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January 29, 2010

What No One Wants to Talk About – Which May Be the Very Reason Why We Should...

I have had the pleasure of being published many times by the Press Republican in its In My Opinion section. As a matter of fact, in all that time, I may have submitted approximately 25 “in my opinion” articles. Does anyone want to venture a guess as to how many times I was denied? Come on, out of 25 times what would be a reasonable expectation of failure? 4? 7? Well, the answer is 2. Yes, twice the PR didn’t publish IMOs that I’ve written. Once when I wrote a scathing IMO about a previous SUNY President that had no love for me and demonstrated it often while trying to pretend he wasn’t aiming at a target he had placed on my back himself. Do I sound bitter? Well, let’s just say I couldn’t be any more bitter than I am wiser from the experience. I learned a great deal about myself during that period and have become so much stronger from surviving and richer from the friends who were truly there with me throughout it all. The IMO I submitted about him was a scathing indictment of him, his administration, and those complicit with his deeds. There is no doubt in my mind that I might have lost my job if Bob Grady, the editor of that aspect of the paper, hadn’t cautioned me at length about the possible consequences. He was measured/deliberate and took the time to make sure I was hearing him clearly. Fortunately for me, I did.

The other rejection is the reason why I am writing this blog. That was a IMO I had written when I was very much moved by the death of a very popular local high school student. His death, combined with some of the most provocative/revealing conversations I had in my Moral Problems course that centered on the topic of suicide preoccupied my mind at the time. Perhaps also because an uncle of mine who ultimately took his own life enters my mind weekly still. And then there are my own thoughts on ending it all when I went through a traumatic time. All of these I’m sure prompted the essay. So you can imagine my shock when they didn’t publish it. I know Grady, Jim Dynko (then-editor), and Bob Parks (publisher) and what I like most about all of them is that they are a straight shooting crew. I have rewritten many of the published IMOs often before they were finally accepted. Many times I have walked away wounded from their polishing/mentoring knowing it is always well intentioned and necessary. This time it felt different, and ultimately it was. It was never published, and I never quite knew why. I wasn’t asked to rewrite it on any major level. I made the necessary changes and submitted it. Again, no matter how much I say it I am still in shock that I was never published on an article that arguably I am most passionate about. The few times I inquired I felt like I was hearing that it would probably happen soon. I don’t think that I focused enough on the “would probably” sentiment. Regardless, I include it below. Not to one-up my colleagues on the PR because it just isn’t like that. Not because I think it is a classic piece of writing, though I believe it is one of the most significant things I’ve ever written. But because I still believe suicide is a conversation we need to find ways to have with each other.

One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem

Sometimes in the quest to examine diversity we fixate too much on the differences and not the commonalities that exists between humans. Perhaps that is why when a truly human moment that transcends some of the social constructions we all succumb to in different contexts occurs, we are mesmerized by the moment, traumatized by the tragedy, spellbound by the spectacle. Suicide is one of these all too common moments that truly demonstrate the vulnerability we all share.

Albert Camus once said “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” He didn’t relegate this problem to any specific group or type of people, but instead generalized it as a societal problem. The implication I interpret from the article of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” is that in every human culture, society, group, family, etc. at some point humans will entertain a thought about the absurdity of life. Thoughts like, “what is my purpose,” “is it worth it all,” “why not end my life,” permeate all societies once individuals reflect on the mechanical aspects of their lives. The repetition of our daily activities don’t necessarily lead us to consideration of the merits of our existence at a specific time in our lives, but Camus asserts if we live long enough, we will have that thought. He says, it is how we facilitate that thought that determines the statement we make to our larger society. More so, Camus states that it is the focus on the quality of life as opposed to the quantity of life that distinguishes whether or not we ultimately have a perspective on life that allows us to continue to bear the burdens of life that we must carry from time to time.

Who doesn’t know of a person who opted to exit their earthly bounds earlier than anyone entertained they would? I remember a time in my life where I looked deep into the face of absurdity attempting to find an answer to insurmountable conundrums. The quality of my life at that time was such that running away from life itself was not an unattractive thought. Fortunately, the forfeited life of my uncle eight years earlier who also left behind his 13-year-old son was enough to remind me that I couldn’t seriously entertain taking similar action with a three-year-old son needing me, not to mention many others. Additionally, I want to redirect or redefine the quest for quality as not being the only worthwhile venture, but that within the quantity of experiences we encounter, there is quite a bit of quality there as well.

Camus’ asserts that the quantity of life’s experiences, collectively, bring about more quality from their individual moments than any experience that we believe is steeped in quality. I embraced this message and earnestly attempt to communicate it to others who may not have considered this enlightening thought.

Every semester, in tribute to my uncle who succumbed to the absurdity of life, as well as that moment that I entertained it myself, I do a lecture on Camus’ take on suicide in a philosophy course that I teach. It is the most difficult lecture that I do throughout the semester, as I can never get through it without fighting exhibiting emotion in front of the class. Suicide is such a sensitive subject for me that I struggled with my emotions while writing this piece. Nevertheless I lecture on the topic because we need to discuss the subject, not gloss over it. I am a proponent of the fact that we should be discussing suicide more in our general discourse than we do. Camus asserts that a worm exists within all of our hearts that represents the anguish of absurdity. This worm would lose quite a bit of its power if we coerced it out of the abscess of our hearts.

Camus framed his essay with an extremely thought provoking quote: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.” Some level of familiarity with the night enhances our perspective on the day. It is possible that when we reveal to our children and other loved ones our insecurities and struggles with life, and our considerations of whether life is worth living, we may eliminate the mystery of that moment of absurdity or at least enhance the possibility that our loved ones understand that we are capable of relating to them.

J. W. Wiley


So, what are your thoughts? What should we say? What do we need to do?