Suicidal Monks & Life
Coaches Get No Respect
There used to be a constant applied to death and suicides in the U.S.: No one wanted to hear about them. That now may be changing, and it’s not because people are no longer dying or offing themselves. More likely, the Big Sleep itself has now joined the conversation.
Take the increasingly popular Death Cafes, for instance. Or the Order of the Good Death, led by a mortician. Some may have finally found the guts to at least talk about it. But what when professional optimists choose to do it? And what should we write before we go?
Paraphrasing a quote attributed to French playwright, and brilliant madman, Antonin Artaud, suicide is not a solution but a hypothesis. Great, but tell that to someone literally on the edge, and see how it works out. Fortunately, it’s not something taught to suicide helpline volunteers.
On the other hand, the whole death-as-a-subject avoidance has turned modern societies into pools of denial. It’s either changing the subject or outsourcing an answer. That’s when religion, as it happens, picks up the tab, in exchange for no small contribution. Thus, it’s not death but faith that’s a booming business.
It may be easier to delegate our fears to the embrace of a ready-made storyline than having to create our own plot about them. But there’s a price to pay for that. We freak out to the sight of a corpse because we’re so unfamiliar with our own mortality, at least, for most of our lives.
On top of that, sits the taboo of suicide, which is often regarded as an abomination, when it’s at the most, an act of profound individualism, taken when it seems the only option left. Despite the brutality of the act itself, the worst is usually inflicted on those closer to the one who’s gone.
While they’re left to agonize over somebody’s moment for the rest of their lives, studies have shown that suicide also impacts their own descendants. It is a curse to those left behind, a fact hardly ever considered when someone inches closer to their own murder. In the end, though, there’s no particular glory on dying or being born.
It’s what happens in between that counts. Then again, the zeal with which many insist that everyone must be happy, no matter what, can drive frail souls to the brink. Such a sunny outlook has its own dark (more)
* In Their Own Rites
* Round Robin
side, as when the thought of being alive justifies anything, even killing others, for instance.
THE COLLAPSE OF OPTIMISM
Radio followers of Lynne Rosen and John Littig‘s The Pursuit of Happiness, are still picking up the pieces of their puzzling demise two weeks ago, in an apparent suicide pact. The motivational speaker and psychotherapist couple hosted a popular self-help program, and by most accounts, were the picture of a successful marriage and professional life.
What went wrong? they wonder. Although speculation over their motivations is cheap, the contrast between their public image and material quality of their lives is still striking when compared to their final act. Or not. Those so jaded that even the concept of ‘life coaching’ sounds slightly phony may be the least surprised with such tragic outcome.
However shocking, it’s certainly not a rare event. Many still can’t get over the 2014 suicide of Robin Williams, an extraordinary comedian, or Bob Bergeron, two years earlier, a therapist portrayed by a NYTimes article as ‘relentless cheery.’ Author of several books on life challenges, highly regarded in the gay community as a positive voice, few could possibly expect that he too had demons to ward off.
But he did, and so do most of us. And no one should dare saying that he’s failed to conquer his, or that his final decision undermines the good that he did and represented in life. Cynics may see it as they may, but it’s simply arrogant to reduce a lifetime to an uncompromising moment of doubt, even if it winds up costing it.
MONKS AND NUNS DO IT
There’s really no ethical basis to judge who’s in a line of business that’s supposedly more conducive to death by their own hand than others, no matter how many artists and musicians and poets and philosophers decided to do it, in relation to bakers, tailors, hedge fund managers or frighten teenagers.
There’s also no point in attributing all suicides to mental illness, or physical debilitation, or severe emotional trauma. There may be physical causes, and there may be environmental causes. It may be a disastrous attempt to call attention to one’s pain, or simply the availability of a gun, which may crystallize a passing thought into a tombstone.
Some hard to determine percentage may surely be caused by a simple irrevocable decision, regardless if it’s the right one or not. That may as well be political, and one of the most twisted mixes of politics, personal faith, and violence may be the periodic self-immolation of Tibetan monks and nuns, allegedly to protest China’s authoritarian rule.
One would think that being a monk is some sort of privilege, as in being privy to a higher understanding of the universe, the depths of the soul, and all that. It may be. But it’s also about being human and making choices when there may be none. Absurd? Maybe. But who’s to say that there isn’t a sense of empowerment that comes with it?
Then there’s the ignominy of the suicide-bomber, but we dutifully decline to add our two-bloodied cents to that form of cruel political manipulation. Or the culturally differentiated Japanese approach to suicide, which may or may not be as rampant as some seem to believe. Perhaps Buddhism has something to do with such an enlightened attitude.
DEATH CLUBS & THE ORDER
But even the Japanese culture is shy when it comes to openly discuss death. That’s what the spread of gatherings of people interested in doing just that may be helping to change. It’s called the Death Cafe and unlike your worst fears, many emerge from such gatherings a bit better prepared to face the inevitable.
It may be time to talk about the only scientifically proven reality common to every single being: we eventually expire. The notion can be so foreign that even the mentioning of it has the power to vacate a crowded room in just a few seconds. Unless, of course, we’re at the funeral home, in which case, it’s already too late to at least one body present.
While grief is always an issue when the subject is mortality, the cafes are not focused on it. And neither is the Order of the Good Death, a group founded by mortician Caitlin Doughty to promote a more positive input about death and dying. Despite its funeral industry overtones, artists, writers, and academics are integral part of the order.
The cafes and the order have already spurted a growing trend towards restoring long-forgotten rituals and simplicity associated with dying. Continuum, a new kind of funeral home slash performance space, aims at providing the departed’s family and friends a more individualized experience and a healthy discussion about death, according to founder Sarah Wambold.
A CLASS FOR FINAL NOTES
A possible antidote for the fear of dying is, of course, hoping to become immortal. But that has its own quagmires, as the political philosopher Todd May, who has published books and taught a whole seminar about death, notes. Death ‘lends our lives urgency and beauty. On the other hand, it threatens the very meaningfulness it delivers.’
This sense of order, of prioritizing our living experiences, may be also what’s behind the suicide note, which may be an attempt to make sense out of an overwhelming wave of chaos and destruction. If you think it’s ironic that someone, obviously quite busy, would make sure to leave an ‘explanation,’ you, well, most likely haven’t been there.
Perhaps that’s a predictable outcome of taking Simon Critchley’s ‘Suicide Note Writing Workshop,’ a way to vicariously be part of someone’s ultimate act, as reported by its own protagonist. The class was part of a cycle of lectures called the School of Death, and it dealt with this ‘moving, strange, harrowing and peculiar literature.’
Ironically, just recently, an English teacher at an expensive Manhattan Prep School, was chastised by parents and tabloids alike for having her students writing suicide notes as an assignment. Apparently, not even the well heeled is comfortable with the idea of having their kids practicing to something they expect never to happen. That kind of assignment, as it turns out, is not so rare.
Critchely’s class, however, has been a hit. By studying notes left by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Hitler, and Kurt Cobain, students got a glimpse of their strange rhythms and melancholy beauty.
They also went over a few epitaphs, which along with obituaries, are sort of companion pieces to suicidal notes. Each is a different and final go at wrapping a full living experience in a few, tight and bone-chilling words, this time mostly done by those who’re left.
Which reminds us of an anonymous epitaph, which has outlived the person to whom it was supposed to memorialize. May its stern tone give a second thought to many a would be self-killer.
Remember friend as you walk by/as you are now so once was I./As I am now you will surely be./Prepare thyself to follow me.