Encores & Curtain Calls:
“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself.”
— Albert Camus
Suicide is a dangerous word (from the Latin suicidium, sui + caedere, “to kill oneself”). The mere idea of suicide sets people on edge, opens a door that leads out onto a vista far too daunting and difficult to deal with for many. Yet, it’s probably never too early to speak about “suicide awareness,” about being sensitive to the possibility that someone in our midst may be contemplating ending their own life.
Of course, few of us who consider ourselves viable human beings ever dream that we personally are in danger of considering suicide as an option; or, perhaps, we do. Throughout history, in both life and drama, whether Shakespeare or Dickens, suicide is a major player; and there is, as well, the archetype of “the noble suicide,” as in “‘A Tale of Two Cities,” in which Sydney Carton does the right thing and voluntarily offers up his life so that another, more deserving soul may live. This is perhaps not technically a textbook version of suicide, but it involved a conscious choice to die nonetheless.
Yet, there are perhaps none among us who at some level of our being don’t harbor the knowing that should the stakes ever become too high, and life become unmanageably tedious or painful, suicide may appear as a welcome option.
Wherefrom then, this radical notion that ponders the possibility of pulling oneself off of the stage of life once and forever?
The possibilities are many but the probabilities are actually precious few. A discomfort that one experiences or fears to be increasing and unending probably accounts for the majority of these fatal contemplations: a terminal illness, documented or suspected; a lost hope, beyond which the person can see no further possibility of any further hope; an assessment of one’s place in the timeline of life of being beyond any reasonable redemption; or simply the profound loss of meaning due to the perception of our living in a world which contains no spiritual resonance, either in the form of friends, family or community.
But I, as perhaps do many of my readers, harbor powerful convictions about the issue of ending one’s life, excruciating though it can sometimes be, For starters, it is, of course, like all other destruction, the most irreversible of acts; it leaves in its wake a legacy of trauma, grief and obliterating depression which virtually beggar description and it affects many more souls and radiates more powerful repercussions than the individual in question has the vision to truly realize in their self-obsessed condition.
Most troubling is the realization that, almost without exception, for all its imagined “benefits,” the notion of suicide is ultimately nihilistic — life denying — and not so much an ultimate moving toward something as an irrevocable moving away from something.
A very perceptive Zen master with whom I was acquainted by the name of Yasutani Roshi — a man well familiar with the drama of life and death, and a great facilitator in awakening many souls to their as yet unrecognized spirits — had this to say about suicide: ‘When a man is in great suffering he is convinced that he wants to die; but if his suffering could somehow be removed he would want to live.”
While the above statement seems almost absurdly obvious it also cuts to the heart of the matter; perhaps then, rather than seeking to “slay the messenger” of our pain, we might better, in many cases, seek to alleviate it.
And although the thought of self-ending can and does afflict many different generations, it perhaps most pervasively tempts the teenage and the elderly. The latter case would seem to be the most challenging of all because, in a sense, it can seem far more justified in someone who has had his fair chance at life and finally decided against his odds. After all, who dares question the autonomy of an individual who has arrived at his seventh, eighth or ninth decade with his reasoning capabilities intact and who, with seeming rationality and self-determinism, says he or she wants out?
Dee O’Connor does.
As the former director of a home care agency in Berkshire County, she came to recognize that there were high rates of depression and suicide among this population, eventually concluding that this was an important issue that needed to be aired. Her weapon of choice was drama, in a play entitled “Talking to Dolores.”
The one-act drama will have a single showing, Saturday, June 14, from 1 to 3 p.m., at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls. The synopsis provided by its promoters informs us: “The issue of elder suicide is a rarely talked about topic. There are nearly 6,000 suicides of elders (65+) in the U.S. every year. While the risk for suicide for women drops after age 60, it increases dramatically for men. White men over age 85 have the highest rate of completed suicides, six times the rest of the population. Physical illness, chronic pain, depression and fear of becoming a burden are all risk factors. Isolation is one of the most recognized factors as seniors witness spouses and friends pass, leaving them alone and isolated. We, as a society, fear talking about suicide with those at risk for fear of ‘putting an idea into their heads.’ In fact, talking about it opens the door to important discussion. The play explores the issue of elder suicide as the main character, 85-year-old Mo, struggles with aging, loneliness and end-of-life choices. At the end of the play, the actors bring the audience into the discussion about Mo’s choices and right to control his life. The production is sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the Center for Human Development.
Admission is free.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.