Thursday, November 11, 2010

Suicide, too, is a Cultural Construct

I've been really moved by the It Gets Better project lately. I think partially that's because I grew up feeling like something was inherently different about me, and was on the business end of more than my share of bullying, ridicule, and general nastiness. I went through long stretches without any friends, and was absolutely certain that I was completely unlovable.

For a kid or a teenager, this fucking sucks and beyond. You don't have the life experience to know that things CAN get better, because all you've ever know as a human being is feeling like a freak. What I'm trying to say is, I get why young people attempt and commit suicide, and the seemingly simple (to us old people) message, "it gets better," is an extremely powerful and novel one to a middle-schooler.

I was performing the other week and one of the other writers (someone I like and respect) mentioned the It Gets Better project, and followed it with, "I don't care how much bullying you put up with, anyone who takes their own life is a fucking coward." A few Facebook responses to this article, which I posted a few weeks ago (or a month or two, keeping track of linear time is sooo 20th century) seemed to echo the same sentiment. I didn't post any sort of comment along with the video either condoning or condemning the man's choice, just the link itself. Still, a few people seemed to become lip-quiveringly enraged over the very idea that someone would elect to take his own life. A few of the them did mention they had had friends or family members who had killed themselves, so of course that would make the concept of suicide way more personally charged. It's hard to divorce that type of emotion enough to discuss the issue in the abstract. I get that part.

What I don't really get is that the standard cultural American attitude regarding suicide is that it is inherently a selfish and/or cowardly act. I guess I could see situations where you could apply one of these adjectives, but definitely not always, or even most of the time. Of course, Americans seem to be more eager than most to decide something is "inherently," "always," or "absolutely" one way or another.

It's not just the dismissive blanket labeling of an extremely personal and profound act. It's the assumption of the people casting judgment that they understand a suicide's situation and inner landscape well enough to label their motivations. I don't think anyone comes to the decision of suicide lightly, no matter how old they are, no matter if they're a coward or not, or if they're selfish or not. It's not like, "Oh gee, I wonder if I should go to school today and maybe have Biff throw my books on the ground and give me a swirlee. Naw, I'll just shut the windows and turn on the oven and die." Suicide is literally a last resort for people in so much pain they can see no other way out of it.

Maybe you are lucky enough to have gone through a similar period of pain and have come out on the other end, and so you now have the perspective to see that yes, it does get better. Well, I'm willing to bet that you had family or friends who helped you through your darkest times. Or even if you didn't, not everyone's situation and timeline is the same. Some people get stuck in the darkness. That doesn't mean they are automatically weaker, smaller, or stupider than you.

I remember nights when I was younger when everything, everything was dark, cold, and screaming. The very fact of my existence, and of existence in general, was horrifying, and I don't mean because some kid pushed me in a locker or a boyfriend broke up with me. Breathing, moving, talking, walking around, the sky above my ceiling, the motion of the planets, was literally hopeless. One of the main reasons I didn't kill myself was because death terrified me even more than life.

Come on. Killing yourself is cowardly? Death is fucking consternating for most people. If you are in a situation in which you believe there is no hope (and I said "you believe" not "there is objectively and definitely"), then within that reality, taking your own life is braver than almost anything I can think of.

Does this come from something Protestant? I tend to blame everything I don't like about America on the Protestants, so maybe that's an unfair assumption. But something about this vitriol screams "USA! USA! USA!"

In other cultures (famously, of course, Japan) suicide has traditionally been regarded as one of the most noble and selfless acts a person can commit. It is, after all, the auto-destruction of the self as we know it. Maybe that's what freaks the hyper-egocentric Americans out so much.

Also, there's this idea in this country that the length of any given life is the most important part of that life. That anything at all that "cuts life short" is the greatest evil in the world. I had a professor in college who made the observation that Americans seem to be the only people in history who believe that if you do everything right, it's possible not to die.

I am in no way saying that suicides by bullied teens are noble. I'm just saying suicide is not necessarily cowardly OR selfish. Oftentimes suicides believe that their lives are a hindrance or curse on people they love. It may seem like warped logic to those of us on the outside of it, but to them in that time, the selfish thing would be to go on living.

Plus, who hasn't entertained the idea at one time or another? When people lash out against big-S Suicide in the abstract and start making generalizations about everyone who's ever done it, I often detect a hint of desperate fear in their speech. Anyone, after all, always has the choice to end his or her own life. For the determined, it would be relatively easy.

Holy fuck, that's terrifying, isn't it? We all know the Sword of Damocles is up there, lingering, but a simple hop on our parts would lance our cerebral cortexes with the same trueness as a snip to the blade's suspending string. Maybe that's why they're always trying to get us to keep our feet planted firmly on the ground.


[dave] said...

good thoughts jade.

i'm a bit aghast that folks would feel ballsy enough to say shit like that "I don't care how much bullying you put up with, anyone who takes their own life is a fucking coward" in person ... maybe in the comforting anonymity of the interwebs ... i mean you never know who around you has been affected by suicide.

the sentiment re: america rings pretty true for me.

Jade Sylvan said...

Oddly, I've found being on stage gives people the same type of cohones re: what they say as the anonymity of the internet.

[dave] said...

WAIT that shit was said on a stage? into a microphone?

that makes me want to throw up in my mouth

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