Not all the world
can be explained
by ADAM TANOUS
Clifford Baxter, the former vice chairman of Enron, was found dead in a
suburb of Houston of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, many people
figured that it was another piece of the puzzle that fit perfectly. An
executive who had voiced concerns about the company’s financial
practices was racked with guilt and fearful of future legal troubles, and
so he killed himself.
maybe. It is, certainly, one thing—a quick and neat rational explanation
for those of us in the land of the living.
longtime resident recently committed suicide, many were quick to offer up
explanations. It was manic-depression. It was financial. It was marital.
It was too much time spent working at the Hospice.
remains: it is all idle speculation that offers no insight into the truth
of a human life. What it does offer is insight into ourselves.
rational beings. We feel the need to affirm that whenever possible. We
are, however, also irrational beings. If we weren’t, how to explain love
and compassion? Even the toughest cynics—if only on their deathbeds—come
to realize that love and compassion are about all there really is in the
world. All the rest falls away sooner or later.
Much of the
glory of life defies logic or reason. And we celebrate that. Who hasn’t
taken leaps of faith in life—actions that didn’t really make sense but
which you just knew was the right thing to do or you just had to do?
death may be the two great mysteries of our lives. We rarely if ever make
love conform to our rational thoughts. Should we expect any more of death?
think, is a much more complex phenomenon than we are willing to accept.
Certainly, it is beyond our typical one sentence assessment: "He did
it because of x, y or z." According to studies by the National
Institute for Mental Health, the risk factors for suicide frequently occur
in combination. Those factors include: family history of mental disorder
or substance abuse, family history of suicide, family violence,
incarceration, prior suicide attempts, and exposure to the suicidal
behavior of others. What’s more, studies have shown that biochemistry
likely underlies some of these factors. Diminished levels of a
neurotransmitter, serotonin, have been found in patients with depression,
impulsive disorders, a history of suicide attempts and in the postmortem
brains of suicide victims.
or adverse life events do not, in themselves, cause suicidal behavior. In
combination with other risk factors, they may, however, lead to suicide.
suicide is, technically, a rational action, but it is not a rational path
many of us could ever ferret out.
compulsion to rationalize things down to simple terms is overwhelming. We
desperately want to fit suicide into our understanding of the world,
otherwise our insecurities get the better of us. But most often, it cannot
someone is at the point of taking his own life, he is in a world unto
himself. He has receded so far from the sound and fury of everyday life
that it is as if he were suddenly living in non-Euclidean space—a place
governed by entirely different laws of physics.
If I try to
imagine myself at that desperate point of suicide, I can imagine it only
as an analogy. It goes like this: I’m at a party around a swimming pool
with people I know to be my friends and family. At once I find myself
falling backwards into the water. Looking up through the water I can see
the people I was once close to. They are talking, carrying on. I can make
out their gestures and characteristic tics through the water. But as I
sink further into the depths, their individual voices become muffled,
gestures become little more than rough movements. Pretty soon I’m in an
unrecognizable world. What does remain, however, is the pain that got me
there in the first place. And I think that is the moment of danger, one
that the people at the party have difficulty fathoming.
there is another reason suicide is such an intractable problem: there is
an element of shame, even sin in some religions, associated with it. This
is misplaced shame, I believe, but nonetheless, it is there. When we are
close to those who have committed suicide we might experience guilt,
embarrassment or any number of permutations on shame. All of these
feelings emerge in our desperate attempt to come up with a simple equation
as to why someone has chosen to leave us.
that these feelings are fundamentally rooted in our beliefs regarding the
origin of life.
of one’s particular religious beliefs, it seems self-evident that life
is a gift. It comes to us from without, whether from God or simply from
our parents. So when someone opts out in desperation, it seems a slap in
the face to one and all. It is not, of course, but that is sometimes how
we interpret it.
As I see
it, gifts, whether we are talking about toy trains or life, are given
purely for the instant in which they are given. After that instant,
complexity flourishes. We dare not, in fact, are unable to get back to
that moment and attach obligation to it. We don’t have that right,
because, ultimately, we all live different lives.
As close as
we may come to one another, we still cannot know all of the demons or
fears or chemical imbalances that even those closest to us live with. In
the end, we might, if we are lucky, know some truths about ourselves. And
we might have a sense of the general arc of the lives of a few others.
might also entertain the thought—as uncomfortable as it might be—that
some things about the lives around us, even our own lives, might be