Friday, August 29, 2014

Suicide, anger and fear

When I first read Henry Rollin's LA Weekly article on Robin Williams' suicide it kind of pissed me off. But then I thought of my own personal and pastoral experiences with suicide and remembered (I had forgotten because the news of Williams' death came during a summer that has been positively miserable for me) that anger is a sane and somewhat normal response to someone's suicide. Who is Henry Rollins? He is punk singer, formerly the front man for the thrash punk group Black Flag. He has recorded a number of spoken word albums, hosted a radio show, and is generally a kind of counter-cultural figure. In short he's a guy I have always respected and usually find worth listening to even though we have some quite fundamental disagreements.

Apart from anger, I think the other common response to suicide is fear, which usually remains unexpressed. Very often fear comes in the wake of someone's suicide that nobody else saw coming. This is not helped in the least by the insidious assisted suicide proposals that are becoming so common. In response, many people worry that maybe life will become so unbearable for them that they will seriously consider, or possibly commit, suicide. Let's be honest about this because we almost never are. I have been to wakes, memorial services, and funerals of people who have committed suicide where how their lives ended was not even mentioned. My cousin Mark's funeral would be one of those. This is not an elephant in the room, but a Argentinosaurus!

Such would not be the case at any service at which I preside, preach, or give a prayer. Why? Because it isn't pastoral. I believe it is important to speak to reality, to the circumstances we presumably gather together to face, one that presents a huge challenge to (what Don Giussani might call a provocation) to our Christian faith. In his article, Rollins gives some very good reasons for understanding the reality of suicide by dealing with its aftermath, which gives you many reasons to resist whatever self-destructive impulses you may experience, or not even consider it at all, to see it for what it is.



Here's the bit in Rollin's piece that caused such a backlash:
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not.

I no longer take this person seriously. I may be able to appreciate what he or she did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to. It sucks they are gone, of course, but it’s the decision they made. I have to respect it and move on
He later apologized for writing these words. It's okay to be angry about suicide for awhile, but then all of the other things Rollins mentioned earlier in his article come into play, things he wrote about with great awareness and understanding:
I know some people will disagree. And I get that you can’t understand anyone else’s torment. All that “I feel your pain” stuff is bullshit and disrespectful. You can appreciate it, listen and support someone as best you can, but you can’t understand it. Depression is so personal and so unique to each of us that when you’re in its teeth, you think you invented it. You can understand your own, but that’s it. When you are severely depressed, it can be more isolating than anything else you have ever experienced. In trying to make someone understand, you can only speak in approximation. You are truly on your own.

Everyone handles their emotional vicissitudes in their own ways. I am no doctor, but I think the brain is always looking for a sense of balance and normal function so the body can operate efficiently. Some people medicate accordingly, in an attempt to stay somewhat even. That pursuit can lead one down some dark paths. Someone who is an addict might not be an “addict” in the pejorative sense but merely trying to medicate and balance themselves
I agree with that and I also wholeheartedly agree with what Henry wrote about the vampire media- "Sites such as Huffington Post swim in their own brand of hyperbole. They call it news and culture, but often, it’s just content." I also endorse the two word title of Rollin's piece.

When I first read Rollins' article I thought to myself, "Sounds like it was written by someone who struggles himself." In his apology, Rollins wrote, "That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result." He went on to write, "I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not. I get so mad when I hear that someone has died this way. Not mad at them, mad at whatever got them there and that no one magically appeared to somehow save them." So maybe it was both fear and anger. Anyway, while it may cause him to either cringe or chuckle, may God bless Henry Rollins and all who suffer mentally, physically, existentially.



Another piece that comes at Robin Williams' death from a perspective worth considering is Damian Thompson's article "Human beings aren't built to handle 'celebrity.'"

1 comment:

  1. We need to move from anger and fear to understanding and connection when faced with the reality of suicide. Not that anger and fear are abnormal initial responses, but rather they serve to disconnect ourselves from the reality of suicide and the person who does it.

    Suicide is inherently an act that may be "rational" in the mind of the suicidal person, is in fact rooted in the erroneous belief that one's death is more valuable than one's life, that he or she is irrevocably alone and without hope of meaningful relationship, and finally springs from the developed ability to inflict self-harm (which only develops after repeated experiences of physical and/or emotional pain).

    What is so needed is understanding and connection and pain relief.

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