The human mind is a mechanism of many moving parts. The human brain has several major components and many subsystems or neural circuits, all built up over millions of years of evolution, based on the rudimentary brains of the early fishes. In the most fortunate of us, the mind can be a fine-tuned instrument, capable of analyzing the mathematics of splitting the atom or taking the vision of a sunset and reimagining it in words or music. For many of us, the brain is a stable platform that enables us to live happily, deal with setbacks and anxieties, and savor moments of pleasure and triumph. But for some of us, the mechanism goes out of whack, the parts don’t cooperate, and the result is a mental life full of misperceptions, missed cues, and chaos.
And then there is the issue of suicide. Most people would like to consider suicide as a form of mental illness, a breakdown in the brain’s systems. For them, it is something that might happen to other people, like clinical depression or schizophrenia, but nothing that might be waiting around the next turn of events to grab them, spin them on their head, and kill them. For these people, suicide is never a rational act, never what a sane or well-balanced person does.
This view is reinforced in our society and in Western Civilization with cultural shaming—that the suicidal person was not strong enough or did not consider his or her own value or responsibility to family, friends, and community—and with religious prohibition—that the act of suicide, self-murder, is contrary to God’s law and a usurpation of God’s will, which alone tells us the direction that our lives will take and the point at which they will end. But these cultural arguments and prohibitions against suicide are not universal. For example, in feudal Japan—at least among the samurai order—ritual suicide was linked to notions of obedience and personal honor. A samurai who failed his lord in any significant way could only atone by taking his own life, and this was considered proper and good.
In my view, which is based on notions of evolutionary biology, suicide is the unfortunate triumph of the prefrontal cortex—the center of thinking, organizing, projecting, and deciding, as well as expecting, hoping, and dreaming—and its supporting circuitry in the hippocampus and amygdala, which coordinates both memory and emotions, over the hindbrain or cerebellum—center of autonomic functions like breathing, heartbeat and circulation, swallowing, and digestion—and the reticular activating system in the brainstem that coordinates consciousness. Suicide is the temporary—although ultimately final—triumph of human thinking over the brute, animal functions of the body.
Suicide is the collision of the brain mechanism that creates expectations, performs planning, perceives hope, responds to dreams, and does whatever else drives the mind and the soul forward into the future, with what the mind perceives as reality, the end of hopes, plans, expectations, or whatever was driving it forward. And when that forward-thinking part of the mind gives up and dies, when it contemplates all the damage and despair that continued living might cause, what going forward without hope or dreams might mean, then the rational mind can overcome the brain mechanisms that keep the body breathing, eating, and living. The decision to act in harming the body, whether by self-starvation, asphyxiation, overmedication, cutting of blood vessels, or other ways of knowingly causing irreparable and permanent damage, is the temporary but permanent defeat of those systems that keep the organic parts functioning and moving forward blindly in time.
And again, there are cultural traditions and physical mechanisms that work to delay or even nullify this collision between the mind and the body.
On the cultural level, good parenting will teach a child that, first, we don’t always get what we want or deserve in life, and that disappointment and denial are a part of the human condition. Common sense will teach a person eventually that, while dreams and expectations are nice, they are not the basis of reality, that a person must work for what he or she wants, sometimes sacrificing dreams for mere survival, and that plans sometimes go awry. Wise teachers and friends will tell a person that hope does not live in one shape or future but is a free-floating quality, and that a person can find strength in the smallest moments of peace, visions of beauty, or gestures of good will. And many religions, especially the Zen parables, teach that expectations and assumptions are phantasms of the mind and not a reflection of reality.
On the physical level, most of the methods for ending a life—like starvation, asphyxiation, and cutting—are painful and create their own immediate need for the forward-thinking mind to stop, reconsider its decision, and actively reverse course. Other methods—like a drug overdose—take time to create their effect, and then the busy mind focused on the blankness of the future may unmake its decision to choose death and so choose medical help. Only the methods which put in train an immediate and irreversible course of events—like jumping out of a high window or pulling the trigger on a gun aimed at the head—offer no immediate pain and allow for no useful second thoughts.
Why am I going on about suicide like this? First, as an act of individual courage—and in defiance of most social taboos—I long ago, even as a child, decided that no thought would be unthinkable for me. If it can be imagined, it can be explored rationally and soberly, as a fit subject for the human mind. Second, there have been times in my own life—not often and not recently—when I have felt the pressure of lost hope, of a great, gray blankness lying ahead with nothing to counter it, no expectation to fill it, and no reason to avoid it.
And then my dear wife, my partner in forty-one years of marriage, died a year and nine months ago. When you lose someone with whom you have shared the majority of your life, aside from the immediate grief, you also have moments of simple emptiness. Everything the two of you did together—the events, memories, pleasures, and inside jokes you shared—are irretrievably gone. The daily routines you built up in living together are now meaningless. The habits you yourself curtailed and the actions you avoided because you knew she did not like them are now empty gestures. And when so much of your life has been taken away, you can sense that great, gray void in the years ahead. In many respects, you become a ghost yourself.1
There have been times since her death when I thought I would simply “go under.” That it would not matter if my hindbrain stopped the automatic functions of pulling on my lungs, beating my heart, and cuing my desire to eat, and that I would just fade away. Now, this is not a warning to my family and friends. I am not going to follow any of this up with positive or passive action, because I share those same cultural traditions and physical mechanisms designed to prevent suicide. Or not, that is, until my own brain is so far gone with dementia that I become disabled, unable to care for myself, and so mentally isolated that I cannot move forward. And that’s a vow I made long ago.
But what I am trying to say is that I can understand the impulse toward suicide. It is part of the human condition. It comes about when an animal brain grows so advanced, so complicated, and so beholden to its own vision and hope for the future that the denial of that vision and hope leads to irremediable despair with no alternative.
Suicide is not an irrational act. Its very possibility is part of what makes us human and not animal.
1. Some days, as I move around our old apartment, I have the sense that perhaps I have entered an alternate reality: that I was the one who died and now drift through my daily routines as a ghost trapped in this empty place, while she lives on, somewhere else, in a future filled with hopes, plans, and expectations.