Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Stay": An Inoculation Against Suicide

I inoculated my kids against the standard preventable diseases. I exposed them to lots of enriching experiences and discussions to engage them in life. I never knew I needed to inoculate Noah against the temptation to suicide.

I just discovered a vaccine that I wish he and other young people had absorbed as part of their education: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013). She writes that we owe it to our community and to our future selves to hold on through difficult times—that staying alive is a courageous, heroic act:
None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings—the endless possibilities that living offers—and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. . . The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay. (p. 234)

Hecht’s message is precious with or without the impressive history of Western philosophy and religious thought that supports it in the book. She contends that modern secular thought made a “wrong turn” in insisting on, even glorifying, the individual right to suicide in the face of despair; Camus’ views, for example, have been misunderstood. Hecht lost two close poet friends to suicide and developed her thesis to provide “conceptual barriers to suicide” akin to protective fences or walls on bridges or college campuses. I believe these concepts need to be introduced and considered when young people’s beliefs are forming to counteract cultural messages that suicide is a right and a romantic, viable exit option for artists and other sensitive souls.

For most of his adolescence, Noah and I had long talks about ideas; they mattered to him, just as Hecht insists they matter to people's views of suicide. It chagrins me to no end that Noah and I were too estranged in the year or two before his death at age 21 to talk about anything important. What if I or one of his teachers or fellow students had floated Hecht’s argument at a moment when he was clear enough to hear it? There’s a chance that the idea of his future self might have made an impression and been stored away as a hedge against a desperate act. 

I so miss not having the chance to know and love my child’s future self.

You can read Hecht’s basic argument in short form here and here or listen to a radio interview with her here. In this new year, please pass on the wisdom of Stay to everyone you know, especially struggling young people and their teachers. Maybe it will make a difference for one person and their community and the possibility of happiness in 2016. Peace to all.

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