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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?

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“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.” Unfortunately, as I'm sure you well know, some people feel as though they can only feel the night, and ultimately give up. We also need to reflect on they way people view attempted or successful suicide. Society judges people on their lack of love for life, and deem these people as "quitters, failures, or weak." Sometimes people are too far gone into the dark to see any possibility of light at the end of the tunnel. And it is quite sad because no matter how heavy life's burdens seem to be at the time, if you can just hang in there, it does ultimately improve. You can be in the deepest darkest hole, and honestly believe that there is no way out, and then one day...the darkness is gone. Unfortunately, it can be too late for some people to experience the way that life can completely turn around. It is important, for any individual who contemplates the absurdity of life, to get the type of help that works for them, on an individual level. Medication doesn't always work, and having people tell you until they are blue in the face that all shall pass doesn't, if ever, work. The key is not to ponder on the absurdity of life for too long, because they may miss something beautiful in their obsession with being unhappy. I think it is absolutely admirable that you are addressing this issue.

JW-

One thing you never lack is passion. It's evident not only in your writing, but in your words as well. And I have to agree with your assessment of the significance of this writing. Beautiful...eloquent...and powerful...so powerful.

I'm hesitant to comment. I feel like what you say stands on its own...but you're right. We need to talk about ugly things too. All too often we hear, after the fact, the struggles those around us were going through. Only then do we talk about the impact those people had on us...and it leaves us thinking about how things may have been different had we had discussions earlier.

You're absolutely right about the quantity of events in our lives. We touch people in so many ways, at so many times, and don't realize it. The more we experience, the more we can influence those around us. And while we don't always see the end result of that influence, it's there. Maybe something we say or do sticks with someone...hidden, and forgotten for years...and only becomes useful in the proper context at the right time...unexpectedly.

I, admittedly, have trouble talking about issues like suicide. I try to listen...really listen when people talk to me...open up to me. Maybe I'm naive to think that's enough. Or maybe I would broach the subject if I ever got the impression someone I knew was thinking about ending their life. Thankfully, I've not had to walk down that road.

I'm with you JW...and if it's possible, I'll hop up onto that hill with you and start pushing. Your burden might as well be mine...that IS where happiness is, right? The struggle? Keep pushing friend...keep pushing.

I wonder how much of our perspective on suicide is culturally bound? We tend to view suicide as a tragedy, brought on by depression, and in the US that is all too often the case.

Nevertheless, that is not the only way peoples around the world and across time have viewed suicide. The most obvious example of this is the use of suicide bombing by terrorists, not only fundamentalist Muslims but also among secular groups such as the Maoist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil separatist group fighting the government of Sri Lanka (largely destroyed by the government last year). Within those groups, suicide is celebrated as a glorious sacrifice for the cause rather than a tragedy.

In other cultures, particularly in Asia, suicide is seen as an honorable act, or as a way to expunge previous dishonorable behavior. This is expressed in Japanese culture as seppuku (aka hara kiri, a vulgar way to describe it). We see similar behavior in China, where in the past year there have been several government and corporate officials who have taken their own lives after their own misdeeds have come to light (this also happens in the West, but rarely). Another variation was the practice of suttee in India, where widows would throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands and this was considered praiseworthy.

Even in the West, in pre-Christian times attitudes about suicide were very different. From the judicially ordained suicide of Socrates by drinking hemlock to the mass suicide at Masada, suicide was either accepted (in the case of Socrates) or glorified (in the case of Masada, even though against Jewish tradition).

We should also consider the assisted suicide movement within the West today, where some of the elderly or those suffering from terminal and painful diseases choose suicide as their preferred course of action.

I don't really know what to make of all this. I do think young people killing themselves due to mental illness is tragic, and the consequences of suicide for those left behind equally so. It would be nice if no one felt the need or desire to kill themselves for any reason, but that isn't the world we live in.

Your discussion prompted me to return to an area I thought I would never revisit. But, on this quiet, frigid day, I isolated myself in my bedroom and nervously opened the safe that sits on the closet floor. In the far back corner on the middle shelf lies a small manila envelope that I have not opened in almost eight or nine years. I wipe the small layer of dust that has accumulated on it, and slowly I open it to reveal its contents. Inside are over two dozen letters; letters my child wrote when she was approximately thirteen or fourteen years old. I remember the day I found those writings how scared I was, for those letters were not about average adolescent life that most teenagers write about, but rather they were about her ending her own life. It was one of the first times I felt so hopeless and also a failure at being a parent.

Without going into a lot of detail, I took a short leave of absence from my job and took immediate measures to get my daughter the help she needed and uncover the reasons behind her desire to terminate her existence. Almost a decade has gone by since that life-changing day, and I am fortunate to still be able to enjoy quality time with my daughter. Had I not seen the signs and intervened, the outcome could have been less fortunate. The road has not been easy, but she has grown and matured into a lovely, young woman and has found her identity through positive conversation and support. This past December she graduated from college with her four-year degree and has decided to continue her education on a part-time basis and is working towards her second undergraduate degree.

I was only able to read three or four of those two dozen letters as it brought back some upsetting memories I hope I never have to relive. I spent only a few minutes reflecting on the past, and quickly placed those unpleasant memoirs back in the manila envelope and positioned them back in the dark corner of the safe where they belong. The day will come when I may decide to someday share these letters with my daughter, or I may resolve to dismiss them as a part of her past that is better off not revisiting. For now I am thankful for the great progress she has made and proud of her ability to overcome the obstacles in her life that almost ended hers.

Hi there, I have been a lurker around your website for a couple weeks. I love this article and your entire blog! Looking forward to reading more!

I think this subject is paramount to any serious philosophical discourse as there are, in my opinion, gradations of "suicide" that manifest all the time without people actually demonstrating their mortality in an immediate sense. The thought of suicide manifests itself when we engage in reckless behavior that we know is going to do serious damage to ourselves. Yet, in spite of this, we subject ourselves to this form of "intermediate suicide" because we are often bound by absurdity at a particular moment. Suicide and suicidal behavior, in some sense, may be the desperation of wanting to feel alive, as a result of the absurdity that is killing us. I think a discussion on suicide can transcend that topic and provide a stepping stone on the path of human relation and understanding. I speculate that Camus would agree that suicide is at the heart of our existence as it is the opposite of it, and its' seeming unbearability provokes the thought. I agree that knowing we can relate to others who have also stared into the abyss and questioned the absurdity of life is critical to educating society on suicide and what it might mean. Removing the isolation of the burden relating to our particular condition and realizing this absurdity question plagues all of us strengthens our bond to life and may lessen the burden we as individuals have. I know in my deepest moments of despair it was a feeling of being alone that provoked thoughts of "ending it". Being alone with the absurdity can be unbearable. Being able to share the burden with others may alleviate it. Perhaps "misery loves company" ought to stand for the idea that suicide is real and must be addressed in the company of others so as to include them in the absurdity of it all to make it less absurd

Could not the reflection on life’s absurdity also lead one to embrace every experience for all it’s worth? My understanding of Existential Philosophy is limited, but I gather there are two main vein’s of thought. They both start with the premise that we live, we die and that’s it. The two veins diverge in their suggested approach while we’re here. One says that since there is nothing after this life, then this life is purposeless, absurd, miserable, and there really isn’t much we can do about it. I think this is where Mr. Camus seems to stand, JW – or at least, that’s where he asserts that those who may take their own lives stand. The other vein focuses on the journey, rather than the destination. It says that, if we start with the idea that there is nothing beyond this life, then we may as well make this life the best it can possibly be. Maximize both quality AND quantity of experiences. Improve the world as we live in it. Help others. Have fun! Nothing is permanent. Sorrow is not permanent so don’t wallow in it. Happiness is not permanent so don’t take it for granted. Like a bowl of chocolate ice cream, life is nearly gone as soon as we begin to enjoy it, so we may as well savor every silky, creamy bite.

Wwblogfan bravely writes about teen suicide from what must be a painfully personal level to which I hope I can never fully relate. She saw the signs – or rather, it seems they hit her over the head – and she was able to lovingly take steps to keep her daughter among us. I submit there is another kind of suicide – no more or less tragic – but perhaps more insidious, when a single event, misstep, mistake or embarrassment triggers something in the mind that puts one on an express lane to doom. In that moment there is no time for consideration, no signs to worry over, no warning at all. The victim seems to be a well-adjusted person who simply “snaps.” My question might be, are the two really different? Or are they really the same, the later being the result of a combination of previous suicidal thoughts and a triggering event….a match touched to a long-standing lake of gasoline?

This must be discussed. It must be discussed, if for no other reason, than doing so may raise our awareness of the possibility that our friends – our own children – may not be as happy and well-adjusted as we think. Discussed? This blog post should be required reading in every high school in the country – and every PTA/PTO meeting too.

For the first time since I have been responding to your posts, JW, I am responding ‘off the cuff’. With out weeks of reviewing my response, because this article hits home for me in many ways, as it has with those that have responded and will respond.

I think Whaler, as “they” usually do, puts it best: “...It's evident not only in your writing, but in your words as well. And I have to agree with your assessment of the significance of this writing. Beautiful...eloquent...and powerful...so powerful.” Very well said, and my sentiments are the same.

This hit home, to the extent I showed some emotion at work and had to walk away for a few moments. I remember the day where I had a break down of sorts. Looking back on it, it was silly, I have since experience much more loss, heart ache, pain; but at that moment in my young life (high school) it built up to the point where one night I said to myself ‘I understand why people commit suicide.’ I didn’t say I could do it, but I rationalized the thought. That scared me, and still scares me today. I went a time without sleeping trying to wrap my head around that statement.

At that time, while in my own darkness, a close friend committed suicide. I was obviously shaken to the core, and, almost as something clicked in my head, I realize that was an option. Or was it? I struggled for a long time with this questions, how can one decide to take their own lives. I do remember that I never felt like that individual was ‘lost’ or ever put them down as less then human. I remember thinking that they were strong and weak at the same time, confusion. Strong to make that decision, weak to not ask for help perhaps?

I remember not having any intention of killing myself. Yet, I wrote a letter, to try and get into the mind set. I still have those five pages from my notebook in my room. I remember feeling shocked that I had written what I had. And, strangely, there was a since of relief. I read it, and read it again a few years later. I am happy I did that, and explored my own feeling, really looking at myself.

What amazing power we have as a human. Take lives, take our own, change lives, change our own.

This is a conversation that needs to be had. It needs to be had with all ages, because it doesn’t affect just one age sect, but all. Not just one group, but all. And I think we need to talk, if only briefly, in our schools because that is where the issue begins and grows.

As I said at the beginning, I have seen darker, lonelier days; but I have never come back to rationalizing taking my life. Was it a life stage? Perhaps. I like to think I have realized since what a blessing it to simply be alive at all. Because it is.

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