Suicide – the pros and cons
Reports of increasing suicides among the old make us pause to ask why this should be so and whether we should do anything to try to stop it. It may be mostly a consequence of people living longer, or of the old solutions to suffering like pneumonia being defeated by modern drugs. But when someone takes his or her own life we need to examine why and to ask what we could have done to ease the pressure that led to such a final decision.
Just as people have the right to life, so they have the right to death. Of course, they have responsibilities to those they will leave behind, sometimes serious economic responsibilities. They have to consider those. But they also have rights to terminate their own suffering, to bring to an end pressure they cannot handle and, if they wish, to relieve those around them of further anxiety and worry. My father did this a long time ago to take pressure off his family. I marvelled at his courage and thoughtfulness while deeply mourning his death.
Every age brings its advantages and disadvantages. Every milestone in life is an achievement as well as a past. The cup of life is not full until we have done all we can to give, to learn and to enjoy. Where the mind is still alert and there are opportunities to help a potential suicide with encouragement the biggest remedy we can offer is purpose. Knowing what we are here for, being aware that we have much to give others even as our body and mind slow down, these are the things that make life worth living right up to the end.
Purpose isn’t some far-fetched ideal or some unattainable goal. In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta it is ‘the person in my arms’. To help one person in this world, not millions, is to do something beautiful for humanity or, if you have one, for your God. Our obsession with numbers makes us think that everything we do must result in a score, the bigger the better. To teach millions a checklist of values is a waste of time. Values are not by rote but by heart. In practice, to really teach one good value to one child is a score in itself. That child’s influence will spread widely throughout its life, who knows how far.
Those contemplating suicide – and most people do at some time in their lives – have often forgotten their sense of self–worth, the stature they represent to others who see them as role models. An old person sitting in a chair smiling and nodding at the vicissitudes of life is a valuable addition to a family because they are providing reassurance, continuity and love. The fact that they are no longer flying an aircraft or building a business does not diminish their contribution to the world. It just changes it. But that person still has a right to die.
The second help we can give those feeling worthless is a sense of stature. A wracked body or a feeble mind does not rob you of the achievements and experiences you have had in life. These are valuable to younger people. The lesson of growing old itself is essential since most people are going to experience it. The stature that comes by turning cynicism into wisdom is a wonderful entitlement and one that keeps brave hearts pounding right to the end.
As I always pray: Keep me going while I’m busy; keep me busy till I go.