The question gets asked over and over again in the wake of a suicide. It goes something like this, “How could he decide to kill himself?”
I heard people ask this dozens of times in various forms when Robin Williams died. And when Ned Vizzini, author of It’s Kindof a Funny Story (and other fabulous books), took his life last year. And when David Foster Wallace died in 2008. And I may have even asked this myself a few times when two students I knew killed themselves a few years ago and one of my closest friends attempted to.
Often, the question is preceded by the statement, “I just don’t understand.” As in, “I just don’t understand. How could he decide to kill himself?”
I know I’ve said this because I didn’t understand, but then I thought about it —not the reasons why Williams, or Vizzini, or DFW, or anyone else killed themselves (we’ll probably never know that). I thought about the question itself, and why it’s so often asked. And why it might not be the right question to ask at all.
There are two things going on in this question. The first is an expression of disbelief and incomprehension “I just don’t understand…”. In this public expression of disbelief, there’s often an attempt to distance one’s self from the act of suicide. The shadows lurking beneath the statement “I just don’t understand” are I don’t want to understand. I’m not someone who can understand. Or… I don’t want to be dragged down into understanding. It’s easier to dismiss suicide as incomprehensible than to grapple with the complexity of suicide.
And then there’s the second part, the question “how could he decide to kill himself?” As if a person wakes up one day and suddenly decides to end his or her life. And herein lies the crucial aspect of suicide that I think we so often don’t want to understand, but need to.
When I hear this question now (“How could he decide to kill himself?”), I want to tell the asker “You might be looking at it the wrong way.” The question isn’t how someone could decide to kill himself, but how he or she was able to decide not to do so for so many years.
I know that may sound grim, but I also know from talking with several people who have attempted suicide (as well as reflecting on my own experiences as a human being who sometimes gets depressed, and writing Backwards, a novel that addresses suicide in a very unusual not-sad way), that people who kill themselves, or attempt to, often live with the idea for a very long time. And in order to keep on living, they have to wake up every day and decide not to kill themselves. They have to wake and find a reason to live. It’s constant, and it can be exhausting —a bit like a recovering alcoholic who needs to decide every day not to drink.
And then one day, they might not be able to find a reason not to do it anymore. Perhaps the burden feels too great, or they get bad news that pushes them a tiny bit further over the edge. Perhaps they’re simply too exhausted to keep going.
I think this exhaustion often happens to brilliant, creative, compassionate people like Robin Williams, and Ned Vizzini, and David Foster Wallace (whose speech on the meaning of life is the most beautiful commencement speech I’ve ever heard), because compassion and insight into others often comes through knowing suffering. And knowing suffering can be exhausting.
There’s a saying in Buddhism that “A Bodhisattva walks through the world with a broken heart.” (I don’t know who to attribute this saying to, but I’ve heard it said many times, and I often find solace in it). Think, for a moment, of how many of our greatest artists, leaders, and visionaries are “broken hearted,” because, as my friend Jill Salahub once wrote, “hearts get broken open.”
It’s a fine balance between being compassionate, open-hearted and even blissful because you allow yourself to feel suffering in the world, and being overwhelmed by suffering. And it’s no secret that many writers, actors, comedians and other artists often walk too close to the edge between the two. Writers and artists need empathy and openness to create. And comedians often develop their comedy as a coping strategy, because of the suffering they feel and observe (other’s have written about this with more detail than I can, like this article on Cracked about how comedians are often deeply depressed). Then sometimes, the scale tips from bliss to suffering. You get exhausted. You stumble near the edge.
Don’t get me wrong –I’m not saying that artists, writers, actors, comedians or anyone else for that matter need to be depressed and self-destructive in order to be creative. On the contrary, that’s a myth I want to dispel. I think there are plenty of happy, healthy, brilliant writers and artists. Personally, I do my best work when I’m happy. And I know that in order to keep creating and to maximize my creativity, I need to find and maintain healthy balance in my life. But I also know that many writers and artists struggle with depression. Many people do. For a great many of us, it’s part of life.
Unless you understand what carrying around that burden of depression is like — how difficult it can be to make the decision over and over again to live, and how hard it can be to do the constant work of finding a reason to go on, even on the crappy days — then you probably won’t understand why people kill themselves.
But I think a lot of people do understand this, and that’s why it’s so important that we choose openness and compassion over anger and closing the door to understanding. Because when people kill themselves, they often think it’s the noble thing, or the only thing, left to do. It isn’t either, but when you’re in that hole, it can be awfully hard to see a way out.
That’s how we can help each other —by finding a way in. By seeking ways to understand and give a person a hand up, rather than pushing them away or dismissing their situation as incomprehensible. It can be as simple as asking a person how they’re doing, and being open to hearing the answer —the honest answer. And it can mean valuing each other and being there for each other in the happy times as well as the times when the scale tips the wrong way and suffering starts to outweigh bliss. We need to be aware that when we say “I don’t understand” what’s often heard is “I don’t want to understand.”
Anger and shutting the door to understanding with statements like “I don’t understand” (or worse, public statements of anger and ridicule like some talking heads made in the wake of Robin William’s death) won’t do much to help others and prevent suicide. But trying to understand, and developing compassion and openness to others, will help.
At least that’s the way I’ve started to look at it. And that’s why the question I’ve now started to ask after someone I know, or someone famous, kills themselves, goes something like this:
“I wonder what could have been done to help them? I wonder what I can do now to help others?”
(If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. There are people there 24 hours a day who really want to talk with you. They do! You’re worth it, and you’re not alone.)