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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

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For the week of Feb 5 - 12, 2002


Not all the world
can be explained

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

When J. 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.

Well, maybe. It is, certainly, one thing—a quick and neat rational explanation for those of us in the land of the living.

When a 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.

The fact 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.

We are 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?

Love and 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?

Suicide, I 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.

Stressful or adverse life events do not, in themselves, cause suicidal behavior. In combination with other risk factors, they may, however, lead to suicide.

So, perhaps suicide is, technically, a rational action, but it is not a rational path many of us could ever ferret out.

Still the 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 be done.

When 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.

Perhaps 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.

I suspect that these feelings are fundamentally rooted in our beliefs regarding the origin of life.

Regardless 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.

But we 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 unknowable.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.