As a species with the apparently rare gift of being able to contemplate life and death, being able to choose our own end should we desire it, we are endowed, unavoidably, with the problem of suicide.
”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.” –Camus
Let’s start by acknowledging that it is a serious question, a serious problem. The answer is not simple. We cannot get away from this issue by blanket affirmations against suicide because it is cowardly or because it is hurtful to others. These things may be true, but they do not answer the question.
Those with the benefit of an airtight faith in some religion or creed that prohibits suicide may seem to escape the problem; but only because they never really address it. To eschew consideration of suicide because it is against the laws of a god or against the imperatives of a philosophical system is to have already given up the reigns of your own life to an outside authority. Rather than face the question yourself, it is side-stepped; in removing that one threat to your life, you have given up claim to that very life.
No, we must deal with the question head-on, on its own terms, for and by ourselves.
“Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It’s easy that way, but it’s a sort of suicide, too.” –Antoinette Perry
We must recognize that there are multiple forms of suicide. You can release your claim to life by means of a rope, a gun, a tall building, or a bottle of pills. But you can also do it by more mundane means: by letting your life get stuck in a loop of repeated, shallow days, like a skipping record stuck on a boring track. In letting your future days become mere faded copies of your past days, you may not physiologically die, but you certainly cease to live. Some methods of suicide are just slower and less deliberate than others, but in that way perhaps they smack even more of cowardice.
We must take care not to assume that by shunning suicide we have thus chosen life. To truly choose life, having faced the ultimate question, is an action, whereas to merely not die is an inaction.
So we see that the question is not whether or not to cease eating and breathing. The question is whether or not to do something beyond mere eating and breathing. That is the choice we face; that is the problem of suicide, the fundamental question of philosophy: can my life be something more than that of a bacteria or tree or hollow zombie of a man? If the answer to that question is negative, then suicide is nothing more than the redistribution of molecules, or as Georg Lichtenberg put it:
“Here take back the stuff that I am, nature, knead it back into the dough of being, make of me a bush, a cloud, whatever you will, even a man, only no longer make me.”
There are plenty of other shapes my molecules could take, and there are plenty of other people both now and to come. If my life is no different from the rest of them, why care about my life, why value it? Life in general, life as a phenomenon, will go on without me; and if I am gone, there will be others to take my place. If we have no active reason to want to be around, then we may as well give back our body’s dough to nature.
So what is the answer to the question of suicide? It’s not a yes or a no, but a why. And it won’t be the same for every person; indeed it couldn’t be, for when we truly face the question ourselves, we face our own personal question. But maybe the act, the wholehearted, soul-shivering act of facing the question, naked in front of it, can paradoxically bring meaning into a life, whatever that meaning may be. For some, serious contemplations of suicide may be a much-needed jolt out of the shallow complacency of a redundant life.
“Anyone desperate enough for suicide should be desperate enough to go to creative extremes to solve problems: elope at midnight, stow away on the boat to New Zealand and start over, do whatever they always wanted to do but were afraid to try.” –Richard Bach