Today, I learned that a gentleman in our church took his life. I hardly knew the man, indeed, I have no recollection of his face, but for some reason I was weighed down with grief throughout Mass.
Just back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the priest’s sermon focused on the ‘uneasy truces’ that exist in the Holy land. I couldn’t help wondering what uneasy truces this man had had to deal with in his life; what crosses he had to bear.
What great cowardice leads one to the precipice and pushes right through into the yawning chasm of such awesome courage to take one’s own life? The irony here is that the victim and the perpetrator are one and the same.
The word ‘suicide’ comes from the Latin word suicidium, derived from sui caedere, which means ‘to kill oneself’. According to the Word Health Organization, about 1 million people complete suicide each year – more than the people who die in wars. But more disconcerting is the fact that 10 to 20 million people attempt suicide each year! That is almost the entire population of Australia or Ghana!
Suicide attempts are said to occur for a number of reasons including depression, shame, guilt, desperation, physical pain, emotional pressure, anxiety, financial difficulties, being gay or other undesirable situations. There is also medical suicide where an ailing person chooses to end life support so their organs can be donated to someone else. But that requires an involved ethical discussion which is not the goal here.
The person who takes their life chooses to end their problems in death, but in doing so, create further problems for those they left behind. Sadly, many of them die not knowing how much they were loved.
Survivors may experience a great range of conflicting emotions about the deceased, feeling everything from intense sadness about the loss, helplessness to prevent it, longing for the person they lost, anger at the deceased for taking their own life to, sometimes, even relief. Leroy Aarons’ Prayers for Bobby – which became an Emmy-nominated Lifetime television movie – explores the transformation of Mary Griffith after her son Bobby commits suicide, and is an excellent study on the subject.
So far, the focus ends just on the person who died and the close survivors of the victim/perpetrator. But what does that say about us, as a society, as a community? That was the source of my grief at Mass. In this instance, this was, to all intents and purposes, a godly and upright man, regular at Mass. Where did all of that go in those final moments? Did our faith community become so good at imparting religion that it failed to instil faith? Did all of us, individuals, become so consumed with our own selves that we failed to see the hurt and broken body sitting right next to us in the pews? Have we, as a people, set so much store by maintaining the appearance of perfection that we, in effect, and without realising it, turn up our noses at anything which might appear less than? What are we teaching our children?
A quote from Leonardo da Vinci is eerily ominous: “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die….”
It is not surprising that suicide rates are climbing in places like Asia and Africa, where the supportive fabric of society is rapidly disintegrating to form the insular urban apology of a community. The former Eastern bloc countries have the highest rate of suicide worldwide while South America has the lowest.
We have lost the ancient art of touch. We avoid any form of intimacy. We have built invisible bubbles that we travel in and function daily, our lives criss-crossing with others but not close enough to make any meaningful connections. We send text messages instead of calling. We are too self-absorbed to share a smile in the elevator or a simple “Good morning”. Do we have any idea whose day we might make with just a genuine look in the eye and a smile? There are too many people who feel alienated in our society; too many people who are invisible to us. We are too busy chasing after the next thing to even notice. And, sometimes, when we notice, we are too selfish to do anything about it.
We call it suicide, but I beg to differ. I call it murder and we all are complicit in this crime. The verdict is in:
Guilty. Murder in the first.