Suicide: Existential philosophy’s inadequate response
THE ‘EMPOWERMENT’ OF SUICIDE: EXISTENTIAL PHILOSOPHY’S INADEQUATE RESPONSE
An exploration of philosophy’s fundamental unanswered question
For me, the greatest opening paragraph of a book belongs to Albert Camus when he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus. I defer to him now as I see no point in trying to better him:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy […] And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.” (Camus, 1942:11)
Given that in 2013 there were 4,727 people in the United Kingdom alone who ended their life with an act of suicide (Department of Health, 2015:5), I am not sure that philosophy has adequately answered this question, but would certainly not lead a call for all philosophers to fall on their pens just yet. What I would like to do instead is consider where philosophy might have been going wrong, and in particular, existential philosophy.
Camus’ opening statement might be a clue, wherein he states that philosophy has been attempting to judge “whether life is or is not worth living” (Camus, 2000:11). Too often philosophy has attempted to understand suicide from the point of view which begins with the reasons why one attempts it – for example, the loss of a lover, the overpowering emotions that were felt to be too hard to bear, the dire financial difficulties and the loss of face in society. The reasons are endless.
Philosophy has then gone on to argue the morals and logic that have come to bear upon these reasons, for example Montaigne’s conclusion that “Unendurable pain and fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable motives for suicide.” (Montaigne, 1958:262). Theology has of course played a major part, with ethics taking over what theology may have begun. These are all attempts at a facet of suicide without a doubt, but I am not sure they get to the heart of the issue as they do not focus on the lived experience of attempting suicide.
There is an argument that arises here though in that surely the reasons for committing suicide cannot be separated from the act itself? This is of course a valid argument, but it might also be that the reasons for suicide are only one part of the suicidal equation. Focusing solely on the reasons ignores a whole swathe of further information that could be of use to mental health professionals.
The Felt Sense of Empowerment
What allows a person to commit that final act? I am not talking here about the events that lead up to someone deciding to take their own life, their various sufferings that make death seem more appealing than living. What I am talking about is that final moment…that point where someone is stepping into the noose, pulling the trigger, tracing the blade across their wrist, or swallowing that tablet too many – that moment where they are executing the decision that they have previously already made some time ago.
In his book, On Killing, Grossman highlights how intrinsically difficult it is for humans to kill another human. He quotes General S. L. A. Marshall, the World War II U. S. Army Brigadier, who wrote extensively on the matter and concluded that “the average and healthy individual… has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility” (Grossman, 1995:p29). If it is so hard to kill another human being then surely it must be equally as hard, or perhaps even more difficult, to kill oneself? What allows an individual to cross that threshold?
In my work as a psychotherapist in private practice it has not been uncommon to encounter those who have thought about taking their own lives. What has struck me about those who have actually attempted suicide with the full intention of ending their own lives as compared to those who wish for suicide as a means to end their suffering is the empowerment they describe when they are executing that final definitive act. I do wonder if it is this felt sense of empowerment that drives the individual to complete the act in that final moment – a very devilish trick of human emotion if ever there was one.
The Empowered and the Disempowered: contrasts and contradictions
Take for example Sarah*, a client who has repeatedly suffered from depression at various times in her life, who described it as being:
“[For] that one moment I felt powerful. It felt like all of those things I had no control over suddenly didn’t matter because the one thing I did have control over was this. This was something I could do. That I could do it and felt like I couldn’t do all the other things I wanted to do was the most empowering feeling, like a block that was suddenly freed. As I prepared the rope, paid attention to where the chair was positioned, and checked the landing distance I felt like I had purpose and clarity. It was the first time in a long time I felt I had a really clear mind.”
Then there was Roger*, a young man who struggled to come to terms with his anger towards his mother:
“I knew that it would hurt her. I was so angry it was my way of punishing her, of saying to her ‘look at what you have made me do!’ Every tablet that I swallowed felt like an ‘up yours’. It felt good.”
In these two instances they describe the empowering feeling of taking their own life. It is that feeling that is spurring them on and motivating them to complete the final act.
Compare these examples to Erica*, who had got herself into financial difficulties and was staying with her parents to help get her back out of debt:
“My parents have a gun in the house. I figure I would use it to shoot myself. Either that or somehow jump from a big building. I think I could force myself to do something like either of these. I am not sure I could force myself to do it with any of the other ways.”
It really didn’t sound like Erica wished to commit the act of killing herself and so she had to think of how to do it in a way that forced it upon herself instead. It seems hard not to notice that the difference between these two different sets of people appears to be that one group finds the act of taking their own lives as empowering and the other does not.
These examples are from my own practice but other examples can often be seen within the literature and in particular from first person narratives. There are once again those who feed off the feelings that are present at death to spur them on, such as Felicity Stennett who vividly describes one suicide attempt where “I had never in my life felt so calm and peaceful […] I began to crave this intense calming feeling.” Or on another occasion “I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker and enjoying every nanosecond of intense calm; this was it.” (Stennett, 2013:147.
This can be compared to the others who do not share this experience such as Helen Harrop, who describes what is going on for her whilst holding a knife to her wrist “I am not trying to kill myself but a part of me wants to know how easy it will be to slit open that vein if I do decide to die. I’m disheartened to discover that it will be much harder than I have imagined.” (Harrop, 2013:115)
But it is Ruth Kilner who I think captures the essence of the paradox of the situation by stating:
“I have found that seeing myself bleed and being aware of the power I hold with the blade – that I could end this suffering more or less instantly – has led me to the realisation of being alive, and has taken me out of my thoughts and into the moment; suddenly fearing for my life and perceiving it as somehow precious.” (Kilner, 2013:103)
She shows how being scared of that empowering feeling is actually what has kept her alive. She has understood her feelings and recognised the danger she faces. It is the subtle difference between letting her feelings rule and decide her actions for herself, instead of just using her feelings to inform her decisions.
Is it hardly surprising though that people would use the act of suicide in this way? As Sarah described above, suicide can provide direction, purpose and clarity in the face of confusion, uncertainty and overwhelming emotions. It is an opportunity to put aside all that has previously gone before and just feel powerful in the knowledge that they do have the strength to do something, they do have the dereliction to make a determined choice, and they do have hope. There is an exit, an escape door. They just need to walk through. That can seem quite empowering, perhaps even heroic, to someone who feels decidedly unempowered. I think that William James captures this potential aspect in all of us well when he says:
“Mankind’s common instinct for reality […] has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism […] no matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever.” (Alvarez, 2002:219)
Schopenauer and the paradox of suicide
Arthur Schopenhauer is one of the few philosophers who has tried to understand suicide not only in terms of motive, but also in terms of what allows someone to execute their own death. He could be seen to confirm the points of view above of Grossman, of my client Sarah and of Helen Harrop on how hard it is to kill when he notes that:
“It will generally be found that where the terrors of life come to outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance: they stand like a sentinel at the exit gate.” (Schopenhauer, 1850:54)
He highlights well the paradox as outlined by Ruther Kilner earlier when he states:
“Perhaps there is no one alive who would not already have put an end to his life if this end were something purely negative, a sudden cessation of existence. But there is something positive in it as well: the destruction of the body. This is a deterrent, because the body is the phenomenal form of the will to live.” (ibid: 54)
He also addresses how it is somewhat of an emotional trick that allows someone to kill themselves when he notes:
“For when we are in great or chronic physical pain we are indifferent to all other troubles: all we are concerned about is recovering. In the same way, great spiritual suffering makes us insensible to physical pain: we despise it: indeed, if it should come to outweigh the other it becomes a beneficial distraction, an interval in spiritual suffering. It is this which makes suicide easier: for the physical pain associated with it loses all significance in the eyes of one afflicted by excessive spiritual suffering.” (ibid: 55)
However, I think Schopenhauer missed an opportunity here. Given his focus on how suffering is created through the continuous frustration of our will in the following description, “…the will is the string, its frustration or impediment the vibration of the string, knowledge the sounding-board, and pain the sound” (ibid: 10), he might have been able to refer to suicide as being akin to a releasing of our will.
It can be argued that suicidal people are attempting to bolster their diminished self esteem by exercising their wills in a way that previously always felt thwarted – as if it is the only option left to assert themselves because all the other directions seem closed to them. Hence suicide is the way in which they can allow their wills to be fully expressed rather than continually suppressed as they tried to navigate the various obstacles that presented themselves in the world or to put it simply, it feels empowering.
Perhaps because he was not looking for the reasons ‘why’ so much and approaching the topic from the basis of a statistical analysis, the effect on the will and empowerment was something also observed by the sociologist Émile Durkheim when he noted how the rates of suicide were lower for those afflicted by poverty than those who were more affluent:
“Powerlessness, by forcing us to moderation, accustoms us to it; apart from which, if mediocrity is all around us, nothing excites envy. Wealth, on the contrary, by the powers that it confers, gives us the illusion that we depend only on ourselves. By lessening the resistance that things put in our way, it persuades us that they can be constantly overcome. And, the less one feels limited, the more intolerable any limitation becomes.” (Durkheim, 1897:278)
I do wonder if this empowering feeling is a crucial difference between those who go through to actually commit suicide as compared to those who think about it as a means to end their suffering but then ultimately do not make the attempt. To get lost in feeling empowered rather than recognising the illusionary nature of such a fleeting moment seems like a very seductive yet pointless way to die. It is easy to see how people can get caught up in such a contradiction.
Helping clients to regain control safely
Suicide is not just about life or death. It is also about the bold feeling created by doing something that seems like you are back in control, to experience an emotion that feels good. It is a contradiction within us that this emotion can lead to our own destruction if we let it determine our fate. If more work was done within therapy to recognise some of these more difficult emotions in suicidal clients then the awareness of them could have the resounding impact of saving lives. I leave the last word on this to Camus who sums it up perfectly when he says:
“Men who die by their own hand consequently follow to its conclusion their emotional inclination.” (Camus, 1942:16)
*names and identities have been changed for confidentiality reasons
Tamara Sears is an existential phenomenological psychotherapist working with individual adults and couples in private practice in Rochester and Kings Cross, London. She has a keen interest in philosophy and politics and uses this to inform her work with her clients.
Alvarez, A. (2002) The Savage God: A Study of Suicide UK: Bloomsbury Publishing
Camus, A. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, 1955. UK: Penguin Books (2000)
Department of Health (2015) Statistical update on suicide. London: Department of Health. [Accessed 10 May 2015] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/405411/Statistical_update_on_suicide_acc.pdf
Grossman, Lt. Colonel D. (1995) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society US: Back Bay Books.
Harrop, H. Semi-suicidal. In: A. Grant, J. Haire, F. Biley & B. Stone eds. (2013) Our Encounters with Suicide. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books
Kilner, R. Choosing to be. In: A. Grant, J. Haire, F. Biley & B. Stone eds. (2013) Our Encounters with Suicide. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books
Montaigne, M. de (1958) The Complete Works of Montaigne. Translated from the French by Donald M. Frame. London: Hamish Hamilton
Schopenhauer, A. (1850) On the Suffering of the World. Translated from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, 1970. UK: Penguin Books
Stennett, F. The day I went to the meadow. In: A. Grant, J. Haire, F. Biley & B. Stone eds. (2013) Our Encounters with Suicide. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books