The Tragedy of Suicide

Why is it always tragic when someone takes their own life? Let’s dive into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Many people today are talking about Brittany Maynard and how she did decide to end her own life due to having a terminal disease. I’ll be upfront about my stance on this. To take one’s own life in an active manner like this is immoral. Had she let nature run its course and not resist knowing the case was terminal, that would not necessarily be immoral.

Unfortunately, when many people see something like this, they will themselves start to consider the question of suicide. Suicide is often made to be a noble act in our culture. We can think of Robin Williams who had the meme going around with being told “Genie. You’re free.” I did write about that shortly afterwards and also posted a piece my wife Allie wrote on suicide.

Suicide is a tragedy because life itself is something wonderful and when you choose to end your life actively, you are making a statement not just about your life, but also a statement about everything else that is out there. Chesterton said years ago that a martyr dies because he believes there is something worth dying for. A suicide dies because he believes there is nothing worth living for.

If you have something, anything, then you can fight on and live. To say that you want to end your life is to tell every single facet of creation that none of it is worthwhile. It is to say that your pain trumps all of that. Please note also that in all of this, nothing is being said about the state of one’s salvation. I do not say suicide is the unforgivable sin, but I certainly do see the Scriptural position of it as sinful.

Unfortunately, events like the death of Maynard do not help us see suicide as a tragedy, but rather as something somehow dignified. What is dignified however about it? What is dignified is choosing to face your life and not let pain define you. It is choosing to enjoy every moment that you are given instead of saying none of those future moments will be worth it.

If we are people who see this today, then we need to see it today. Are we really looking at our world and seeing all the good that is in it, or are we choosing to let our pain define us? Many of us can often even identify ourselves by our struggles. We identify ourselves as alcoholics or porn addicts or drug addicts. These can be facets of who we are, and we should certainly work on them if they’re problems for us, but we do not need to let them identify us.

What happened to Maynard is a tragedy, and we should be mourning. Oh we can celebrate the life that was here, but it is always tragic when someone chooses to end their own life. We can say it’s noble if someone takes a bullet for someone else in self-defense, but it is not when someone pulls the trigger themselves. The former says the other person is worth dying for. The latter says no person is worth living for.

Celebrate life today and while we honor the person who died, let us make sure we never honor suicide. It always will leave pain to those left behind. There’s enough pain with the death itself. Let’s not add to it.

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15 Responses to “The Tragedy of Suicide”

  1. tildeb Says:

    Nick, I understand that you think you are being not only caring and compassionate but upholding a strong sens of morality. I get it.

    But what you are actually doing is presenting an arrogance of certainty strong enough to make no room for the same caring, the same compassion, the same strong sense of morality in other people. This, you don’t get.

    Look, I welcome your opinion and grant to you the unequivocal right to have the final say over your decisions, to help you guide your life and death decisions regardless of what I think. I’m not you, and I don;t have the arrogance to assume I have the right to dictate to you my strong sense of morality to curtail any choice you have in any matter in this regard. Having worked in palliative care for many years, I recognize the right people have to choose for themselves no matter how strongly I may feel for or against their decisions over themselves. I recognize that people will make these decisions and I recognize the horrors we impose on real people in real life by trying to legislate away their choice in this matter. I have been to the homes where one spouse kills another and then themselves out of desperation because the law eliminates any choice to die with dignity. The law insists that everyone should simply die without any direct aid. And for some people, this is intolerable and neither you nor I am in any position to claim care and compassion and morality by condemning these folk to die without aid should they desire it. Our support of laws that eliminates this choice is not caring from the perspective of the person dying without any choice over how and when that death shall come. We act with less than the compassion we show to a dog or horse similarly suffering when we insist that people must die without the same final intervention. And to allow extremes in suffering to last and last and last because the body can continue to operate is not moral. It is an elevation of suffering to be a virtue and an arrogance of astounding degree to enforce this on everyone.

    By all means, support life and offer whatever aid and comfort one can. But realize that this is no solution for many people to sustain the suffering they are enduring. Have enough respect for others and their dignity of personhood to allow them to make this most personal of choices regardless of the choices you might make in their stead.

    • labreuer Says:

      Look, I welcome your opinion and grant to you the unequivocal right to have the final say over your decisions […]

      Having worked in palliative care for many years, I recognize the right people have to choose for themselves […]

      In your mind, @tildeb, is there any difference between ‘granting’ a right and ‘recognizing’ a right?

      • tildeb Says:

        Yes, very much so.

        Granting a right is a legal recognition, meaning it is no longer held to be illegal or prevented by law.

        Recognizing a right is showing an understanding that all of us share it. In the context of my comment, people will act to end their own lives and for what they think are very good, very moral, very caring, very compassionate reasons… regardless of what the law may or may not endorse. These choices will be made and affected by the law’s sanctions to the extent that very often tragedy is compounded by tragedy. When we recognize that others have the same right we do (especially when we understand that our continued support to curtail the humane choices of the dying means we are contributing to tragedy in the name of piousness), we no longer feel entitled to impose our preferences on others. We have the right to decide for ourselves because we are the ones going through it and best know the effects of our choices.

        The religious very often fail to appreciate this distinction and presume that their preferences are their God’s and therefore to be imposed on all as if by divine command… proxy by secular law. Said another way, the reasoning used by so many religious folk to justify their insertion of what they presume to be a divine morality is the same argument used to impose sharia.

      • labreuer Says:

        Granting a right is a legal recognition, meaning it is no longer held to be illegal or prevented by law.

        How can you, a citizen, grant a right to Nick?

        When we recognize that others have the same right we do (especially when we understand that our continued support to curtail the humane choices of the dying means we are contributing to tragedy in the name of piousness), we no longer feel entitled to impose our preferences on others. We have the right to decide for ourselves because we are the ones going through it and best know the effects of our choices.

        This presupposes radical individualism as normative. It disallows considering that we have obligations to those who wish to die which we are not fulfilling and it disallows considering that those who wish to die are rejecting obligations that they have to others.

        Furthermore, that those going through a hard time are the best to decide at that time is not at all an accepted maxim; consider drug interventions, those experiencing a depressive mood, etc.

        Finally, you are imposing your preferences on Nick in telling him how he ought to think. Unless you can ground this rights-talk in an ontology, instead of it being merely a social convention?

      • tildeb Says:

        This presupposes radical individualism as normative.

        Radical individualism? Good grief, Lab, where is your mind these days? Other than this ‘radical individualism’ is the very basis of the republican model – one person, one vote, to grant consent to the governing by the governed – uh… yeah, obviously. Rights are always framed within this system as ‘individual’. The inclusion of the word ‘radical’ is completely misleading in this context and presumed to inform the claim of ‘militancy’ for atheists who think you should have some say over your life. Yes, how radical is that militancy!

        Good grief.

        And yes, individuals do make these choices regardless of the legal constraints imposed on them by well meaning but misguided people like you who presume to know best and who then support laws to try to manipulate the dying into suffering for as long as their bodies are able and pretend this suffering is somehow noble. That’s why I use the kind of words I do, to describe this mandatory degradation by its effects on real people in real life. You have no idea what they are going through and are in no position of authority over them to tell them what they shall and shall not do in this case. To suppose otherwise is as I’ve accurately described.

      • labreuer Says:

        Radical individualism? Good grief, Lab, where is your mind these days?

        Rationally located. If you are unaware of the shift from justice as “right ordering of society” and justice as “individual rights” (see Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs), you will be unaware that there is a middle ground, where individuals are recognized as individuals, and have rights, but they also have deep obligations to keep society running properly. Their obligations go beyond paying taxes and obeying laws.

        Your radical individualism has blinded you to the idea that perhaps people want to die because society has failed them. I am not willing to say this is always the case, but you’ve not given the slightest of hints that it could be the case and could even often be the case. Your idea of society being sick is that not everyone accepts radical individualism, hook, line and sinker. There are more ways I can see society as being sick.

        The inclusion of the word ‘radical’ is completely misleading in this context and presumed to inform the claim of ‘militancy’ for atheists who think you should have some say over your life.

        False. I googled “radical individualism” and found this random answer:

        Radical individualism places the rights of the individual over those of society, rather than considering the good to society over the rights of the individual. People in this state of mind tend to neglect their responsibilities as a citizen often adapting the “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Their concern quickly become fixated on material and economic advancement, disregarding…

        Radical Individualism leads one to isolate themselves from society ,such individualism without corresponding community, at times is a recipe for disaster.

        No militancy to be found.

        […] misguided people like you who presume to know best […]

        Ahh, but you are not misguided and do know best; I see.

        You have no idea what they are going through […]

        While true in one respect (I have a healthy body), I am deeply acquainted with the thinking and feeling of not wanting to live.

      • tildeb Says:

        Lab, once again you are diverting from my original comment about the original post… which was about the medically assisted suicide of someone with a terminal brain disease. And if you have a terminal brain disease that presents in a well-established progression ending in a very undignified death coupled with suffering by all those involved, then we’re not talking about society’s rights, now are we? We’re talking about the choices available to you.

        YOU are trying to talk about society’s rights… whatever that may mean. Societies, like groups and organizations and institutions, don’t have anything remotely connected to the legal rights about choices for medically assisted suicide under discussion. Talking about societies in the same sense as the dying individual is a diversion.

        I also prefaced my original comment with the understanding I have gained from working in palliative care. Now here you are presuming that my atheism in some way negates or undermines or eliminates the sense of caring, compassion, and morality necessary for palliative care. Not surprising to me, your thinking here is exactly wrong.

        Lab, you should wake up because the majority of hospice volunteers, medical staff, and palliative care workers both in the community and employed in palliative wards in my neck of the woods are not just non religious and/or agnostics but atheists. And one of the major reasons for this is because the notion of a benevolent god that can but doesn’t intervene (apparently for mysterious reasons) plays no positive role in the care and end of life treatment of palliative clients. In fact, the notion that such a god exists to causal effect seems to generate a very great deal of angst and worry and fear for people involved in the whole dying process. The notion that religion comforts people is certainly put to the test in hospice and palliative care and we find it not true in the vast majority of cases. In fact, there is well-known and very strong correlation – and we are well aware of this – between the reported depth of suffering endured by both the dying and their families and the strength of their religious convictions.

        Because you ignorant of this well-known fact, I take the liberty of presuming you are uninitiated in this kind of care and say as much.

        Another way to think about hospice and palliative care in a multicultural setting is to think about how an individual’s religious convictions affects one’s caring for a multicultural community. As a person diagnosed with a terminal illness, imagine how it might play out if a hospice volunteer or a bedside palliative care nurse is a demonstrably devout person of some markedly different religion than your own. How comfortable would you be going through this process aided by someone with very strong religious convictions contrary to your own? Imagine if you can the depth of angst you must bear if you knew ahead of time that the whole care team was dedicated to prolonging your suffering as long as possible?

        You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that hospice and palliative care workers and medical staff shouldn’t bring their personal and individual religiosity into their workplace out of respect for the individuals under their care but remain neutral towards the various religious beliefs held by the individuals who are dying.

        And this is why I speak of empowering dying individuals with choices for their end of life care. Ican;’t tell you how much real comfort is attained by those who know that they call the final shots, that they determine how much suffering will suffice while maintaining their dignity of personhood. They understand better than thee and me what these choices mean to them, to their families, to their loved ones, to their community. Respecting that knowledge base to be at least equal to my own about me and my life doesn’t seem to me to be either ‘radical’ or ‘militant’ but a baseline understanding necessary for those who wish to offer the very best care for that individual. Reducing those choices is a reduction of that level of care, compassion, and morality.

        But as always, don’t take my word for it; listen to what the dying.have to say and see if you can respect them and their wishes more than the respect you maintain for your predigested religious pap.

      • labreuer Says:

        Lab, once again you are diverting from my original comment about the original post… which was about the medically assisted suicide of someone with a terminal brain disease. And if you have a terminal brain disease that presents in a well-established progression ending in a very undignified death coupled with suffering by all those involved, then we’re not talking about society’s rights, now are we?

        Society strongly participates in what is considered ‘dignified’. It has tremendous impact in forming individuals’ conceptions of what they will consider ‘dignified’. What you are consistently suggesting is that the judgment of what is considered ‘dignified’ is right, and thus we should allow people to be assisted in committing suicide according to said contemporary social norms.

        YOU are trying to talk about society’s rights… whatever that may mean.

        Actually, I’ve talked much more about society’s obligations to individuals, and how society can make life worth living or not worth living for individuals. You have resisted this idea at every turn. Perhaps it is because entertaining the thought would raise the specter of incredible societal guilt? Perhaps it is uncomfortable to think that those who made the lives of the Columbine shooters not worth living might be partly culpable for the massacre?

        Perhaps your radical individualism (noting again that the word has no connection whatsoever to ‘militant’) blinds you to society being an actor in any way. That would explain your total unwillingness—perhaps incapability?—to address the idea that society plays a huge role in determining what is considered ‘dignified’, as well as what suffering can be deemed ‘worth it’. A consistent, unspoken theme if your comments is: “Do not question how society operates; all that matters is individuals’ beliefs and values.”

        Now here you are presuming that my atheism in some way negates or undermines or eliminates the sense of caring, compassion, and morality necessary for palliative care.

        I have absolutely no idea how I presumed anything about your atheism. Please demonstrate that you haven’t merely constructed a straw man.

        How comfortable would you be going through this process aided by someone with very strong religious convictions contrary to your own?

        It entirely depends on the beliefs of that person. Were the ‘someone’ Jesus himself, I doubt many would really object. After all, when the rich young ruler didn’t want to give his riches to the poor, Jesus let him go his way without a single word of judgment or condemnation.

  2. apologianick Says:

    Meanwhile, I’ve been around people who have lost loved ones to suicide and have seen the effects it has afterwards. It is always a tragedy. It is never a good thing. There are always questions of “What more could I have done?”

    Our culture has been more and more devaluing of life at all stages and death is something with such a great finality for everyone involved.

    It’s important to note that I am not making anyone do anything. Maynard made her own choice, but I can only say it was the wrong one and it will have a negative impact on everyone else.

    Note also I’m not talking about just allowing extremes of suffering. Let someone go to a hospital and be treated. The very best pain killers can help.

    • tildeb Says:

      This is a very common assumption you make, that palliation effectively deals with pain and it is pain that is the root cause of suffering. This is incorrect. Many palliative clients I have had tell me in no uncertain terms that their suffering eliminates the ability to live. Having suffered the loss of their lives, these clients now want to put an end to their body’s functioning. The difference between this and dealing with physical discomfort is night and day.

      I also take exception to your claim that ending one’s life according to one’s wishes will have a negative impact on everyone else is completely opposite to my experience. Very often it is the family members pleading in desperation with medical staff to do something – anything – to end the suffering of the client.. a suffering that is causing unbelievable psychological pain and feelings of helplessness to family members. As I said earlier, we’re talking about the kind of suffering we wouldn’t allow to continue to an animal without risking serious charges of animal cruelty. And that’s what we are imposing on real people in real life: cruelty renamed as a ‘redeeming sacrifice’. This is what we are enforcing on others when we advocate against end of life intervention by the medical community: cruelty. And in practice this life-at-all-costs is truly reprehensible and deeply immoral.

      • labreuer Says:

        You’re basically assuming, though, that humans have little to no fault in situations which lead to “eliminates the ability to live”. I’m pretty sure Nick isn’t placing the blame solely on those who wish to die. If we were to compare the US, for example, to nations which respect their elderly much more, might we find lower rates of wishing to die? If so, then there are options other than physician-assisted suicide. However, those options might require massive social changes; it’s much easier to just off people who cannot fend for themselves.

        See, people require reasons to push through suffering of any kind. If they don’t have sufficient reasons, they will change their behavior or, if the condition continues for long enough, want to die. As a society, we have the option to give people better or worse reasons to want to push through suffering. Historically, Christianity has provided such reasons. See, for example, those who ministered to the sick during various plagues, instead of turning tail and running. Look to the founder of the faith, who was willing to die to break an oppressive social system which relegated many to miserableness.

        As I said earlier, we’re talking about the kind of suffering we wouldn’t allow to continue to an animal without risking serious charges of animal cruelty.

        This seems like a pretty terrible comparison; humans are tremendously more adaptable than animals. Helen Keller, who was deafblind, was able to have an absolutely fantastic life which she found extraordinarily fulfilling. How many animals are capable of this? Any?

      • tildeb Says:

        Lab, again this is the kind of wishful thinking those not involved in daily death want to believe… as if pushing through actually lead someplace other than more intolerable suffering, that intellectual reasons play an important role. Very often, there is no other ‘place’ than the insufferable – a long, bleak, downward spiral – in which the client is completely immersed. And there is no ‘living’ there; there is only suffering while waiting to die.

        The number of people who choose this route where available – assisted suicide – is very small. And, as strange as this may sound to the uninitiated, I suspect the numbers of those who choose to end their own lives are actually much lower where the assistance is available because the assistance is available… and many people find that just having the choice empowers them to continue one more hour, one more day, and that’s as far as the thinking goes… that when it becomes too much to bear, only then will the assistance be asked for and provided.

        I cannot tell you how much it means to those rendered powerless to still have the power of a final choice. I suspect this makes a very great deal of difference – certainly in the matter of dignity – compared to the bleakness of waiting for function to cease in the most undignified circumstances imaginable. I also suspect more women understand this feeling far better and much more deeply than men because they know what it means to be powerless in the face of function and how to cope – or not cope – with that circumstance. Men have much to learn.

      • labreuer Says:

        Curiously enough, one of the things that sent Francis Collins in the direction of Christianity was how some Christians coped with suffering involved with terminal illness. Some people can find ways to make “intolerable suffering” not intolerable. That you call this “wishful thinking” is very disturbing. It’s as if you don’t want people to know what is possible.

        What you remind me of is doctors of autistic kids, who tell their parents that they’ll never amount to more than they are. I had the privilege of visiting the studio of a guy who disbelieved these doctors, and provided an environment for autistic kids to be creative; a few of the activities were making movies with computers and making dioramas. As it turns out, some of the kids radically opened up, shocking their parents who had been told to expect something very different.

        And so, I have enough evidence that your reasoning is flawed. No faith, not hope, but evidence.

      • tildeb Says:

        Yes, Francis Collins is convinced by many events. I, too, have witnessed tremendous courage and startling will. What makes these events stand out to me isn’t that suffering was endured; it was that suffering was chosen.

        And that is exactly how those who insist doctor assisted suicide be illegal reduce the worth and dignity of people by eliminating that choice and trying to force people to follow only your insufferably arrogant self-righteous and bullying beliefs that you label as moral. But that’s the relative nature of your assumptions where up is another kind of down, white another kind of black, and the imposed suffering you favour is another kind of compassion.

      • labreuer Says:

        How do you know that “suffering was chosen“? I recall nothing like that in Collins’ Language of God. This is all based on a supposition of yours:

        And, as strange as this may sound to the uninitiated, I suspect the numbers of those who choose to end their own lives are actually much lower where the assistance is available because the assistance is available…

        Oh, the irony of a militant atheist basing such incredibly important issues on supposition. As to the rest of your comment, it’s filled with weasel words and attempts at emotional manipulation. You’ll probably find that fails on both Nick and me.

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