Suicide: the ultimate defeat?

2008-12-15 00:00

Most suicides are effectively public acts even when concealed. When they appear on television as documentaries or live on the Internet, they achieve a publicity which has a polemical purpose. The death of motor-neurone sufferer Craig Ewert was a powerful media event with such a polemical purpose. Whether it was ethical of the media to publish it is an issue which might create the danger of clouding the more fundamental one of suicide as such.

Suicide has been decriminalised in many societies. Even in the church there has been a softening in attitude. There was a time when a person who had committed suicide would be denied burial in consecrated ground. Thankfully, this is generally no longer the case. Modern psychology has enabled legislators and pastors to understand that suicide is frequently more the result of mental than moral collapse.

However, all societies maintain some level of prohibition on suicide. It is not just the church which frowns on it. In Britain it is no longer illegal, but it is an offence to assist someone in a suicide attempt. Even in Switzerland where Ewert was able to be legally assisted to end his life, there are laws governing such assistance. One cannot just help anyone to die and there are good reasons for this.

The first was acknowledged by Ewert himself when he said that “... I hope this is not the cause of major distress to my dear, sweet wife, who will have the greatest loss, as we have been together for 37 years in the greatest intimacy”. In other words, although suicide may bring relief for the one ending his or her life, it can be utterly devastating to those left behind, even if they fully understand and even support the suicide.

The universal prohibition on suicide reminds us that no one is an island, even, indeed particularly, in death. The notion of the sovereign moral individual takes a big dent when a suicide tears agonisingly at the social bonds that in reality make up the moral network of our lives.

Suicide is not just about me, even in an age of extreme individualism.

A second, related reason for humanity’s traditional and enduring unhappiness with suicide lies in the acknowledgement that one’s life is a gift for which gratitude should normally be expressed by living it and by giving something back. One does not have to be a believer in God to see this.

We all accept that our life is primarily the gift of our parents. Furthermore that this gift often involves an extraordinary level of self-sacrifice – a mother’s pregnancy, the care of an infant and education which today can last 20 years. Such a gift should not be thrown away lightly.

From this perspective — of the gifts of life and nurturance which family and society have given to a person — suicide can be experienced by those left behind as a tragic rejection of unconditional love, the passing up of the greatest of all gifts — the life that was given and at such great cost.

Certainly society and its religious traditions understand today that a person’s state of mind may not be up to handling the physical pain and/or psychological distress that often lead even promising young people with a life ahead of them to kill themselves. However, the prohibitions which remain suggest that we still wish to persuade those tempted to end their lives and anyone inclined to help them that suicide is ultimately a defeat and a defeat which diminishes us all.

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