Saturday 12 May 2018

Suicide is wrong

There’s been a lot of suicide this week. Many students are killing themselves. A musician killed himself. A very old man killed himself.

The key to understanding suicide today is to look at the story of a 104 year old man who travelled to Switzerland to kill himself in a clinic. This man considered that he had the right to choose the means and the time of his death. Lots of other people in Britain and elsewhere have gone to the courts in order to fight for the same right. These cases are usually viewed sympathetically. Someone with a terminal illness wants to avoid suffering. Few of us would dare say “no” you must continue to suffer. But every time someone goes to a clinic to commit suicide it chips away at the taboo surrounding suicide. Why should we be surprised then, when there are a lot of suicides?

Until relatively recently in history suicide almost universally was considered to be perhaps the greatest sin. The problem is that the view that suicide is wrong depends on theology. Without theology it is very easy to argue for the right to commit suicide. David Hume’s argument is as good as any other. But then how are we to discourage suicide in an age when Christianity is in decline? It becomes rather difficult.

Suicides sometimes happen because someone genuinely is in a position that is impossible. A soldier about to be captured and facing torture and ultimately death may prefer to kill himself. Another soldier may choose death in order to save his comrades. But these sorts of situation are rare in ordinary life.

The two main categories of suicide today are where someone wishes to kill himself because of a physical illness and where someone wishes to kill himself because of a mental illness.

The crucial thing to realise however is that while the situation may appear hopeless to the suicide it isn’t.

Someone who is terminally ill need not commit suicide because there are ways of alleviating pain such that suffering can be minimised, even eliminated. If my pain becomes so great that I require a dose of morphine that ultimately will have the side effect of killing me, I am not committing suicide. All I am doing is trying to avoid pain. The care that dying people receive in hospices means that travelling abroad to die is quite unnecessary.

It is particularly unnecessary when a man is 104, not terminally ill and is merely looking forward to death. So long as he is not in any physical pain and has every material need fulfilled, then his position is better than the vast majority of people in the world. In the natural course of events his wish to die will be fulfilled, probably quite quickly.

The greatest pity is when someone suffering from depression believes that his situation is hopeless and that the only alternative is to die. The reason for this is that the person’s situation is not hopeless.

Someone may be devastated by an event, failing an exam, losing a loved one, but each of us who has ever experienced suffering for these reasons knows that the experience of suffering changes, passes and that new forms of happiness are possible even after great loss. From the perspective of twenty years later, failing an exam can seem trivial. The key is to wait and to be patient. This too shall pass.

Depression may occur because of a tangible reason or may strike from nowhere. The situation can seem hopeless to the depressed person. But it isn’t hopeless. It isn’t like the soldier who has no way out. Depression for the most part can be cured or at least eased. People who have been depressed frequently go on to live lives where there is the usual mixture of happiness and sadness, disappointment and fulfilment. Once more the key is to wait and to be patient.

One of the reasons why in the past depressed people were able to wait and be patient is that they were taught that suicide is wrong. The problem today is because no-one is willing to say that suicide is wrong, there is precious little to deter the person who is contemplating suicide. If a man of 104 is tired of life and kills himself and everyone looks at the story sympathetically, is it any surprise when a musician who is tired of life also decides to kill himself. He will get glowing tributes afterwards and no-one will say that what he did was wrong. Is it any surprise then when we get the next suicide?  

The immorality of suicide consists not merely in its rejection of the gift of life, but more importantly in the selfishness of contributing to the climate which sees suicide as something normal and life as not really being the most precious of gifts. Better by far not to encourage suicide with your sympathy.