I have dealt with the subject of suicide at length in my book The Atheist's Guide to Miracles. This little essay was a precursor, a first draft if you will, of my thoughts on the matter, written at a time when I was contemplating suicide. So it is not mere idle talk.
“Life is sacred because it is God given” maintain the faithful. “Human life is the culmination of evolution” claim their secular opponents. I don’t believe in God or any other superstition that places humans at the center of creation, so for me the dogma of the sanctity of life is no more than an empty meaningless slogan. Humans have no problem shooting each other given sufficient patriotic inducement. Even those who profess never to kill anything still live in a world in which life is cheap and expendable. The Jain who covers his face lest he kill an insect becomes a tasty lunch for a tiger devoid of such refined sentiments. We hold human life to be extra precious, but we let 22,000 children die of hunger and disease every single day because saving them would inconvenience us.
My morality does not derive from any divine edict. I cannot justify my moral decisions hiding behind the fabricated word of a non-existent god. Deciding whether my life is sacred or not, whether it should be maintained at all costs or be allowed to be terminated is mine to make and no one else’s.
Consider that the life in question was never my idea in the first place. My parents copulated and I was the side effect of their moment of passion. I was certainly not consulted in the matter. It would be a stretch to feel awed by something as common and as patently random as life. My life happened and here I am. Other than my parents (long since deceased) who else could presume to decide whether I keep my life or ditch it? A judge, a rabbi, some moral philosopher I have never met? One thing is certain, society, which had nothing whatsoever to do with my birth, has the least claim to make such decisions.
Stripping away the religious and Humanist slogans, the biological process of life has but one function, to replicate itself, which I have done. However, being human and having evolved a certain amount of self-awareness, I also have the ability to evaluate my life, something I doubt (though I cannot prove it) a slug or even a dog can do. Furthermore, self-awareness allows me not only to weigh whether I like my life or not, it also lets me realize the cost to me, in effort and suffering, of maintaining it. Finally, my human brain also provides me with the option and the means to terminate my life should I so desire, in theory at least. Theory, because society and its skewed moral code decrees that it has the final say in the matter, that it has the right to supercede my decision. In some states suicide is a criminal offence! What is the punishment I wonder, jail?
Clearly suicide is not a decision anyone would take capriciously. It takes a great deal of suffering to induce a person to wish to die. On the other hand life provides ample such opportunities. Chances are that sooner or later health, relationships, finances, and safety will get compromised and what seemed like a joyride descends into pure misery. Hell is here on earth and no virtue or healthy diet can protect us from it. When life goes to pieces there is that unique human ability to conjure up a better future that keeps most of us from doing ourselves in right away. But on occasion the misery persists and hope fades and the pointlessness of the whole exercise stares us in the face. If you are like me, allergic to false consolations, you will, sooner or later, ask yourself “what’s the point?” And should you be brutally honest with yourself you will realize that not only is there no point now, but there never was one to begin with.
When that happens, what will keep you going? What are the core requirements for life to be worth the effort? Put another way, the absence of which elements would make suicide an appealing, even preferable alternative to living?
The two elements that fill these requirements are:
Purpose is an even more potent living force. Setting a goal, striving to have an experience, to master a skill, to make lots of money, wanting to help someone you love or refusing to abandon someone in need, or for that matter wanting to please your God, all these can give focus to an otherwise miserable life. As long as I have reason to live, no matter how much suffering there is in my life, the goal or purpose make the cost worthwhile.
Purpose and happiness are therefore the sustainers of life. Take away one or the other and life is diminished to mere existence, becoming meaningless. Take away both and life becomes intolerable. A life of pain and suffering without direction or reason may become a poor alternative to a quick and painless death. Why shouldn’t suicide be a reasonable, even appealing, option in such circumstances?
And yet, conventional wisdom (which is no wisdom at all) holds that taking one’s own life is the ultimate crime, regardless of the alternative.
Two arguments are usually used to justify this prejudice, the one moral the other practical.
The moral argument takes many forms but essentially it is religious. Life is a god given gift and violating it is a sin. In other words, your life is not yours at all. It is some sort of loan from the universe. When “sin” fell out of fashion the same sentiment was re-branded as “cowardice”, as if life was some sort of heraldic contest aimed at proving your valor.
Aside from the fact that none of this can be proven or even defended by minimal requirements of reason, the argument that continuing to endure pointless misery out of inertia is somehow more courageous than taking a difficult and decisive step to end it, is plain embarrassing nonsense.
The practical argument against condoning suicide is not much more persuasive. It goes like this. Circumstances of life can change but death is finite. A person considering suicide is not in his or her right mind. It is therefore the obligation of someone on the outside to prevent the person from taking their life as a kind of deferment, allowing the person to recover their wits and then make a reasoned decision.
A few assumptions here make me laugh. Just because you are considering suicide does that automatically make you insane? Will the “sane” people who sanely go about causing death and destroying the planet be the judges?
Granted, many attempted suicides are nothing but cries for help. A timely intervention may save a life and win the person’s gratitude later. But that is not to say that many suicides are not genuine premeditated acts in which a person has weighed the relative merits of suffering, mental or physical, against the release of death, and found the latter to be a more appealing alternative.
Denigrating such a decision by preventing it or later portraying it as a failure or sin is blatant prejudice based on our superstitious past. It has a long ignominious history of deliberate humiliation, both of the people who committed suicide and their families. In many cultures death by suicide precludes a proper burial, and many hide it as a stain on the family’s honor.
Behind this embarrassment is an assumption that living in this world is the greatest gift anyone could wish for, that this is the best of all possible worlds, that death is the ultimate curse to be avoided at all costs, and that anyone preferring it to life mocks this belief and delivers a personal slap in the face to everyone else who believes it.
Suicide is the ultimate repudiation of the goodness of this life, a contradiction of the unexamined belief in the goodness of this world, a rebellion against the sacred myths that people have invented and that have kept humankind in chains and nearly destroyed the planet. Suicide is a statement that life is not always worth living and that death in certain circumstances is far preferable to misery. Above all it is a statement that one’s life is one’s own, to do with as one wishes.
Now that I call courage.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)