Post 289

Hidden Depths: Reflections on Identity and Suicide

People underestimate the complexity of each other. We meet someone and we immediately begin the process of analyzing them and categorizing them, according to the patterns that we have learned up to that point in our lives. Before long, we’ve given this new person a pigeon-hole, a file folder, a number, whatever. It’s sometimes provisional and it’s sometimes immutable. I suppose you could call it judging, but that does imply making a decision about their moral qualities, and often it doesn’t go that far. The process of sizing each other up is so natural, so second-nature, that I would say there isn’t anyone who doesn’t do it. We size up everything around us, so why wouldn’t we do it with respect to human beings? We need to assess our environment; we reflexively determine whether something is helpful or harmful to us, and we learn by comparing what we encounter with what we have encountered in the past.

I was once sent an email with a whole bunch of questions, and one of them asked what I notice first about a person. I thought about that for a while. I think that I answered it quite accurately, saying that I notice quite a few things almost instantaneously, without even really thinking about it. Upon meeting someone, I get an impression of their physical size, age, gender and race. When I can’t determine gender, I notice that I can’t determine gender. Later, other elements come into focus, such as style and demeanor.

We’re used to noticing quite a bit about each other without realizing it. There’s nothing wrong with having impressions, and there’s nothing wrong with having preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes. Why should I be apologetic about disliking a certain accent, or a certain type of clothing? You are the same way, having likes and dislikes. It’s even possible that your list of dislikes is longer than mine. In any case, the issue is not in noticing or not noticing. The issue is what you do once you’ve noticed. You’ve noticed that she’s the wealthy one, and he looks like he’s unemployed. Do you treat them differently? This man is a recent immigrant and that man is a popular soccer player; do you distrust one while idolizing the other?

What do you do with your impressions? That’s the key thing.

But my point right now is that our impressions of each other, even when they are gathered over repeated encounters, are still going to fall short of the truth.

There are a few reasons for this. The first element is that most people maintain an image. They want to be seen in a certain way. And the list of ways that they want to be seen is astoundingly long. You have in your mind a list of ways that you might want to be perceived, but people are very, very, complex, and there are some people who want to be perceived in ways you wouldn’t dream. For instance, some people want to be perceived as inept and incompetent. They nurture and foster this image because it is a way of getting others to help them, and do their work for them. Some people want to be seen as having mental issues, because it allows them a greater freedom to behave in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be tolerated.

The second element is that, in general, people don’t want to draw attention to themselves regarding things that they know to be wrong. Someone commits a murder or does some other horrific thing, and the neighbour is interviewed saying that the murderer was such a quiet man. They are shocked, of course. There’s the assumption that if a person isn’t acting wildly, then he’s safe and quite predictable. So we are surrounded by people who are thinking and feeling and wanting all kinds of things, but they blend in, because they are not acting wildly.

We are thus shocked when someone commits suicide. They seemed fine. They weren’t acting wildly or acting distressed. In order to understand what has happened, the new trend is to immediately blame mental illness. I disagree with this approach because it is illogical. Suicide does not necessarily mean that there was mental illness. Mental illness can increase the likelihood that one would be tempted to commit suicide, but it does not work in reverse, where you can conclude, upon hearing of a suicide, that the person had mental illness. It’s kind of annoying the way people without any clue of the circumstances start cooing about how sad it is that so-and-so had a mental illness. Suicide is not conclusive proof.

I actually believe that in the moments before suicide, God gives the person enough lucidity to make a real decision. I believe this because I believe that when the moral stakes are high, God doesn’t allow for random accidents. When the moral stakes are high, there are decisions being made and personal intention is at the forefront.

Suicide is a radically violent act. A person who commits suicide is a murderer. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the thoughts, feelings and desires of everyone in the world except his own. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the pain of all those who will be hurt by his death.

If someone commits suicide, and you are surprised, then I say that you did not truly know that person. You did not know that he had the ability for such violence within him, in the same way that you did not know that your murdering neighbour had the ability for such violence within him. You did not know, further, that he was capable of disregarding (or even intending) the pain of those he seemed to love.

When I learned, last month, of the suicide of 28-year old Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, I was brought back to April of 1994, when I was told that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Cobain was 27 years old at the time. The name of his band was Nirvana, a word describing the ideal afterlife in Buddhism. I heard the news from a teenage fan of his, who was shaken and distraught.

I am not impressed with the choice of Mr. Bergling to commit suicide, especially in light of his fame. Nor am I impressed with Kate Valentine, otherwise known as Kate Spade, whose name appears on expensive handbags throughout the world, in her decision to commit suicide yesterday. Those who are very famous have a responsibility to not cause scandal. They influence others by their choices, and this means that they must be extra vigilant about their actions. I believe that in the case of famous people, God gives additional grace to prevent them from doing what is wrong and detrimental to society at large, and for this reason, it is far worse for them when they intentionally choose to do what is wrong. Committing suicide is wrong.

Who is the victim in a suicide? The idea that the person who killed himself must have been in a lot of pain, is neither a full answer nor an excuse. By that rationale, almost any crime or immorality could be excused. A murderer is often beside himself in rage or jealousy before killing his victim. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A woman who commits adultery is eaten up by lust before being unfaithful. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A man who wants the money for gambling is often fixated and without rest before committing his robbery. That’s pain too. Most serious acts of immorality are preceded by a period of obsessing and a form of distress.

The fact that there is a great deal of mental anguish or pain prior to the decision to do A, B or C, does not give license to relieve the pain in any way you would like. In what circumstances do we accept the answer, “I just couldn’t help myself”? It’s usually a highly problematic answer, being almost always false.

Human beings suffer agony in a million ways, but we still must choose what is right. Moreover, we are always given the ability to choose what is right.

This ties in with my point that human beings are more difficult to understand than we think. We think we know someone, and then they do something shocking. This shows that we did not know them as well as we thought. You thought this man was gentle, but nobody who commits suicide can be properly called gentle, in light of the violence and permanence of the action. You thought that man was happy, but if a person ends his own life and his closest friends didn’t see it coming, then he wasn’t as happy as he seemed. There were depths within that person which were dark and hidden. What does Avicii mean, after all? Avici refers, in Buddhism, to the lowest reaches of hell, where those who commit the worst sins go. It’s spelled with a single “i” ending, but apparently Tim Bergling was so enamoured with the word as a way to identify himself that he was willing to modify it to use it. Yet his excuse for not using his own real name was that “Tim Bergling” was already taken on Myspace. Was Tiim Bergliing taken too?

Who is the victim in a suicide? Many are wounded. There are the close family members and friends. There are more distant relations and acquaintances. There are, in the case of the famous, the admirers. In fact, all who learn of any suicide are wounded, because suicide becomes more ingrained as a ‘solution’ for difficult times, and suicide becomes normalized, and — it’s painful to say it — even glamorized. And, in the midst of all this, what a shame that something so horrible and hopeless is whitewashed by people wanting to be or appear enlightened or sympathetic.

The one wounded most of all, however, is God. All sins are an offence against the Eternal God before they are an offence against mortal man. It’s God’s code that we violate when we go against what is right.

The reason for this, and also the reason that we cannot fully understand or appreciate one another (or even ourselves), is that each person is a mystery. When you consider the working of your own mind, and what you continue to learn about yourself, you realize that you are constantly rediscovering new things about who you are and what makes you tick. Marriage, likewise, is a process of continual discovery, where each spouse learns more about the other all the time. An individual’s personal identity is filled with so many aspects that the modern discussion has resorted to talking about identity conflict and changing one’s identity, the way we might talk about changing our outfits or style. Such talk is foolish. With new experiences and with new knowledge, we may change our perceptions and therefore our behaviour, for better or worse, but we are ultimately the same person. Our identity is our identity. Our soul is our soul. And body and soul, each person is a mystery that only God can understand, and those who cut short their lives or the lives of others, are preventing the mystery from coming to fruition (though it must be said that in his mercy, God always has yet another back-up plan; God can never be thwarted).

We are a mystery, further, because we do not know God’s plan for our lives. We do not know what he will make of the clay that is us. We do not know how he imagines us and how he will bless us and shape us. In the same way, we do not know what his plans are for everyone around us. All we can know is that his plans are for the ultimate benefit of each person, without the benefit to one person diminishing the benefit to another, as if God were constrained by human rules and limits. The path that he has planned is unique for each person, and each life story is an exciting one, with many twists and turns. Each life story is, in fact, amazing. The key thing to know, however, is that there are an endless number of variations on your life story, and the end result depends on your willingness to cooperate with the plan that he has for you. The plan is going to surprise you, because just when you think that you know the rest of the story, he’ll do a zig and a zag, just to see if you’re still following along. The plan will surprise you, because just when you think that you know what he wants, things will go up and things will go down, and he’ll show you that all he wants is for you to be willing to want what he wants. Consider Abram, who knew that he would never have a child from Sarah, his wife, the love of his life, and that he’d die in Ur, where he was born. Then he discovered that he was to leave Ur and go to an unknown place. He obeyed. Then he discovered that he was to have a son with his wife Sarah. He believed this too and it happened, and Abram’s name got changed along the way. Later he realized he would have to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed again, but at the critical moment, he was told that God didn’t want this sacrifice. Abraham never knew what was coming next, but he believed in God’s goodness. The knowledge of God’s goodness was his anchor. Abraham’s confidence did not come from thinking that he, Abraham, was good. Abraham’s confidence came from knowing that God was good, and that God would fulfill his promises.

If you read the bible carefully, you will notice that saints and prophets are praised when they believe that God will fulfill his promises, that God will be as good as he says he will be. It’s praiseworthy because it is difficult. When St. Elizabeth praises the Blessed Virgin, she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)

So let there be no room for despair. Hang in there.

Don’t be afraid and don’t believe the lies given to you by the devil, of unending suffering, impossible struggles, humiliation and defeat. Those are lies. All lies.

Wait for the plan of your life to unfold. Wait to discover the mystery that is you.

Know that God is good. He always has a plan, even when all seems lost.