Sunday, May 20, 2007

On being an Ex-Suicide

1983 was a good year. It saw the release of both Mark Heard’s Eye of the Storm and the Talking HeadsSpeaking in Tongues. It was the year that the O’Cayce household (House of Chez Casa) was established, with an exchange of vows at the Pilot Grove Church in Old City Park, Dallas. And it was the year that Walker Percy published a piece of non-fiction entitled Lost in the Cosmos. (Be sure to read the customer reviews.)

The first edition hardback of LitC runs to 262 pages. Its full title is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. The opening pages are a preliminary multiple-choice quiz about the Self, designed to see whether or not you need to read the rest of the book, thereby ensuring that the rest of the book will not be skipped. The rest of the book comprises a 40 page excursus on the semiotics of the Self (which the Author all but advises the Reader to skip, thereby ensuring that it will not be skipped) in the middle of just over 200 pages of a:
Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz
to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

It is an odd and oddly delightful format. Quite a bit of the book is extremely funny, although the section I am going to quote is not.

Question 11 is about:
THE DEPRESSED SELF: Whether the Self is Depressed because there is something wrong with it or whether Depression is a Normal Response to a Deranged World.

Suicidal depression is something about which Percy knew a thing or two. Both his father and his paternal grandfather had used shotguns to end their own lives. Percy’s mother died when, a couple of years after her husband’s suicide, her car went off a bridge and into a bayou, which death Percy also took took to be a suicide. Percy managed to avoid carrying on the family tradition, and the Thought Experiment at the end of Question 11 is what taught me how to be not a non-suicide, but rather a former-suicide, an ex-suicide.

It worked for me, and it was necessary despite the fact that during the 80s I was still a Fundamentalist Christian and, according to Percy, should have been one of those blessed elect who are never depressed. I was certainly surrounded by Fundamentalist Christians who never seemed depressed. And let me tell you, being given to periods of depression while surrounded by those who are nearly clinically chipper and who consider happiness a divine sign of right living, that will only make one’s hole deeper and darker.

Perhaps you are not given to bouts of depression, have never heard the black wings beating about your head. Perhaps your own depression is of a different etiology and requires a different treatment. Perhaps, like me, you have at some point gotten so deep into the self-talk, thought-driven sort of depression that you needed chemical help to find your way far enough back to even be able to retrain your thought life. All I can say is, this has worked for me most of the time. I am still an ex-suicide.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by Walker Percy
pp. 75-9 (1983 HB edition by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression.

The only cure for depression is suicide.

This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it.

The treatment of depression requires a reversal of the usual therapeutic rationale. The therapeutic rationale, which has never been questioned, is that depression is a symptom. A symptom implies an illness; there is something wrong with you. An illness should be treated.

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed, or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or “sexual partner.”

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth—and who are luckily exempt from depression—would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you’d be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

Now consider, not the usual therapeutic approach, but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option. I do not care for life in this deranged world, it is not an honorable way to live; therefore, like Cato, I take my leave. Or, as Ivan said to God in The Brothers Karamazov: If you exist, I respectfully return my ticket.

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be less painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping, or changing your sexual preference.

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick—over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the cosmic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is the more absurd state of affairs, the manifest absurdity of your predicament: lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out—or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

The consequences of entertaining suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.


UltraCrepidarian said...

Boy this stuff makes my head spin. If only contemplating suicide brought more of those who contemplate it back from the brink, instead of drawing them over it.


St. Izzy said...

This is not so much to get people to contemplate suicide as it is to get those already contemplating suicide to be a bit more creative. Imagine that you’ve done it. Then what?

It may be that this thought experiment works better with certain types of suicides than with others, better (for instance) with the worried than with the lonely. I don’t know. I just know that it helped me.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the link, by the way...
So after having read this I was struck with the thought that looking back, contemplating what would happen after I committed suicide is actually what brought me to the point where I was stuck in a rut of "I don't want to die, but life is just not worth living" so what do I do? Thankfully, somehow, someway (I'm still not quite sure what happened)I found my way out of the dark. But, yeah, thanks.