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On Suicide (The Leap) III


Suicide is not beholden to an evening's promise,
nor does it always hearken to plans drawn up in lucid moments

and banked in good intentions.


Kay Redfield Jamison,
Night Falls Fast





But Socrates himself did not stain his own hands with blood. It was his beloved polis which sentenced him to death. He even waited for a few days before it was time to enter the Underworld. And during that 'grace period' as seen in the Phaedo, he continued to philosophize, even about death. While his companions and followers were weeping, the philosopher stared death down at the face. Like a good soldier, Socrates knew how to follow that last order when his number was called without fear in his heart. What did he have to be afraid of anyway?

In the Apology, after learning about the verdict of the Athenians, Socrates says that there was no reason for a reasonable man to fear death. For if it were like a peaceful sleep on the one hand, then it would have been the greatest gift to be given to man; it would be the rest each man yearned for in life but seldom got. On the other hand, he also said that if he were to go to Hades, then he would have a grand time discussing and talking with the heroes and wise men who went before him; he would finally be able to learn the secrets of the dead. And this even excited him. His point was that nobody knows what death is like. So why be afraid of it?

* * *


What however Socrates shared with a man taking his own life was the courage to face death. Initially and for the most part, we are afraid of dying on two counts: saddened by the thought of leaving this life and all that is related to it (family, friends, career, dream, world, etc.), and fear of what lies unknown and beyond the horizon of life. One may have 'nothing to lose' by leaving this world yet still be dwarfed by the question 'Where shall I go?' or be like Socrates or a Stoic and have a strong conviction that death is unknown and therefore not to be feared, but still be mindful of this or that which remains valuable and hence indispensable. Attachments and uncertainty are the ways by which Nature helps us cling onto life; in other words, they help keep the suicide rate down.

For it is precisely in suicide that everything can be left behind and nothing, even death, is feared. The man who takes his life makes a statement. He says that nothing has value anymore and everything is struck with vanity. He also says that nothing hinders the way of that last exit he has been wanting to go to for a long time in his mind. Death, so alien and so indiscernible, is suddenly the answer to all the riddles that life presents. That the final and greatest fear cannot prevent the man who knows he wants to die.

In his essay On Suicide, Arthur Schopenhauer likens death as the final sentinel to the last door out:
It will generally be found that as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offers considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world.

What lies hidden in the mind of a man contemplating suicide is a balance or a balance sheet, if you wish. On one side lies the overall value of life (assets), and its sufferings (liabilities) on the other. The question is what remains (equity) after the liabilities have been 'subtracted' from the assets. Is life still profitable? -- give and take its absurdities and difficulties. Simpler still, "Is it worth the trouble?"

And the answer to that question determines if a man should remain within these walls or bolt out of the gate even if death -- the last sentinel -- darkly stands by it and waits.

* * *


Suicide does not only speak with its dark weighing and contemplation. It too speaks in the silence of its act. It does not say anything about that instant of death or more so about what happens after (how could it?). But it speaks through a question. It puts you into question. It asks you what have you been holding onto with your dear life. It inquires into the foundations and reasons of your living. It wants to know your own balance sheet and how things stand. It seeks to know how you stand?

And perhaps what is most frightening about it is it shows you a way. It shows you a path that you too can take (if you have the courage), it shows you how you too can easily choose to do the same (if you have the guts). That after all, it is easy. As Seneca says:
Whether the throat is strangled by a knot, or water stops the breathing, or the hard ground crushes in the skull of one falling headlong to its surface, or flame cuts off the course of respiration -- be what it may; the end is swift.
One's life is never too alien from this life. One's man's burden may never be too light for another. That "the end is swift" may perhaps be a consolation to another who is also in despair, who also asked the question "What's the point?", who also gazes into the horizon for what may never come.

And this is the problem that suicide presents. Not that it is a crime or morbid or you will go to one of the lowest circles of hell as Dante says; that perhaps misses the point. The problem of suicide is not a problem for the suicide. It is a problem for those that are left behind, the ones who have to figure out for themselves the answer to the questions the suicide asked, to those who remain alive with a life that nevertheless ends but can also be ended with one swift cut from the razor, with one freefall from the topmost floor.

The problem of suicide begins when one is left alone with the question that the silence of suicide leaves us with: What is the meaning of this life?



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