who is on the edge of suicide may also be on the edge of a miracle that saves her in spite of herself and pulls her out of the knot. If she can comprehend what has actually happened, she may (like I did) revise the idea of what constitutes failure and how freedom and fulfillment actually are made manifest. The individual who has revised her idea of what constitutes freedom and fulfillment may actually begin to live as another person. This “new” person is one who has the humility to accept gifts that come to her on conditions she cannot foresee or determine, which come to her from an unknown source. These gifts are not subject to her own demand in any way. Most interestingly, a humble life that is open to receiving gifts is ordinary human existence, and nothing at all supernatural.
What took me out of my suicidal tendencies was being open to gifts. Everything that is ultimately valuable in my finite life – my wife, my children, my career, my world travels – were gifts. I did nothing to earn them by my autonomous will and effort. And as with any gift of value, like the lamp my father used in his office, bequeathed to me at his passing, I have cared for these gifts as if I had owned them.
If our time is actually marked by suicide rates, the reason is that this ordinary human existence is indeed forgotten. Our social conditioning lays upon all-too-many people a burden that is so great that they cannot meet even the ordinary facts of existence and simple common courage which is an essential component of life. Yet, there still remain creative possibilities for those who can recognize other sources of life and wisdom than that which is on offer from a society speaking through technologically-informed mass and social media. These ways will open themselves to those individuals only as providential gifts.