Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

13 August 2014

On Suicide and Surrounding Sicknesses: Further Reflections

After completing my previous post in memory of Robin Williams, I took to the webs and read even more on the subject of suicide and mental illness.

There is some worthy debate out there, of a more-than-merely-semantic nature, about the use of the term "selfish" in reference to suicide. First I encountered The Matt Walsh Blog, and later a contrary-minded piece by Dean Burnett from The Guardian. 

I don't want to be overly concerned about the disputations. "Take what you like, and leave the rest" is another one of those clever sayings I've heard over the years. Denizens of the blogosphere survive because of it. 

I summarize my takeaway from Walsh's offering from an excerpt of a tweet he included in the article: "It's not just clinical, it's spiritual." If by "not just" he means "but also," even "but primarily," it is acceptable. The soul is that which gives life to the body; the two are tailor-made for each other, and the soul is directly infused by the Author of Life, who cooperates with our parents in the sacred moment of our conception. I don't altogether dismiss his contention, but it requires some nuancing.

Concerning the central theme expressed in the article's title (Williams' "choice" of suicide): I do not judge the voluntariness of any particular suicide, as I state above. Nor can any man or woman fully plumb the darkness that impinges upon a profoundly depressed individual. In support of this, read Shaun McAfee's post, born of understanding and experience.

The claim that depression is a spiritual malady need not imply that "praying harder" or "thinking happier thoughts" or any merely human effort should do the trick, or that failing to do any of these things is defying or discounting God. Human persons suffer a profound deficit--a wound--in our nature, courtesy of original sin and compounded by personal sins. The wound manifests variously, but especially in the many forms of mental illness.

Burnett's article reinforces for me the reality that mental illness does not discriminate, and it disables the use of standard logic in those who suffer it. 

Warning of the supposed selfishness (or, if you will, "sinfulness") of suicide is not an adequate deterrent, instead providing further reinforcement of a negative self-image and assurance of others' (projected) ill feelings toward them. 

How exactly, I wonder, does one deter suicide, or alleviate depression? If depression is, as we often hear, "the common cold of mental illness," what's the prophylactic protocol? Upon hearing the first sneeze, is it time to say "God bless you" and start making funeral arrangements? "I speak like a foolish person" (2 Cor 11:21). Measures include prevention hotlines, therapy, medicine, personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness, and all the rest. 

The Sacraments, above all, have a healing effect on those who strive to partake of them with a pure heart. As I and others have noted, the attainment or maintenance of good feeling is not the aim of religion, and not even of spirituality (as if the twain never meet!); but Jesus did come "so that you
might have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10)!

But let's return to "personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness": that is the key!

'How are you,' he lied.

"How are you?" Pesky question, that. Blessed are they who respond courageously and honestly. Blessed, too, are they who care when they ask, and listen reverently to the response and all its undertow. It makes a difference, believe me.

Nobody has directly demanded a retraction of my use of the word "selfish," as people are focusing instead on blogs that garner appreciable traffic. I don't believe it's necessary, as my previous post did qualify it with the appropriate Church teaching on the factors that compromise freedom and understanding. 

In that brand of neurosis that normally calls for "podiatric dentistry," I will nevertheless shade my story by suggesting that suicide starts in a self-centered frame of mind. In his article Burnett speculates about people who take their own lives as a courtesy to those who, in their minds, couldn't care less, or more kindly, about them: an interior booby trap! Mental illnesses, like their corporeal counterparts, have a way of turning people in on themselves, their fearful projections of abandonment. When something--anything--is not right in me, I don't seem to care quite as much about others' problems, large or small.

Now self-concern can be a very good thing. When a life preserver surfaces, the drowning person will and should grasp for it. But there also remains the risk of self-pity and contempt for God, the "One with the infinite power" who does not seem to be too eager to remove this stumbling-block to belief in His omnipotence and goodness. God's silence in the face of physical and moral evil is the greatest scandal, likely underlying more of the New Atheism than New Atheists probably care to recognize.

To return to the first article of note, a spiritual solution is indicated. It is systemic in scope, and ultimately addresses what Pope Saint John Paul II called "the culture of death." Now I don't hold up Robin Williams or any other suicide victim as a billy club for the "culture war." Rather, every opportunity to affirm the value of our own existence, from generous parenthood to living wages to respect for the elderly to attentive listening to you-name-it: it's all the spiritual solution!

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Now my keener readers may have noted (though none openly) that my "In Memoriam" piece on Robin Williams failed to include a single recollection of the man--his generosity, sensitivity, faith, energy, or talent.

Comics appeal to the incongruous, the absurd. Prophet-like, they point out to us where things don't match up when they should. They don't so much predict the future but disclose and decry the peculiarities of the present. We laugh at comedians, because somewhere their truth resonates within us, especially when that truth contains a hint of tragedy.

Yes, I watched a number of episodes of "Mork and Mindy" (1978-82) when I was a kid. I enjoyed "Moscow on the Hudson," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dead Poets' Society," and a few other Williams films. But one more recent discovery has seized my interest, courtesy of another Burnett: Carol. Her show's 11-year run concluded in my toddlerhood (1978), paving Williams' way for "Mork" and subsequent gems.

Thanks to YouTube, millions get to enjoy the lunacy (pardon the use of the word in this context) of the stars and skits. Here is one of my favorites, the Funeral sketch. Poking fun at our contemporary sterilization of mourning, Robin teaches Carol how to "keen":

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