Suicide—the taking of one’s own life or allowing oneself to die with or without a fight—is not always or by itself an irrational act. As a novelist, I can think of many situations where a calm and rational person might be willing to face certain death in order that others may live. This is the wounded soldier, found in many stories, who stays behind to hold off the approaching enemy while the rest of the company escapes. Or the Sydney Carton1 who offers himself in the place of another, better man.
But rational suicide might not always involve self-sacrifice. A person faced with an inevitable and painful death, such as burning alive or succumbing to a ravaging disease, might choose to accept a quicker, less painful way out of life. This is not an irrational act, although it might be a desperate and despairing one.
Our species could not be fully self-aware, or even fully human, if we could not rationally contemplate our own personal destruction, the end of a time that we must know is finite. Indeed, I have always favored the definition Robert A. Heinlein gives for an adult: someone who knows he is going to die. Once a person has come to terms with the inevitable, he or she knows what is possible, understands the value of his or her own life, and can decide how best to spend it. That is, how to choose between the potential achievements of the remaining years against the goal that is on offer now. Someone who does not know those years are already numbered, no matter how many they may be, and death is inevitable, whenever it comes—such a person remains a child with the fancies and illusions of a child.
As an adult, we want our lives to mean something: to serve some purpose greater than ourselves. Even if that purpose is one we have chosen for ourselves and serves some internal ideal—such as painting a beautiful picture or writing a thoughtful novel, something only we ourselves can judge and appreciate—it is still a greater purpose than satisfying our personal wants or gratifying our senses. In the same way, we want our deaths, the last act of our lives, to mean something as well, to serve a purpose greater than demonstrating our own foolish choices and carelessness.
As human beings, we strive for purpose in a world, and in an ecological niche, that does not automatically provide sense and meaning to our lives. Yes, we have the commandment, written into our genes as in our Bible,2 to go forth, be fruitful, and multiply. But this is not an individual mandate. Being one link in a chain that stretches backward to the first one-celled microbes and forward to whatever comes next in the evolution of life on this planet is simply a biological necessity. And indeed, to fail to reproduce is an act of cellular suicide all in itself. But merely having children—for most people, males especially—does not satisfy the rational part of the brain that celebrates the individual, the ego, the “I” that is not merely a collection of cells but an autonomous, free-willed being.
Nothing in life can supply the ego’s purpose from the outside. Well, except perhaps for a parent or kindly grandparent who bends the imagination of a young child toward a certain pursuit, amenable to the child’s talents, experience, capabilities. Such a lucky child may grow up with an ingrained sense of purpose that he or she might think came out of the air, naturally, as a directive from some higher power.
But for the rest of us, we flounder. We must decide for ourselves what our destiny and our fate will be. And many of us never rise to the awareness that this is a natural choice at all, that we must put thought and energy into deciding what path our lives will take and what kind of person we will become. For those who do not ever recognize the choice and its importance, life is a matter of drifting on the currents, like a not very interesting character in a not very well written novel. For such people, suicide might come easily.
The wish to continue in life and fulfill that purpose is also a matter of projection, expectations, and the weighing of chances. For those of us who make the arts our personal goal and the focus of our extra-biological attentions—that is, aside from the daily routine of eating, sleeping, bathing, dressing, and other self-maintenance activities—the realization that our own talent may not meet expectations, that a future of study and practice won’t improve our odds of success, and that we will end in obscurity can be a crushing blow. “Ego death,” as one of my wargaming friends describes a total, ignominious defeat.
Yes, we are assured that the effort is the goal, that simply doing the work is its own reward, and that fame and fortune come to but a few. If an artist or a writer can be satisfied with his or her own work, no matter what the critics and the buying public think, then these palliatives will satisfy the demands of ego and purpose. But what happens when the creator looks at the work, the total oeuvre, and sees only trash?3 Then he or she has failed not only the expectations of the public, friends, and family, but also of oneself. And then nothing is left. Ego death for real.
Given this potential for critical self-doubt, perhaps it is better to make the personal goal simply one of offering service to others, in the manner of Mother Theresa. We can make personal meaning out of helping wherever there is a need and we can supply a willing pair of hands or a problem-solving intellect. In these cases, the overall quality of the work and the personal responsibility for the outcome are less important than the will and vigor with which the effort is made. The outcome lies in other hands, the responsibility with the fates or the gods.
And, as to ego death, people go through calamities all the time. Into each life comes the loss of a loved one, alienation from family and friends, disappearance of fortune or reputation, devastation by storm or fire with the loss of a home or property into which the person has put so much of his or her time and effort. The things we value turn to ashes and dust. Our hope for the future, of living out our lives in a time bubble where these perishable things remain forever unchanging, is dashed. And yet into the void created by such losses there sometimes seems to creep—at least for those of us who are lucky in attitude, or have learned from early training, or persist by some cellular vitality—the restless turning to other loves, other goals, other vessels for our sense of self, security, attachment to life, and hope for the future.
The lucky people can bend with misfortune, shift gears, find new roads, and move forward. In fact, they may never look far enough down the road on which they are traveling to ask what happens when it ends. They know that all roads eventually end, but that most roads also branch out, that goals are malleable, and that people—every person, regardless of past history—are capable of remaking themselves into something new. There is always something new that a human being can try. All it takes is bravery and patience.
Life is persistence. And it can be a long time until the candle finally burns out. That is also something every adult knows.4
1. From Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
2. Genesis 1:28 in the King James Version.
3. Public radio personality Ira Glass has an especially apt thought in this regard, animated by the following quote.
4. After reading all this, Odin asked, “Does he have any idea what’s coming?” And the Three Norns replied in unison, “Nope.”