In mystery novels, people often refuse to accept a death as suicide because the dead person had no reason to kill himself and had not seemed to be in a despondent state of mind. In real life, a writer explains, people can kill themselves for no reason at all.
I think it is important for everyone to understand this, and the information in this article by Julie A. Fast is personal, vivid, and credible enough to help make that “third kind” of suicide more understandable for those left behind.
I have been personally affected by suicide, but in my case the family member who left us behind had leukemia and had suffered from despondency over a boss and a job he loathed for a long time. Most of us thought we understood why he did it. What we never understood was the manner in which he destroyed himself. The scene, which I won’t describe here, was incomprehensible. The only thing I ever heard of that felt like it was on the same continuum (though far more extreme) was a story my husband once told me about a Soviet sleep-deprivation experiment. Drugs were administered to deprive prisoners of sleep. If they survived, they were promised release. As the subjects progressively went mad with the anguish of their condition, they made a lot of noise. But when they finally went quiet and seemed to have accepted their situation and made some kind of peace with it, the scientists went in and found them consensually eating one another alive.
The human physical organism, when in good condition, is a fine vehicle for the human spiritual self. Yet when it is not in good condition, it becomes progressively less so – quite apart from the question of what condition the spiritual self is in. In extreme cases like the sleep deprivation experiment, we understand that what we are looking at is not fully and really human, and it disturbs us deeply.
Perhaps that effect is generated by a disconnect between the physical organism and the true orientation of the spirit, which can no longer govern or communicate with the body properly.
When I was younger and lived on a miniature farm with my parents, we had chickens which we periodically butchered for food. Many of you may have heard the saying, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” This is a real thing. I will never forget the disturbing, eerie, and wild sight of headless chickens flapping their wings and running madly about in erratic patterns on the grass, blood spouting from their neck holes.
The sight of human madness has something in common with that sight, and produces a similar, though more profoundly disturbing, effect. What if the brain, though still alive, is experiencing a disconnect from its superior officer, the mind? Would it not generate something we might term “false thoughts”? It might produce an irrational mimicry of reason, like the chicken’s body generates purposeless actions which mimic purpose.
My mother always believed that the medications he was taking affected our family member’s ability to monitor his own behavior and go on dealing with these problems. Perhaps a partial disconnect was produced. Fast’s closing sentence places final emphasis upon that very problem: psych-altering drugs often allow suicidal thoughts to come through with a vivid, persuasive presence that overcomes a person’s defenses.
As Christians, it is important to realize that the “first kind” of suicide Fast talks about, which is basically a self-honor-killing, was practiced in ancient Greco-Roman culture and probably had a lot to do with the initial, historic Christian condemnation of the practice. This kind of suicide, which followed a public failure, was a pagan virtue, but it could never be a Christian virtue. As a societal force, it was responsible for many unnecessary bereavements and the Church could not condone or celebrate it.
The “second kind,” which is suicide following a reasonable feeling of despondency, is the most difficult topic, and probably bleeds over into the third kind in actuality. In the Christian ethos, our faith in the goodness of God and our reverence for his will in giving us life is supposed to outweigh our despair over circumstances. Yet many Christians have always recognized that circumstances can sometimes create a state of mind from which judgment is impaired.
Not only that, but it is hard not to sympathize with those who want to hurry the painful process of an inevitable death, and so far as that “hurrying” simply consists of accepting death and refusing treatment, we allow it. Yet Christian teaching asks us to weigh that sympathy against other considerations when the “hurrying” crosses the line into euthanasia – admittedly a murky line at times, in these days of advanced medical technology.
For a Christian, living with pain in preference to killing oneself to get out of it is required in traditional teaching. Of course, the question of what happens after death to a person who gives in to this temptation is another question all together. We all give in to temptations at times and it seems arbitrary to believe (though medieval Christians generally seem to have done so) that the state of the soul at death becomes fixed, outweighing any other deed one may have done in life. In the scriptures, all one’s deeds are weighed at the judgment, not just the one you were performing when you died.
Still, it seems logical to assume that the initial condition of the soul after death becomes a natural continuation of the inner state of the soul immediately before death. It may well be that all the dreadful warnings we have received in our teaching refer to the fact that when the soul is separated from the body, what has always been the “inner” hidden condition, one possible to ignore, now becomes the outer reality, fully experienced. It may very well be that to enter the afterlife in a state of despair could involve a dreadful difficulty. In other words, it may not really be a way out, but rather a much more difficult way through.
However, insofar as this “third kind” of of suicide is more or less involuntary or irrational, I believe that removes any moral reason to condemn the victim. He really is a victim, and the purity of his heart may very well remain untouched by his deed, assuming he possesses purity of heart on other considerations.
The question of whether spiritual predators sometimes generate these suicidal thoughts in people is another one worth considering, though I don’t want to get into a discussion of the morality of the victim in such a case right now. As usual, common sense, an appreciation of God’s goodness, and an awareness of the nature of reality must drive our judgment. Scripture itself does not directly address this question, although the Church has spoken on the topic.
At any rate, I believe it is really unnecessary to provoke despair or anguish in the survivors by condemning the dead. The world on the other side is greater and more complex and more just – not less – than this one. Technicalities are not part of God’s law – he deals in realities in ways that human governments cannot approach.
Finally, I encourage everyone to look up the death statistics published by the government – particularly the leading causes of death in each age range. For white pubescent boys, suicide is the leading cause of death. (Blacks suffer similar rates.)
As a statistic, this reality might in one sense be encouraging because it means that white parents are so good at protecting their children that the children literally have to willfully kill themselves, in most instances, to die. But really, that is scant comfort. Insofar as people do die, the primary causes of death for every demographic ought to be irrational, random, and unpreventable. And yet our male children are more likely to kill themselves, at 11 years of age, than to die in a car accident or of cancer. Suicide remains high on the list for most of the male lifespan.
I believe we, as a society, should be seriously looking at whether life has become unfriendly, unnurturing, and unsupportive of masculine survival. Surely this is a problem to which Christians can contribute some answers – although the increasing resistance of educated society to Christian wisdom, due both to the outspokenness of extreme and unbalanced members of our community, but increasingly to an academically-driven public opinion campaign which consistently and publicly mischaracterizes us, do greatly limit our ability to do good.