When I was ten years old we lived in Connecticut for less than a year. I liked it: there was snow, more than I’d ever seen before, and my best friend’s father was a Congregational minister who let us play in the old white church for hours after services.
One day I trudged home though the snow and found boxes in the entryway of our house. I stood in a kind of stupor, with the bright winter whiteness behind me and boxes stacked in the still dark of my house.
That night my mom told me my fourteen-year-old brother and I were moving back to Texas. She and my father would stay to settle things up and sell the house. I was at an age where things could be explained to me very vaguely and strangely without causing me much pause. I didn’t really pry for coherent reasons.
Over the years our very sudden departure became a fact of history. It wasn’t worth investigating, it was just a certain turn of events. But in snatches and pieces I came to understand my mother had discovered, in a way I am still unsure of, that my brother had developed very precise and serious plans to kill himself. He had materials and a particular date. He was being tortured at school in the time before those things were taken remotely seriously, because he had learning difficulties and a thick Texan accent, and he could only see one way out.
So our mother created another. She saw a hole opening in his world that he was just about to fall through, and she closed it.
And this is something we would have to do again and again.
* * *
Pursuant to the suicide of Robin Williams, Matt Walsh published a blog post that contained a general meditation on depression and suicide. But it had one theme that people seized upon: the notion that suicide is essentially a freely willed decision:
“First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice.”
This point inflamed Walsh’s audience; evidently he’s been raking in the abuse now for a few days straight. Walsh has defended his point (as have others) by noting that by calling suicide a choice, we empower those considering it to imagine another option. It is right to desire that people considering suicide should know they have other options; the question posed by many of Walsh’s detractors is whether or not people dealing with immense emotional or psychological problems would actually internalize or experience that choice or not.
The debate seems to capture two competing views of suicide, though they don’t exactly have to compete, just to apply to two different species of the same behavior. One view of suicide holds that suicide is essentially a rational decision someone makes after weighing out various options, though they can sometimes be mistaken in their understanding of some of these options. In this view there are typically some cases in which suicide makes sense and is permissible; and some in which it does not and is not — but the essential question is one of rationale. Your average Platonist and Roman Stoic would have held a view more or less like this.
But then there is another view, a Christian view, wherein suicide is at all times wrong, and therefore never the conclusion of right reason (as God’s will is good and God’s will is also reasoned, being Logos and whatnot.) In articulating this view of suicide, Augustine introduces an interesting vein of community responsibility in the matter of suicide: as he argues against suicide, he submits arguments that would intervene in the reasoningof a rational person carefully weighing out their options, and those which would call others to rescue someone whose reason is dependent upon corrupted factors, or whose reason has diminished totally.
Much of Augustine’s discussion of suicide centers on whether or not Christian women should commit suicide in the event of rape, as many Roman women (most famously Lucretia) had done. He notes that when women feel compelled to take their lives rather than to live with shame, it is for very public reasons:
“For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him.”
Augustine goes on to argue that such shame was not really incurred, and that Christian women should not despair that any purity or chastity has been lost when others abuse them sexually. But he also exhorts other Christians to jettison the perspective that anytime a woman is attacked but doesn’t commit suicide that she must really not have objected to the attack. That is, Augustine makes a very early culture-of-death point: if we see that someone is suffering and we know they may very well feel compelled by their agony to consider suicide, it is in fact our duty to approach them with love and support rather than shame and suspicion.
No surprises here, in other words, from the religion that tips you off at the top of the book that you are your brother’s keeper.
Still: keeping brothers is a hard task.
* * *
Moving back to Texas did not fix everything. John got on better, and took up again with all his old friends. But he was still depressed.
And what I remember most about it was how tired it made him, and all of us. I looked around the corner into the bathroom one morning while he was supposed to be brushing his teeth, but he was just leaning against the counter, his palms spread out and planted, toothbrush clutched in one, shoulders arched up and head bowed. It looked like he could barely hold himself up.
This went on. He slept all the time. On weekends he would sometimes sleep though meals. When we could get him to come downstairs he would lay on the couch with his hands crossed over his chest, very still, like a mummy.
It made us tired, too, this constant striving, trying to get him to eat, to shower, to come sit with us. Sometimes it was easier just to let him alone, which was something we only entertained because we were so tired of trying.
Pain like this, pain that abuts futility, it’s exhausting. I have thought for sometime this must be one of the many meanings tied up in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ’s disciples can’t manage to stay awake with him while he prays. I can stay up all night for television marathons; I’m sure the majority of us could manage it at the request of Jesus, but agony is exhausting, it’s draining, it’s especially tiring when it all points toward the great black void of futility, when there’s nothing you can do.
It is tempting, as Christ suggests, to drop off into torpor and give up on matters that seem beyond one’s control. I don’t doubt people in the position of considering suicide feel this exact same way, but I do believe there’s value in recognizing that people considering suicide and people who don’t want them to can suffer that together.
And in Gethsemane Jesus’ example reminds us that suffering together matters, that it means something.
* * *
Émile Durkheim’s sociology classic Suicide is a grim book with an oddly uplifting observation swirling around in its core: a healthy degree of social integration is a bulwark against suicide. So, he says, is a healthy degree of internal moral regulation. In terms of preventative approaches, this seems to propose an Augustine-friendly middle way between those critics of Walsh who would argue suicide prevention can’t ever be left wholly up to the potential victims’ internal regulation, and those who, with Walsh, would say the only way to conceptualize suicide is as a failure of internal regulation. Empirics aside (and Durkheim has been criticized on his empirics), Durkheim would say: it’s a little of both. Augustine would agree.
Nonetheless it may be an error to imagine all suicides are alike enough to imagine in such straightforward terms. There probably are very different suicides, some impulsive, some considered, some the result of totally shot reasoning, some less so. A little more disturbing yet, it appears suicide rates can be reduced at the margin through very small interventions, such as decreasing the number of pills in packages of over-the-counter medicines often used to induce overdose. That such a minor setback seems capable of pushing some people off suicide suggests, as per nudge theory, that suicide is sometimes motivated by a very complex set of small, interdependent factors, and that disrupting one can avert the whole process.
For some, not all. To despair that no solutions are capable of eliminating suicide altogether is just to confront the void at the heart of suicide, but here again I think a good response is to commit oneself, against all temptation to exhaustion and resignation, that attending closely to the people one knows is still very worthwhile. Even that may fail, but that local attendance, coupled with the large-scale construction of a culture of life, seems a necessary response to the case-by-case nature of suicide itself. Tiring? Absolutely. Sometimes futile? Yes. But we’re called to suffer together, and sometimes there is a happy resolution.
I still have my brother, for example.
* * *
Life went on. We didn’t ever quit being with John, even when he was in the dark heart of his depression.
One summer my dad had a business trip to Amsterdam, and he took us all along. I was fourteen, John was eighteen. He was excited to get to drink beer.
Our mom planned every day to pack the most in, but after going through a slew of old churches and Rembrandt’s place one afternoon, it started to rain, which fouled up her plans of walking from one location to another. So we ducked into a museum, which turned out to be the Amsterdam Vincent van Gogh museum.
We wanted to wait for the rain to let up, so we took our time, rented the audio tours, and looked closely at all the paintings while we heard about Vincent’s life. Some people have said that his paintings have a suicidal sensibility about them, with the crows sometimes darkening the corners of blue skies and celestial bodies evidently on the verge of explosion, and with mournful cypresses spiraling up everywhere, with a profound loneliness often permeating even scenes of people together.
But I thought they were beautiful, mostly the colors. And as I listened I heard about Vincent’s little brother Theo, who loved him an encouraged him, sent him money, wrote him letters all the time. Over three quarters of the letters Vincent wrote during his lifetime were written to Theo. The last letter he ever wrote, only four days before the suicide attempt that finally ended his life, was written to Theo. Vincent wrote:
“My dear brother,
Thanks for your kind letter and for the 50-franc note it contained. I’d really like to write to you about many things, but I sense the pointlessness of it…
…But however, my dear brother, there’s this that I’ve always told you, and I tell you again once more with all the gravity that can be imparted by the efforts of thought assiduously fixed on trying to do as well as one can – I tell you again that I’ll always consider that you’re something other than a simple dealer in Corots,that through my intermediacy you have your part in the very production of certain canvases, which even in calamity retain their calm. For that’s where we are, and that’s all, or at least the main thing I can have to tell you in a moment of relative crisis. In a moment when things are very tense between dealers in paintings – by dead artists – and living artists.
Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it – very well – but you’re not one of the dealers in men; as far as I know and can judge I think you really act with humanity, but what can you do…”
When so many things seemed very pointless and futile, Theo’s love, his humanity, his suffering-with, even the minor gestures of money and kind notes – mattered. They were still worth mentioning. And since Vincent wrote that you can see in his paintings that love between brothers, I’ve since collected prints of his work, because they remind me that even in the face of futility suffering-with matters. It amounts to something.