Tag Archive | pain

Suicide is Not For the Coward

So the lead singer of alternative rock band Linkin Park is in the news, because he killed himself by hanging. While I haven’t liked Linkin Park since their first album, and since I was in the 9th grade, a lot of people are coming forward to call Chester a coward for committing suicide, primarily because it means he left six children behind.

Regardless of whether you approve of his choice, it is stupid, and a horrific misrepresentation of the situation, to call someone a coward because they killed themselves.

Suffering is Relative

First, it must be pointed out that suffering is relative, and none of us has any insight into the inner turmoil within anyone else, and so none of us have the authority or information to accurately assess whether the person chose the “easy” route of suicide and was wrong to do so. We simply don’t know–because we can’t know–how a person feels, unless they tell us, and Chester did come pretty close to that, through his lyrics. These lyrics, incidentally, were those that angst-filled teens adored and identified with, because their own internal suffering was reflected back to them. But that isn’t really important.

Courage & Cowardice

I know many people who have “attempted” suicide. I’m among them, and the scars on my wrist bear it out. I was hospitalized in a behavioral ward several years ago because of it. Even after extensive research, I still didn’t cut deeply enough to hit the veins–no, seriously, the veins in your wrist are much deeper than you’re thinking–and I didn’t have any guns at the time. Today, I know a scary amount of information about suicide. Because of this, I’m well aware that the recent old Republican who “killed himself” with helium actually did commit suicide, and that there couldn’t possibly have been any foulplay. I know that, because I once owned a helium tank for exactly that purpose.

But I never did it.

Why not?

Because, as a method of suicide, it’s almost instantaneous. There is no time for second thoughts. Once you exhale and lower that bag over your head, that’s it. You pass out, and about half an hour later, you die, unconscious. I’m simply not struggling with depression badly enough to pursue that en sincera. I don’t want to die.

With very few exceptions, that is the same thing that nearly everyone who “attempts suicide” decides. There’s a reason that successful suicide rates are low. It’s not an easy thing to do. Substantial biological programming and the desire to survive outweigh most forms of depression, and, even when the depression is heavier, the person must face head-on their fear of death.

Anyone who has ever sat there with the barrel of a gun in their mouth, the blade of a razor against their wrists, a noose around their neck, or any other such situation and who still lives faced their fear of death head-on.

And they buckled.

They can make all the excuses they want. They can say that they realized that they were loved. They can say that they realized their problems would pass. They can say any-damned-thing that they want. But I know it, and they know it: the reason they live is that they are cowards. They stood on the precipice of oblivion and feared to jump, and so they backed away from the cliff. Some of these people are now calling Chester a coward because he didn’t back down from the precipice of oblivion.

Are you kidding me?

An Animal’s Instincts of Self-Preservation

There is tremendous resistance to death. Anyone who has seen wild animals chew off their own limbs (or humans saw off their own limbs) to escape from deadly situations knows that there is a powerful Will to Live inside every organism. Humans and non-humans are capable of incredible things in the interest of self-preservation, something that modern “horror” movies love exploiting for shock value. Put two people in a room together and tell them that one of them must kill the other, and then the survivor will be free, and they will almost immediately attempt to kill each other (Fun note: this is what Nietzsche described as Middle Class Morality). Saw off their own leg? No problem, once they have pursued other options.

Here’s a cold, hard fact for you: almost everyone out there–at least 99.999% of people–would cry and beg profusely as someone else lowered a noose around their neck. They would do anything, say anything, and promise anything to be spared. Disgusting amounts of tears and snot would run down their faces as they panicked, prayed to every god they could think of, and begged everyone nearby to “Please, I’ll do anything…” These are the same people calling Chester a coward because he lowered the noose around his own neck.

It would be funny, if it wasn’t true that, evidently, that’s how they see it.

There is an enormous difference between “thinking very hard about suicide” and gathering the means to do it, and actually proceeding with it. Even if the attempt is a failure, there is such an enormous gap between “thinking about suicide” and “legitimately trying to kill oneself” that most people can’t even fathom the divide.

It’s the same divide that exists between people who imagine how brave they would be if they faced down a criminal with a gun, and the people who have been there, and who gladly handed over their wallets and were terrified. Fear, after all, is what keeps people alive. It’s what kept human beings out of the darkness where there were lions, wild dogs, and hippos. That same exact fear keeps people from putting the gun in their mouth and pulling the trigger. It’s easy to say “I could have. I would have. I just changed my mind.”

In fact, it reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer says he’s going to build “levels” in his apartment, and Jerry bets him that it will never happen. In the end, Kramer renegs on the bet, and says that Jerry didn’t win, because, “I could have done it. I just didn’t want to.” Jerry vainly attempts to remind him, “That’s the bet! The bet is that you wouldn’t do it.” Kramer again reiterates, “But I could have.” Frustrated, Jerry says, “The bet wasn’t that you couldn’t. The bet was that you wouldn’t,” but it’s to no avail.

This is what people are saying when they say that they could have committed suicide, and they would have–if they hadn’t considered the loved ones they were leaving behind. The loved ones that they remembered were the panicked product of innate biological tendencies within an animal to preserve itself because it was afraid. It doesn’t matter what their reason for changing their mind is–why were they considering such things in the first place? By that point, they are already second-guessing whether they want to commit suicide. What propelled that? What caused them to stop and think about anything instead of just taking the gun, putting it in their mouths, and pulling the trigger? Why weren’t they just thinking about that?

Because their brain was desperately afraid and trying to stop to them using the last tool it had at its disposal. Compelling one to stop and think about all the loved ones being left behind is how it does that.

Anyone who ever attempted suicide–or “thought about” attempting suicide–and who still lives is a coward. They stood on the edge of the precipice, and they backed down. They can offer up any excuse they want, but, at the end of the day, what stopped them was fear. There’s no other reason why they’d have stopped to consider loved ones in the first place. That’s the brain’s last defense mechanism against self-destruction.

Consider this: the person who is about to commit suicide and stops because they think of the pain and suffering it will bring the loved ones left behind are aware, at least in some ways, that the fact that they even care about the pain and suffering they’ll leave behind will vanish the moment they’re dead. Sure, “If I commit suicide, I’ll leave behind so much pain and suffering.” Yet, also sure, “But I’ll be dead, so… there won’t be even a single solitary second of my existence where I feel the pain of having left people behind by killing myself, because I’ll have killed myself.” They didn’t think about that, though. I’d bet that thought didn’t occur to the overwhelming majority of people who attempted/thought about suicide. And why not? Because their brain was looking for ways to talk them out of it, not looking for ways to talk them into it.

Thoughts & Control

We tend to think of “our thoughts” as something we control, and our brains as something that is fully at our mercy, and that’s simply not true. Sentience is a curious thing, but your brain absolutely does things to try to convince “you” of things. The human brain is countless parts communicating with one another, not some collective unit that the “I” controls. You’re breathing right now–you are not in control of that. Your heart is beating right now. You can no more make your heart stop beating than (and this is important) you can make yourself stop thinking. You don’t control your thoughts. A thought comes when it wants to, not when “you” want it to. When some part of your brain decides to generate it, that’s when the thought occurs. You can no more create that thought than you can stop it. It’s coming. The only choice you have is how “you” deal with that thought. Whatever you are thinking about when the clock strikes noon after reading this, you won’t have any power to prevent.

The “I” takes these thoughts coming in from various parts of the brain, and assembles them into some form it can process, and then makes a decision. Maybe the “I” can control the decision that it makes, and maybe it can’t, because the decision itself is merely a product of the information sent to it by thoughts that it cannot dictate–it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the “I” doesn’t control what thoughts come, or when those thoughts come. Even extensive training by Buddhist monks cannot allow one to indefinitely take control of what thoughts come, or when those thoughts come. However focused the Buddhist monk is, and however in control of their thoughts they are, the moment they have to get back to life, they surrender control back to other parts of their brain. What will they think about while they slice potatoes in the monastery? While they till the ground?

You can do it, too. Think about an elephant, and try to keep thinking about an elephant. How long does it take you to realize that you’re not longer thinking about an elephant? Your thoughts will stray–a conga line of random thoughts perhaps not even related, until finally you’re thinking about John McCain’s brain cancer and realize, after forty seconds, “Oh, shit, I was supposed to be thinking about an elephant!” and direct your thoughts back to a pachyderm. Try to keep that elephant in your mind all day, as you go about work, as you eat lunch. You can’t do it. No one can. It requires exhaustive energy and focus to control one’s thoughts, and it simply cannot be done for any substantial period of time. You may think about the elephant several times an hour throughout the day, but through those instances, you’ll think about colleagues, food, friends, family, driving, money, and countless other things that you can’t control.

Those thoughts of loved ones that the person contemplating suicide has… They can’t control those thoughts, either. The question we have to ask is why the brain generated those thoughts. Why did some part of one’s brain conjure up an image of a son or nephew, and say, “But look how sad he’ll be…” and create vivid imaginings of the future of that child, raised without his father or mother? We can find the answer easily, by asking “What did the conjuration of those thoughts achieve?”

Well, it achieved causing the “I” to back out of committing suicide.

Why would a part of the brain want that?

Because it’s afraid of losing existence.

Conclusion

Maybe you don’t approve of what Chester did. Maybe you think it’s screwed up he left his family behind, and maybe you just think that suicide is immoral (I’ll save that for another day). Maybe you’re more like me, and you don’t really care one way or another, but you’d like it if there wasn’t so much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding suicide. Making the statement, though, that Chester was “wrong” to make the choice that he did is saying “He valued release from his pain more highly than he valued the pain he was leaving with others. His values are wrong, and the pain he left others is much greater than whatever pain he felt.”

I hope we can all immediately see what an asinine statement that is.

We don’t know what pain he felt, or what his personal suffering entailed. We can never know what it was like to live within his head and to feel what he felt. We can never know how deeply in That Place he was. Neither can we know how his children and wife/ex-wife will feel about it. We can guess, and we’d be right to some degree when we’d guess “They’ll be really sad,” but we can’t quantify that. We can’t even quantify our own suffering. Ask any person how much hardship and suffering they face and I’d bet wholeheartedly that you’ll see a graph identical to what we’d expect based on the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Everyone will rate their personal suffering and past hardships at 7.5, or thereabouts. I’d love to see a scientific survey done on this. In fact, I’m going to do one.

But if we cannot properly assess the value of his suffering and how bad it was, or the suffering of his family and how bad it’s going to be, how can we justify making the arrogant claim that he was wrong to make the choice that he did?

We Value Things That Inherently Have No Value

Okay, so first of all–nothing inherently has value. I know I’ve talked about this many times before. We all have our own little system of values, and even though we agree on them in many cases, they’re still our values, and we assign them subjectively based on our own criteria and because of our own reasons. Of course, we lose sight of this, because they are our values–we hold them dearly, because we value our values. Because we value our values, we establish all kinds of ways of certifying our value systems as the One true Value System, and we have varying degrees of difficulty dealing with it when we come across other people who share our values.

For the purpose of this conversation, we have to go further into what “value” means, because most people think about it in economic terms. The value of a McDouble, or the value of a home. These are certainly types of value, and this type of value is one that we easily measure in dollars or some other currency. That’s right–currencies are merely units of measurement that are used to measure value. Many things go into this “economic valuation,” but it can all be summarized as a matter of need and want. Needs have practically infinite value, while wants have an enormous variability in their value, but are also boolean–one either wants things or not. What I mean by this is that–if a person’s needs are not met, then no want has any value. We’re not talking “I need a few hours of sleep” here. We’re talking “I need food to not die.” We lack the capacity to even want things when our needs are not being met. The man who is on the edge of starving to death has absolutely no desire in his heart that is not a need. The largest television, home, and Lamborghini in the world would not pique his interest if they cannot be used to acquire food. When needs are met, the boolean value of want is “true,” and we begin to place economic values–as measured in dollars, which is a representation of how much we want it.

That’s not going to be enough to say what I’m trying to say, is it?

It’s going to have to be, though, because I don’t have any desire to expand it further.

Moral values are another obvious example, though we tend to not think of them as subjective. This is that same knee-jerk response, though. Like if you devote a few years of your life to purchasing a Porsche, and someone comes along and says, “What a waste of time. That little car is so not worth all that.” The response is a knee-jerk one filled with anger as we recoil that someone would dare say that our values are incorrect. But, of course, they believe their value system is the One True Value System, too. We have the same reaction, of course, when people disagree with us on matters of morality. We can handle some minor disagreement, most of the time–homosexuality, marijuana, alcohol, and things like that. When you start saying that the moral maxim that “murder is wrong” is also subjective, though, that is when you get into the area where you’re really starting to piss people off.

One of the more insidious ways that we assign values to things is to call something “important” or “unimportant,” and this is the topic I want to really get into, because someone posted this earlier on Facebook:

There’s a lot more here than transphobia; there’s quite a lot here, and it’s why it captured my attention instead of just causing me to roll my eyes.

The first is an interesting question. One would assume that the 16-year-old who identifies as a 21-year-old has a fake ID to substantiate her identification as a 21-year-old. “Should” is a rather interesting word here, as it implies that there is a moral right and a moral wrong here–what we “should” do is the right thing; what we “shouldn’t” do is the wrong thing. A better question would be should a random bystander be able to tell another human being what they can and can’t do? Should a random bystander be able to ask someone who old they are and make the determination on that someone’s behalf on whether it is “right” or “wrong” for them to drink?

How amazing that we forget that. Should a 16-year-old be allowed to drink alcohol? I really don’t understand the question. “Who is asking?” would be my initial response. The girl’s parents? I’m not sure I agree that the girl’s parents should be able to make that determination for her, and I’m not sure they have any “right” to be able to tell another person what that person can and can’t do. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience parents are some of the worst people out there at making decisions for themselves, much less for their kids. A random bystander who seeks to use the state to force everyone under the age of 21 to not be allowed to drink? The answer there is “Certainly not.” I have no more right to dictate that 16 year olds can drink than such a person has to dictate that they can’t. If this is the speaker’s kid that we’re talking about, I will acquiesce that they can make the determination about whether their 16-year-old son or daughter “should” be allowed to drink. I won’t be happy about it, because that’s tyranny over that 16-year-old, but I’ll give them that ground for the sake of the argument.

Once the kid turns 18, though, assuming the kid moves out, who then is allowed to say what the 18 year old can and can’t do? So let’s up the age a bit. Should an 18-year-old who identifies as a 21-year-old be allowed to consume alcohol? Well, there are laws on the books that tell us that someone must not sell alcohol to someone under the age of 21, but this tells us nothing of should not. If law and morality were perfectly synchronized, there would be no law. That someone “must not” do something according to the law does not suggest that they “should not” do it, because “must not” is a matter of legality and “should not” is a matter of morality.

Whenever this topic comes up, I’m reminded of people who said that the guy who shot up the theater in Colorado couldn’t have really been a psychopath, because he clearly knew the difference between right and wrong. How did they come to this assessment? I’m not kidding: they stated this because he didn’t run stop signs on the way to the theater. This is how confused a lot of people are, and it’s something that is worth mentioning. Many people do believe that “must not” and “should not” are the same thing; many people believe that legality and morality are in perfect harmony and that if something is illegal then doing it is morally wrong.

So that the state forbids this 18-year-old from buying alcohol tells us nothing about whether or not the 18-year-old should be allowed to buy alcohol, much less anything about whether the 18-year-old should be allowed to consume alcohol she might not have purchased. Perhaps a 21-year-old boyfriend purchased it. Should she be allowed to sit in the comfort of her home and drink a few wine coolers? More importantly, should Random Bystander be allowed to dictate whether or not she is allowed to?

Yet even this isn’t the full extent of the confusion shown in this little diatribe.

Because what is age but a measurement of how much time one has spent on Earth? What value does it really have?

None.

Yet enormous importance is being placed in it; a person’s age is being given ridiculously high value and is being used to determine what that person “should” be allowed to do. I will admit that there is usually high correlation between age and maturity, but the real point of concern here is maturity, and not age. The question “Should a person of x age be allowed to consume alcohol?” is shooting at the wrong target–and is an attempt to dictate what other people can and can’t do on top of that. The only question that should matter is “Should a person of reasonable maturity be allowed to consume alcohol?”

And this is rife with problems, isn’t it? First, there is the obvious issue–we have no right to tell anyone else what they are and are not allowed to do, nor do we have the right to set the criteria which determines what they are and are not allowed to do, and nor do we have the right to delineate a bunch of secondary characteristics that indicate that “this person is mature” but “this person isn’t mature.” This is precisely my point: our fixation on age, and placing this importance in it, has grossly oversimplified the issue, to the point that the question itself is stupid–yet people are asking it in sincerity because they’re so confused.

I get it. We humans like our laws and moral maxims neat and tidy. It doesn’t matter that this means that a guy one day “should not” be allowed to consume alcohol because he is only 20 years and 364 days old. It doesn’t matter that the difference between a 20 year old and a 21 year old isn’t a year but is a single day, a single hour, a single minute. A person does not magically gain maturity, wisdom, and insight when they reach the threshold of 21 years old.

This mindset probably hearkens back to the days when we actually had rites of passage, but even then we usually weren’t so insane as to pick arbitrary and meaningless numbers. In most cases, a girl became a woman not on her 12th birthday but on her first period. In most cases, a boy became a man not on his 13th birthday but on the event of his first successful hunt. When we had these clear milestones that were supposed to help a person develop maturity and wisdom, they sort of made sense, even if the methods were often misguided and archaic, such as separating the “unclean girl” from all the villagers or making the man wear a sleeve filled with bullet ants. Or get plates attached to their lips, you know. That sort of thing.

If there was some sort of lead-up to this, some actual rites of passage that a person embarked upon and completed around their 18th birthday–not including the faux rite of passage that is high school graduation or the driver’s license, because there’s no suffering, no hardship, and no difficulty in any of those. I don’t mean to be harsh, but ease and comfort are not the ways through which we learn wisdom. Hardship, suffering, pain, and difficulty are the teachers of wisdom and maturity.

Rites of passage have become meaningless formalities. A man takes his son to a field where they carefully have planted corn through the last several months, and then they hide and wait in a tree for one of the deer that has been conditioned to find food there wanders up, at which point they shoot the poor animal and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. “Hunting!” they call it, but let’s be honest about it. It’s land fishing. It’s the equivalent of calling yourself a hunter because you laid out a cracker for three days in the same spot, and then placed the cracker on a mousetrap and killed a mouse. Yay! You did it! You big man, you!

The Sweet 16s, the Mexican thing that I don’t know how to spell–these are just formalities. They are Rights of passage, not rites of passage. They are unfailable. They are not tests; they are not trials. And so they are pointless, except as arbitrary milestones to make people feel good about themselves. And we all know this to be the case in modern western society. When was the last time you saw a 14 year old Jewish dude who had recently finished his Bar Mizvah actually treated like the “man” that it supposedly made him into? Never. Because it’s just a formality. It’s just empty words.

I’m not saying that we need to return to en sincera rites of passage. On some level, I think that we probably do need to, because… as I said, suffering is the teacher of wisdom and maturity. We don’t have a generation of immature crybabies playing with Play-Doh in the floor of college classrooms “traumatized” by the election results because they are filled with wisdom and maturity, after all. But, then again, that I value wisdom and maturity are subjective values, and there I go treating the valuation of wisdom and maturity as part of the One True Value System.

Anyway, the underlying assumption to the first question is that the 21-year-old “should” be allowed to consume alcohol, but that a 16-year-old “should not” be. The question would better be asked “Whether it’s a good idea for a 16-year-old to consume alcohol.” So let’s drop the “should” thing from it, because of the previous 2200 freaking words I wrote about it, and let’s ask whether it would be a good idea.

The only conceivably correct answer would be, “It depends.”

Is it a good idea for even a 21 year old to consume alcohol? Who the hell can say? That depends on a ton of factors. Is the 21 year old from a family with a history of alcoholism and drug abuse? Is she drinking to escape her problems? Is she going to have to drive later?

Or are we asking this question more generally? “More often than not, in any and all possible circumstances such a person might be in, is it a good idea for a 21 year old to drink alcohol?”

That’s a remarkably different question from what was initially asked–“Should a 16-year-old be allowed to consume alcohol if she identifies as a 21-year-old?” Let’s remember that we didn’t reach this more complex, more nuanced question accidentally; we reached it by picking apart assumptions and fallacies that weren’t true and weren’t applicable. That someone could ask this horribly simplified version with any amount of sincerity should scare us all–so much importance being placed on the absolutely meaningless age of a person. You might as well say that only people who have a cup size of B or more or who have a penis size of 5 inches or more should be allowed to drink alcohol–a person’s cup size and penis size have just about as much to do with maturity and wisdom as age does.

After all, correlation does not equal causation. The reason people generally mature as they age is that they suffer, experience pain, and experience hardship. That’s precisely what destroys “childhood innocence,” after all–and we all know this. And obviously, the loss of childhood innocence is the gain of maturity; it’s two ways of saying the same thing. “Gaining maturity” = “loss of childhood innocence” = “result of pain, suffering, and hardship”. That’s how we end up with freaking 22 year olds in college blowing bubbles and playing with Play-Doh. Immature–childishness–lack of pain and suffering, lack of trial by fire.

This is going to have to be Part 1 of a two part series.