Heaven and hell
What is it that drives people to commit suicide?
Some common explanations or excuses, depending on how one looks at it, is that “he couldn’t take it anymore,” or “he’ll be better off where he is now,” or “he chose the path of least resistance”.
Personally I prefer explanations number one and two. Of course, one can say that it is easier to commit suicide than to live on, but when someone says it, it is usually said with an undertone of contempt. Often implied is that the person who took his own life was a coward, but those who say such things have no idea what it means to live with problems like abuse, anxiety and depression.
Many suicides are an indirect result of several years of such problems, and two fairly well-known suicides in recent history are the tragic cases of Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith and Kurt Cobain. Both had struggled with drug abuse for several years, and as a side effect they struggled also with strong depression. On 14th of April this year it will be twenty years since Kurt Cobain died. He shot himself after having checked out of a drug treatment program.
Now, it should be mentioned that both of these suicides occurred under mysterious circumstances, and it has never been entirely clear whether they really killed themselves. Either way, both Steven and Kurt had motives.
Or – motive – is there really anything like a motive to take one’s life? Most people have probably experienced one or more times during their life that they just want to end it all, but one thing is thinking about it. Another is to plan, and on the other end of the spectrum – actually doing it.
To kill yourself one has to have such a strong desire to die that they manage to overcome the natural survival instinct that exists in most people. Even the most downtrodden people may be afraid of standing on the edge of a bridge, or pressing a gun against their temple, or put their head into a noose. As such, one can actually say that those who choose to commit suicide are courageous people; they choose to challenge all that they know about their own existence, their natural instinct, their own conscience – often towards both themselves and others who are close to them, to plunge into uncertainty.
There are different theories about what comes after death, even among those who choose to commit suicide, but common for all humans is that no one can come up with a definitive, verifiable answer. This lifts suicide as an action into a new dimension: metaphysics.
Death remains a mystery, regardless of whether you choose to meet it freely. The encounter with death is probably easier for those who believe in some form of reincarnation; at the same time there are also religions, like Christianity, where suicide is seen as an unethical action – perhaps the most unethical action one can possibly do. Then, what initially could have been a comfort, in terms of going on living in a new and hopefully better dimension, suddenly becomes an obstacle.
On the list of celebrities who have died because of abuse, we find John Belushi. Many Norwegians will recognize him as one of the two Blues Brothers in the movie of the same name from 1980. Belushi did not commit suicide, at least not in the traditional way. He died because a speedball overdose which was supposedly large enough to kill a herd of elephants. How it is possible to sink so deeply into an existence of unfathomable darkness, is hard to imagine.
Yet there is one common denominator among all I’ve mentioned so far: their fame. Here one must therefore distinguish between meta-causality and effect. Fame leads to addiction, addiction kills. Ultimately it does not matter if the adverse effects or the actual substance (s) are the ones that push you over the edge: death will come knocking either way.
However, suicide happens in the ranks of “mere mortals” as well, there’s just not so many people who will know about them. I’ve even tried to escape from my corporeal existence several times. I would not say that I struggle with some form of addiction, but I have felt in the body that alcohol can make problems such as anxiety and depression much worse. Ironically, it may also help one through problems, albeit only temporarily.
Moreover, it is not only man-made drugs that can lead to suicide; there are also examples where people have taken their lives over the loss of someone they loved, or the simple fact that their love was not reciprocated.
In these cases it is perhaps the most natural stimulus that exists, love, which ends up killing. It’s as if nature plays tricks on people; natural selection gone bad. Or perhaps it is precisely the opposite that is the case: natural selection played out in all its icy beauty. Some people may not be made to live this unjust, cynical, arbitrary, implacable called “life”.
Is it possible that those who manage to live on despite all sorts of villainy, all kinds of disappointments, all kinds of everyday boredom, actually are those who are supposed to live, ultimately? It certainly isn’t impossible.
Why is it, on another note, that mostly adults seem to take suicide? Even the cases you read about in the newspapers or see on television are almost exclusively about adults, or at least teenagers. Does it stem from a culture in Western society, where being an adult means much greater responsibility and generally a radically different situation than being a child implies? Would it have been better if kids started working from an early age, as so many still do in developing countries? Would it mean that suicide statistics would remain the same, but also distributed on children?
It is conceivable that some of the reason for the relatively rare occurrence of children who kill themselves is the naive way children are raised. Most children have no concept of death. When a family dog draws its last breath, most often parents choose say that it left for “dog heaven”, became an angel or some other nonsense, either out of fear or a lack of alternatives. Why not just say it like it is? Of course, children are not stupid. If you tell them that their best friend is dead, they will ask what it means to be dead. Then one can say for example that to be dead is the opposite of being alive. And then one can tell about how the body turns into soil, which in turn becomes new life. The film The Lion King from 1994 explains this brilliantly;
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need two understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, do not we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies Become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Of course it isn’t a good thing for children to take suicide – but what is it about the transition from childhood to adulthood that enables the existential abyss that did not exist as one still was a small child?
Perhaps it is simply the knowledge of what it means to be human – that life is not innocently clean and simple, but rather a struggle to find oneself, then a struggle for survival.
This insight becomes greater the older you get, from being born and totally dependent on those around you, until you fall and get your first abrasion, until you experience your first heartbreak, and until you get old and realize that life doesn’t last forever.
On the way many lose the ability to live in the moment, the thing that perhaps above anything defines what it means to be a child, contrary to what it means to be an adult. As a child one accepts what one sees and hears there and then, while as an adult one asks questions.
The first time a child hears from their parents about Jesus, or Muhammad or Buddha – the stories and ways of life related to these religious people, can’t be debated. When the child then reaches its teens, it often develops a need to question its own identity, not least in relation to the millennium-old traditions handed down from its parents. But if that child remains religious – and many do – it is no longer because it has accepted the religion as truth because their parents said so or because there was no reason to question these ideas. Rather, it is because the teen has reflected on them and analyzed, then accepted the religion as its own because it makes sense.
But there is no getting away from the fact that many of the world’s religions are bearers of a common tradition – namely, “come to me, weary traveler, and I will give you eternal life.” As a kind of poetic justice many people across the globe use much of their life trying to live in keeping with religious beliefs because of what ultimately can be seen as a fear of death.
Wouldn’t it be better to live as if there were no tomorrow? That’s the life of a child. Paradoxically, such a life might have helped many of those intrepid souls facing death without thought of the next day.
In 2013 VG reported that Norwegians are the second happiest people in the world, surpassed only by the Danes. Nevertheless, we have an average of five hundred and thirty registered suicides each year, which apparently is not lower than other western countries. Why is this so? Can it be that suicide isn’t linked to a [lack of] happiness? The VG report also states that between six and twelve percent of Norwegians are depressed, which again isn’t lower than in other Western countries. Seventy percent of those comitting suicide are men – self harm and suicide attempts are more common among women. Why?
One explanation may be that suicide is usually not the result of a prolonged lack of happiness and / or sense of sadness, but occurs as a result of a short and brutal shock, such as the loss of a love, being fired, or being permanently disabled as the result of an accident.
But Norway doesn’t suffer high unemployment – in fact it is low compared to other Western countries. On the other hand the number of divorces within a year is 45 percent! Maybe we should get better at staying together?
One thing is in any case certain: the world needs more compassionate people. On the way from birth to death are too many traps, too many holes in the road. It doesn’t take any more than a small puff before bearings are lost, and if you don’t have someone to lean on you will fall. We are all hovering between heaven and hell, and it’s often just coincidence that determines how closely we are to one or the other.