Americans have been recently disturbed to learn that the nation’s suicide rate has increased 30% since the year 2000--with middle-age suicide up 60% for women and nearly 40% for men. These statistics from the Center for Disease Control might not have sunk in, however, had not a number of celebrities committed suicide about the same time as this report was made public. After all, these rich and famous people “had it all,” with many more years of enjoying life ahead. Or so it appeared from their social mask--what Jung called the “persona” that we wear in public and sometimes have trouble removing even at home when we look in the mirror.
We might ponder Thoreau’s sentence near the beginning of Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” On reflection, I find the word “quiet” as sad as “desperation.”
While Thoreau made his observation in 1854, we have been killing ourselves for a very long time. Despite the instinct for self-preservation, despite the fact that every cell in our bodies cries out for what it needs to live, men and women have often said, “No,” to the mystery of Life. This is especially true during war. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, a soldier of particular bravery would throw himself even into a losing battle. His commander would “fall on his sword” to join dead and dying troops – and to avoid the humiliations of capture.
King Saul fell on his sword, according to the Bible, and his armor bearer joined him out of love. Over nine hundred Jews killed themselves on top of Masada before the Roman army reached them. Inspired by Jesus’ “laying down his life” for our salvation, early Christians had to be restrained from seeking martyrdom voluntarily. After all, the Bible commands, “Thou shalt not kill” (albeit with numerous biblical exceptions). Muslims face that same contradiction. The Qur’ān states unequivocally: “And kill not one another . . . him we shall certainly roast at a Fire”—with clerics adding that this strictly forbids suicide. Yet jihad groups carry out “martyrdom operations.”
The samurai honor code of Japan included harakiri (“stomach cutting”)—extended in modern times to the kamakazi (“divine wind”) pilots of WW II. They were encouraged by Zen Buddhist masters who had already conquered a natural fear of death. But, then, the Japanese also have a long tradition of “double suicide” when individual feelings of love conflict with social convention. One can read of that in the plays of Chikamatsu: “Let us secure our bodies to this twin-trunked tree and die immaculately! We will become an unparalleled example of a lovers’ suicide. . . Namu Amida (i.e., honor to Amida Buddha).”
In India, until the practice was outlawed by the colonial British in 1829, a young Hindu wife might willingly join her deceased husband on his funeral pyre—out of devotion but also to avoid the ignominy of widowhood. The custom was called satī (pronounced “suttee”) in memory of the self-immolation of the goddess Satī to avenge an insult against her divine husband, Śiva. Let us note that Chikamatsu’s beautiful dead lovers and the cremated Indian couple expected to be joined together in some Afterlife.
We learn of this history of suicide because traditional culture detected a certain nobility in the act (even though we might be revolted).The statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, however, do not hint at nobility and, instead, at tragedy: suicide as a “disease” to be “prevented.” Mental illness is cited as a cause, along with the intended (or unintended) consequences of drug addiction. Depression is often mentioned as a pathological response to the collapse of the economy or traditional values with no end in sight—“Why bother?”
Failed suicidal attempts are not included in the statistics, although they would swell the data! I think of my neighbor who survived an “accident” plowing his sports car under a tractor trailer . . . but then killed himself outright some years later. He left no note for his wife and children. But, as Albert Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus, there is always an unwritten one: “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.”
I sympathize with suicides who just cannot go on in their “quiet” desperation. Yes, they may be killing themselves out of despair, but they are also defiant—asserting the awful power of the mind over the demands of the body, not to mention the expectations of family and society. Besides, few today really believe in an Afterlife. So there is no “Last Judgement,” no religious constraint of a “Fire” that will punish one for self-murder. Perhaps that is why killers today often kill themselves before the police arrive. Since they are presumably not going anywhere, there will be no punishment for what they have done.
Nevertheless, we should pause over Camus’ observation: “. . . or that you do not understand it.” And listen to Thoreau’s complete thought:
. . . From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
The allusion to “minks and muskrats” is their wild willingness to chew off a limb rather than remain in a hunter’s trap. Thoreau is saying we indulge in “games and amusements” rather than make the effort to seek “wisdom.” But are we really trapped—as the existentialists would have it—in the impossibility to understand why we are here in the first place, why it might matter to hold on as long as possible, and why it is not entirely up to us to decide matters of life and death?
In most discussions of euthanasia, there is little wisdom (although the need may be authentic) and virtually none in the “death with dignity” movement among those who want to control how and when they die. Do we need to control that, too? How can anyone know in advance of death’s door what is the right thing to do?
Jung commented on suicide in some of his letters. To a man who was unconsciously treating himself as badly as his parents had, he wrote:
If your work now gives you some joy and satisfaction you must cultivate it, just as you should cultivate everything that gives you some joy in being alive. The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me. We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up (Letters, July, 1946).
There is much here to ponder. For one thing, it is incumbent upon each of us to “cultivate” whatever gives us joy in life and not just wait for it to happen. Because we are a grand “experiment” in creating more consciousness in the world: “the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness.”
When we examine the sweep of history, what increases over time is not beauty or intelligence or power or fame, but awareness. Yes, technology increases but only because awareness does. And one nice thing about this reason for staying alive is that it is invisible and no one else gets to judge if we have brought more consciousness into the world. Oh, more conscious people notice. For then we belong in a kind of “secret” society—an ecclesia spiritualis, as Edinger explains.
Days later, Jung wrote something quite different to Eleanor Bertine about the death of her friend, Kristine Mann:
It is really a question whether a person affected by such a terrible illness should or may end her life. It is my attitude in such cases not to interfere. I would let things happen if they were so, because I am convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way. I have seen cases where it would have been something short of criminal to hinder the people because according to all rules it was in accordance with the tendency of their unconscious and thus the basic thing. . . . It is presumably to be left to the free choice of the individual. (Letters, July 1946)
Here, “free choice” means the freedom to do what the unconscious wants, not just what the ego desires. And the context is a terrible illness. It may be of interest that Gautama Buddha allowed the “knife” to a monk who was terminally ill, even though ordinarily killing oneself would lead in Buddhism to a future life of a hungry ghost or worse. This monk, however, was already in Nirvāṇa and would have no future life.
About that Afterlife, however, Jung was not quite sure (for epistemological and not just religious reasons). He wrote this to a very ill woman:
If your case were my own, I don’t know what could happen to me, but I am rather certain that I would not plan a suicide ahead. I should rather hang on as long as I can stand my fate or until sheer despair forces my hand. The reason for such an “unreasonable” attitude with me is that I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death. . . . I shall therefore hang on as long as it is humanly possible and I try to avoid all foregone conclusions, considering seriously the hints I got as to the post mortem events. Therefore I cannot advise you to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations. It is murder and a corpse is left behind, no matter who has killed whom. (Letters, November, 1955)
Jung is leaning here on traditional religion’s calling suicide murder and, thus, prohibiting it (with exceptions). That means he is not willing to be a modern “know-it-all” who casually discards the wisdom of the past. Jung is also leaning on religion’s fantasy about an Afterlife—about which we can know nothing, neither affirm nor deny, yet get “hints” from our dreams and visions. Modern persons are sure there is nothing beyond Life. But that, too, is a fantasy since we cannot know for certain as long as we are alive.
For certain, however, we can “cultivate” the discovery that human beings are meant to create more consciousness. Not knowing that, for many sensitive persons, can be depressing. But that makes the suicidal depression itself meaningful—a “hint” that something vital is missing and wants to be found. That is why one of my favorite sentences from Jung is this: “And if you do something which rather serves your experiment, you will have the blessings of heaven and the angels will come to dance with you.” (Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra,” 403).
WANT MORE? Read Edward F. Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man (1984).