I am 59 years old. Starting from childhood, much harm was done to me that I did not deserve. I also witnessed and heard of much cruelty among human beings. I lost several people close to me. I was bullied, beaten, stolen from, betrayed, and slandered a few times. I also went through weeks of intensely-felt unhappiness and self-blame. But the thought of killing myself never crossed my mind.
Having an interest in social sciences since my high-school years, and having studied sociology in a 4-year college, suicide, as a phenomenon, was of some interest to me. Perhaps it was fortunate for me that I lived in a country (Turkey) where the dominant religious communities all condemn suicide. In Turkey, even attempts at suicide are seldom heard of. I did hear of some; but I did not lose anybody ‘close to me’ to suicide.
In the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, there were many deadly terrorist attacks in Turkey, mostly by socialists/communists of one kind or another, and by ultra-nationalists or fascists. We also heard of much torture at the hands of the police. There were also rumors of covert government acts to provoke unrest, as well as state-sponsored killings. However, we never had wanton killings in schools (even universities) by crazed and heavily-armed students. (In Turkey, it is not easy for civilians to acquire guns; but this is not the only fact relevant to the understanding of why some ‘freer’ countries have more armed attacks.) The concept of ‘suicide by cop’ is something that I never heard of before coming to the U.S.
Much may remain mysterious about some past and future instances of suicide. One thing that is undeniable is that many people who succeed in killing themselves choose not to be articulate about their views of life; their ‘diagnostic statements’ about their physical and social environment; how they think their death will impact others; whether or not they believe in an afterlife (or a succession of afterlives); etc.
Very often, what suicidal people experience may not necessarily be something that can be conveyed to others through words or gestures. As a result, many times, survivors have to ‘clean up’ after the suicides, and are at a loss to come up with an understanding of motives, etc. Since some people end up killing themselves after enduring much harm by strangers and/or by people close to them, the survivors may have reasons to distort some facts to cover their crimes of commission and omission. Sometimes, they may also end up being too harsh on themselves.
As I state at the outset, I claim no intimate awareness of this phenomenon. ‘Suicidal thoughts’ are alien territory to me. That said, I am aware of some work in the fields of sociology and psychology that might shed some light on suicide. I am also cognizant of the fact that, sometimes, interpretations and ‘remedy proposals’ are offered by people with political and/or religious agendas. I am an agnostic; I do not see myself in a position to condemn any and all instances of suicide.
Put differently, not pretending to know anything about a harsh judgment that is certain to come in ‘another world’, I refrain from stating that no human being should commit suicide under any circumstances. There are times when people who find themselves faced with the prospect of slow and intensely painful death choose a less painful and quicker exit. (Instead of waiting for flames to burn me to death, I would not hesitate to jump off a burning building –assuming that I would not thereby kill any pedestrian.) I understand that some captured soldiers take pills to kill themselves, trying to make sure that the enemy does not torture them to death, possibly extracting some information in the process. I offer no council to people in those circumstances to do otherwise.
For those who try to study suicide, Émile Durkheim’s book [Le Suicide] (published in 1897) is generally considered to be illuminating, or at least thought-provoking. Long before his writings, many must have taken notice of the fact that the publication of Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (first published in 1774, revised later) was followed by ‘copycat suicides’. In the novel, Werther is rejected by the woman he loves (a woman who is already married to a man that Werther has respect for). Upon being rejected, Werther shoots himself with a pistol. Although it is not known how many young men followed in Werther’s footsteps, there is at least a ‘persistent rumor’ that there was an increase in the rate of young male suicides –and some of them had Goethe’s novel in their possession.
As a social thinker, there is much about Émile Durkheim that I dislike and would challenge; but I concede that his study, and the ways in which he relates suicide to other social phenomena, are important contributions. One conclusion that he reaches, and one that I cannot challenge, is that suicide should not be assumed to be a perfect example of an individual rebelling against, or rejecting, (some of) society’s values.
If suicide were such a purely individual act, one could not explain the many imitative patterns clearly visible in suicide statistics. Durkheim (and other experts in the field who came after him) demonstrated that there are ‘patterns’ in acts of suicide in given societies: Many people choose methods of killing themselves that were used by people in their communities, prominent people in the news, etc.
Also, the timing of suicides shows patterns. (Sadly, more people kill themselves in April, in the Northern Hemisphere, than in the winter months.) Although there is much that can be contested about any interpretation of data, one message can easily be given to potential suicides: “Don’t expect to impress people who survive you with how original and ‘individual’ your choice is.”
Another conclusion that may appear to be safe, partly thanks to Émile Durkheim, is that suicide rates in a country (or ethnic group) cannot be taken as an index of how unhappy those people are, or how much they are suffering at the hands of their colonizers, occupiers, exploiters, or the like.
When faced with incontestable data that suicide is more common in Scandinavian countries than, say, in Iran, one should not assume that Scandinavians are less pleased with their governments than Iranians are. Beyond political structures, even communal feelings may not be properly evaluated simply by looking at rates of suicide in given communities. What this may mean is that eliminating grounds of social or political dissatisfaction may not suffice…
Again, as a social thinker and a moral agent, I find it safe to say that some people are much better at communicating with would-be suicides than others (and this does not depend mainly on one’s intelligence or education). Few can dispute that Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) has been a shining example of someone whose knowledge and caring guided and influenced many would-be suicides.
As a medical student in Vienna, he worked with others to counsel students between 1928 and 1930 (several years before his transformative experiences in Nazi concentration camps). One can only hope that the kind of success that is attributed to his efforts can be replicated throughout the world.
I am generally inclined to adopt a pluralistic approach to social and moral phenomena. With my limited learning, I favor the initial assumption that phenomena as complex as suicide are affected by multiple factors (some of which may not be visible to us). I also think that it would be wise to invite multiple approaches and diverse remedy proposals, if we are to succeed in preventing (certain kinds of) suicides.
Having declared my limited capacity to offer any theoretical and practical help, and knowing that many others have long been offering their own help to the field, I do not mind being explicit about this: If most murderers and certain evil-doers killed themselves, after providing clear and detailed information about their crimes, the whereabouts of the remains, possessions, etc., of their victims, I would not mourn their passing. I deliberately limit my concern to people who, generally innocent or otherwise, are not determined to prey on others.
More than 22 years ago, I was listening to a program on WBAI (a listener-supported radio station in New York). The female host, whom I knew to engage in dangerously shallow versions of New Age propaganda, peppered her monologue with clichés such as ‘asking the universe’, ‘synchronicity’, ‘law of attraction’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘manifesting (this or that)’. I was painfully aware that such shallow talk repels most learned (and compassionate!) listeners, and the hosts end up hearing mostly from their ‘like-minded’ listeners.
Hoping to shatter the monotony of New Age talk, I called in and said: I believe that you and most of your listeners are alarmed by the fact that many young people are killing themselves. Let us imagine such a person who is about to jump off a window. I would like to scream to him/her: “Stop! Don’t jump! Consider the possibility that there are people in this world who are far more knowledgeable than yours truly and the host of this program! Neither of us represents the best that humankind can offer!”
I do not imagine that the host was pleased to hear my comment; but she did allow me to finish my sentence. She may also have recognized that there are some young people who are disgusted with the set of ‘intellectual and moral tools’ that we have to offer. Either way, I am not apologetic about my wording (she did not kill herself). Nor will I refrain from making similar comments. (Sadly, people like me cannot set straight more influential peddlers of New Age propaganda like Oprah Winfrey.)
Mindful of many points about which I am bound to disagree with my contemporaries, I believe that there are many cases that should alarm most grown-ups. Many times, rape victims kill themselves –but the rapists don’t. In some parts of the world, rape victims are expected, even by their family members, to kill themselves. Sometimes, rape victims are told that they will be killed by family members, if they fail to kill themselves. They are told: “You don’t want your brother/cousin to rot in jail for killing you, do you?!”
Despite general Muslim condemnation of suicide, many Muslim women in different parts of the world are subjected to this kind of pressure. Sadly, recently, many Rohingya women were gang-raped by Burmese men, and they have no hope of seeking justice… In the face of crimes like these, people from different faith groups should have no difficulty working together to prevent both rapes and suicides. Few sane people would argue that such women must have deserved their lot because of what they did in their ‘past lives’, or that this must be what they ‘asked of the universe’…
If I am asked why I never considered suicide, I will reply that I never felt the ‘pull’ of death. I can also add that there is something of a hero in me who would risk his comfort to come to the aid of people in trouble. I refuse to put to death a person with that kind of a tendency, even if he is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to do much good. I am not thankful that the world is full of human-caused misery. One could settle for mildly heroic deeds, such as saving others from natural calamities, diseases, even insect bites…
In my capacity as a moral agent, I feel compelled to say to would-be suicides that, as miserable as they may feel, there must be many ways in which they can be of use to others. And if they reply that they do not feel like helping anybody, I suggest that it is possible to join others in spreading goodness, even if one does not share their enthusiasm to do good work.
If they find most people that they know to be repugnant, that does not entitle them to conclude that all of humankind should be repugnant. Besides, there are many animals that will respond with gratitude to even modest help. And many plants reward their caretakers with flowers and/or fruits –in a few months…
From a different perspective, some acts of selfless service may be (coupled with) declarations of dissatisfaction with one’s contemporaries. Once an admirable body of good deeds is part of one’s record, one can choose to say: “As I see it, all that was far above what you deserved. One reason why I did that was to put you to shame. If you do a fraction of what I did, perhaps, in the future, there will be people who could truly deserve what I did –and more!”
I do not expect the above to change many minds; then again, I can say that these words were meant for people that few of us know, and also for some people who are yet to be born. I am aware, however, that there are many young people among us who are knowledgeable enough about physical and social sciences to know that many things are getting worse.
Although ‘the future’ is notoriously hard to predict, there is much that is indeed indefensible about what happened in our recent past, as well as about many things that grown-ups are engaged in today. It would be a shame, if even one such youth chose to kill himself/herself. Those who are not sufficiently concerned with most human-caused and environmental issues will certainly outnumber the conscientious ones…
I am also aware that many children assume that they are the main reason for their parents’ unhappiness, and/or their (approaching) divorce. Likewise, some young people may be asking themselves “If even my mother/father does not like me, how can I expect to be liked by strangers?!”
Some others may blame themselves for not being able to reciprocate the love that they receive from their families, partners, or the like. They may feel that they are ‘condemned’ to their community, and not being able to join their communities in their ‘wrongful ways’.
As a social thinker, I posit that this feeling is not necessarily something that can be blamed on the ‘alienated individuals’ or on the ‘wider society’. As I see it, it is a common fact that no nation-state or city-state is small enough that all of its citizens should form a harmonious community.
In other words, the differences in the value systems and behavior patterns of the citizens in even the smallest (inherited) political unit can never be ‘ironed out’. Conversely, no society is large and free enough that it should be able to optimally accommodate all the various ‘subcultures’ and ‘odd personalities’ within its borders.
It is inevitable that some people in every polity will feel ‘alien’ to most of the rest of the citizenry. One can hope that it is also very likely that some of those ‘alienated’ people will consider certain other people in different societies to be (potentially) closer to them than their family members.
As a short-cut, I use an invented word to refer to this phenomenon (both the objective reality of it, and the subjective feelings that it may arouse): Mismoshment. This is one of dozens of words that I invented. Unlike most others, it does sound like an English word. It must be understood to be different from ‘improper/inadequate socialization’, ‘maladjustment’, and ‘miseducation’, although such phenomena may relate to mismoshment.
Whether others find this concept (under whatever name) to be useful or not, I hope that they will concede that not everybody who feels ‘trapped’ in his/her inherited society needs to be treated like an insane person.
For my part, I feel duty-bound to try to communicate to such people the possibility that they may, indeed, be able to find communities that they would feel comfortable joining. At least, it would be a worthy effort to try to find such communities. If one fails in this effort, the failure may be recorded for the benefit of future seekers… (The goal of saving other people some time may not be foremost in the minds of those who are about to end their lives; but it is a goal that can be embraced –if the intention is generated.)
Of course, those who wish to declare their readiness to show compassion and warmth to would-be suicides can be preemptive, and they may have many creative options to make their readiness known. Likewise, parents, spouses, friends, and colleagues who feel that a person they love/care for is ‘drifting apart’ can also try to communicate to the latter their warm feelings or well-wishes…
At the same time, it may be wise for such people to be prepared for the fact that some would-be suicides will not be able to show enough fair-mindedness in assessing the messages that they receive. It is also possible that some people who are ‘drifting apart’ from their families or communities do not care for messages like “Whatever you did, we are prepared to forgive you. We will press you to our bosom…”
They may be after things other than, perhaps better than, the ‘bosom’ of the people among whom they found themselves. It is not inconceivable that some such people perceive much that is wrong with the lives of most ‘normal’ people. Whether their specific reasons are justifiable or not, there is indeed much that is wrong…
I offer the above hoping to invite people with greater wisdom, or people with different views regarding suicide. I have the capacity to appreciate constructive criticism; and I have changed my views on some important matters. I certainly recognize our collective duty to reach out to those, young and old, who might be suffering inexpressible pain –some of which we may have caused. I intend to add to these thoughts, possibly responding to some feedback.