Thoughts on Suicide

Hamlet. O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

 Hamlet, Act I, Scene II

In his groundbreaking study of suicide written in 1897, Emile Durkheim, the French philosopher who is credited as one of the principal founders of sociology, identified anomie as the condition of those who, finding themselves untethered from any relationship with others, become the most likely candidates for self-slaughter. Thus he found fewer suicides among Catholics, owing to their cohesiveness, than among Protestants, who tend to stand in nakedness before God. In addition, of course, there will generally be fewer couples committing suicide than among the unattached singles for whom the temptation to solipsism tends to be greater.

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Had Durkheim only been around forty years later when the Golden Gate Bridge opened, he’d no doubt have been able to document his discoveries by observing the first of the more than sixteen hundred people leaping to their deaths hundreds of feet below.

It takes only four seconds to reach the water, the experts tell us, hitting it at a speed of about 75 mph. Death is usually instantaneous, although a few have survived the trauma, some of them even returning to get it right the second time. And while the death toll is impressive, what really catches the eye is the fact that, almost without exception, they are all pointing West, hurling themselves into the black expanse of the night. Which is not at all surprising, assuming Durkheim has got it right, since the whole point about anomie is that there is no point, no norm or standard to which the self-tormenting self will turn. Uprooted from every real or recognizable connection, whether family or friends—or God—why wouldn’t they fling themselves out into the emptiness?

“On Margate Sands,” where he had gone to recover his nerves following a breakdown, T.S. Eliot reflects: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” It is the perfect description of the deracinated soul, unable to escape the pain of remaining rootless in a world where to be necessarily means to be in relation. After all, if it is not well for God to be alone, as Chesterton famously tells us, why on earth would creatures made in his image and likeness wish to do so? Even figures of purest fiction like Robinson Crusoe, who becomes a castaway on an imaginary island in the sea, even he could not cope in the absence of his friend Friday, whose arrival helps to ensure his own happiness. “It thus becomes clear,” writes Joseph Ratzinger, “that man is a being that can only ‘be’ by virtue of others. Or to put it in the words of the great Tubingen theologian, Mohler: ‘Man, as a being set entirely in a context of relationship, cannot come to himself through himself, although he cannot do it without himself either.’”

So what happens when that spool of thread finally unwinds, leaving the soul bereft at the last?  One doesn’t need a degree from Harvard to predict the outcome of that particular scenario. When the self having lost all sense of an identity anchored to any other self, when all the connections come crashing through the ceiling, suicide then becomes an option for which the anomic self can see no alternative. If there’s no meaning to my misery, why not end it?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” writes Albert Camus, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Of life, too, never mind the musings of philosophers. And citing the stern advice of Nietzsche, who insists that to earn the respect of their readers the philosopher is obliged to preach by example, Camus adds that we “appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.”

But, of course, not since Socrates have we seen great numbers of philosophers actually doing it. It is rather their readers who feel driven to that extremity. Especially when it is the purest nihilism on which they, the philosophers, draw, then blithely pass it on to others. Not a very appetizing brew, by the way, however tricked out with bright lights and shiny red ribbons. “Neiman-Marcus Nihilism,” is how the late David Foster Wallace once described it in one of his essays, having in mind so many sun-bleached yuppies, “none of whom seem to be able to make it from the limo door to the analyst’s couch without several grams of chemical encouragement.”

Unlike David-Foster Wallace, of course, who, alas, needed no inducement of any kind to take his own life, which he did back in 2008. We must pray that, in death, he found that elusive repose of the soul that evidently had escaped him in life.

So what does one say to the person tempted to suicide? Who finds himself in the grip of despair so comprehensive that neither reason, nor medication, appears resistant to its infection? Are there other antibodies available? How does one talk a person like that down off that ledge? “Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred,” writes Malcolm Muggeridge, who placed himself squarely on the side of life, “or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and some the other.”

How does one make the point that, notwithstanding the flirtations with despair that so bedevil the neurotic Prince Hamlet, to be is not a question ending in death, but an exhortation leading to life, because it is always better to be than not to be? And the answer is that there is really only one way to deflect the terrible dis-ease of people so trapped by the sadness of their lives that they feel no alternative but to kill themselves. And that is be faithfully and intensely present to them in their predicament, evincing total com-passion for their sufferings; so that, for a time at least, the dis-connect they are forced to endure is wiped clean away by the love shown by one human being for another.  Love may well disappear from the face of the public world, which was Romano Guardini’s dire prediction in writing The End of the Modern World, “but the more precious will that love be which flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ.”

And there is yet another thing to be done to help allay the sadness, which is to try and fashion a culture in which the sacredness of life is both recognized and sustained amid the many civil and institutional arrangements of a people more and more persuaded to find Christ in the least and the lost. So that the plaintive cry of the Hebrew psalmist—“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”—may be rendered all the more felicitous in a redeemed actuality, which is to say, a place bathed in the Blood of the Lamb. A world, in other words, as Dorothy Day used to say—sounding the great theme of solidarity in the teeth of widespread atomization—where it is easier for men to be good. That is, to love one another as Christ loves us.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in the 1948 Academy Award-winning film adaptation.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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