A conversation on suicide with Jason Hill

NEVADA POWE

Saturday, April 25, 2015

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Observer columnist Nevada Powe shares a sit-down he had with DePaul University Professor Jason Hill. A conversation that most would shy away from, but which the two take on fearlessly.

Powe: Despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest time in human history and we have a plethora of devices that keep us informed and connected, there has been a marked rise in suicide rates around the world. The online bravado masks a deeper social dissatisfaction and anxiety. We are fed impossible dreams that we are told are all within our grasps if we weren't such losers. The walls keep whispering, "I am not good enough, I am not good enough". We are isolated from each other, even while being more technologically connected, because we have stopped speaking our truths. You have begun working on a book about the lives and suicides of two leading 20th century poets, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, what is the book called? Are there any insights that they can offer our time?

Hill: Yes, yes, the book is called Goddesses of Death: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and the Moral Meaning of Suicide. They offer several insights; some metaphysical and some social. To begin with, suicide is a most radical exercise of freedom because, in choosing your death day, you are irrevocably retracting yourself from the human project, one which is inextricably bound up with the lives of others. We become human in tandem with others. The person who commits suicide announces herself as a terminal conclusion and silences others from ever reaching her with their gestures, their humanity. It can be read as misanthropic in that she has declared everyone in her life to be impotent with regards to their ability to help her to continue the journey. Plath and Sexton shed light on this tragic phenomenon in our time: They killed themselves for, among other reasons, the fact that it is almost impossible to pursue long-term purpose and meaning in a short-term society, and one cannot today really develop and sustain a life identity and history in a world composed of episodes and fragments.

Powe: Yes, I think that is correct. This is why, even as a non-believer, I see the loss of prestige of the Church in guiding people's lives comes at a crushing cost. True believers are connected to a grand cosmic vision of themselves and participate in a long-term purpose of becoming worthy in the eyes of their God. And, thankfully, God's definition of worthy has nothing to do with good grades in school, or earning a six-figure salary. In our increasingly secular pagan capitalist social media world, if you are not living like the one per cent, or on your way to being in the one per cent, there is an underlying terrifying message that there is no point. Everyone is supposedly on the verge of some massive Kanye-Kim breakthrough. But what if that is not true? What if all you had to look forward to was being a dancer on a stage which only a handful of people ever see, or a nurse on a ward caring for the sick every day with no Gucci shoes to ever share on Instagram? Surely, any properly functioning society has to recognise the heroism in these now radical acts of simple living.

Hill: Concepts, like the notion of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be heroic, and accomplished have to be re-conceived. The problem with the dancer or the nurse is that they are being judged by some one-size-fits-all meta-narrative that is impossible to live up to. Concepts like greatness and heroism are relative and need to be brought down to fit the size, scope, reality and situation of the people to whom they apply. A mother of seven with a high school education putting her children through college has achieved greatness! We need a multiplicity of candidates for these re-conceived notions so that people's aspirational identities are grounded in reality and can be affirmed by others who are themselves grounded in reality. But, alas, we need stable and socially thriving communities for this to work. My working-class Eastern European students on scholarships at the university where I teach are much less prone to these fantasies and expectations you so rightly mentioned. They are not committing suicide, okay.

Powe: I just wrapped a 6th form course at Campion College on critical thinking, and one of the biggest challenges the kids are facing is being funnelled into careers they have no interest in because their parents insist that they need to undertake those professions to make money. The implicit message is that you should live a life you loathe in order to buy things that will make up for hating what you do every day. How did we get here? When I point out that success comes in many forms -- like the power couple of science teaching Kippy and Jeannie Chin who are responsible for educating something like 90 per cent of the doctors in Jamaica today, or Principal Grace Baston who integrated Campion and made it available to a broader spectrum of Jamaican society -- many give me confused looks. Let's not kid ourselves, money -- which has always been important -- has now become the only standard of value. Capitalism, which started out as an economic system, one which told us how to organise labour and capital, has now surreptitiously morphed into a value system telling us now what constitutes the good life.

When I told my parents that I wanted to study philosophy and religion in college, they were simply thrilled that I wanted to be erudite and educated. No one ever asked what I would do with that. I shudder to think of how today's parents would have ushered me off to law school to become another bored and alienated lawyer. Suicide may have loomed larger for me if I had to live a life which was not my choosing. How do you see the suicides where mothers leave young children behind, or the pilot who takes 150 passengers with him? Is that darkness somehow different than the "ordinary" suicide?

Hill: Let me just say that one of the most undiagnosed forms of child abuse in our societies is unleashed by parents who place these burdens on their children. If we really want to have a real conversation about alienation, depression and suicide then let's talk about parents who bring children into the world and then charge them for it. To be birthed and then expected to justify your existence, first to your parents, by being a financially and commoditised object is pure evil! So, parents need to start by allowing their children the freedom to fail, pick themselves up, and then even fail again, and to honour the unique talents their children have and not put them through the psychological equivalent of Chinese foot-binding.

I really don't believe in ultimately blaming capitalism: It is the symptom not the cause of an arrested development in human value systems. We all made capitalism possible by our endless needs and desires and wants. I see capitalism as the genie out of the bottle. But we let it out. We summoned it when we rightly demanded that women be emancipated from the kitchen, that peasants be made wage-independent from the Lord of the manor, and that middle-class people have a birthright to indeterminate wealth acquisition. Suicide does not always come from a place of darkness. Quite the contrary. He/she sees all too clearly the inescapable lifelessness of a dead planet and chooses to preserve whatever semblance of dignity he or she still has. The case of the pilot I think is different. This man had rescue fantasies: He wanted to spare his passengers the plight of his own demise. He had a heightened sense of justice that took a perverse form.

Powe: I can't see how suicide could ever come from anything but a dark place. Even in the midst of Nazi Germany, the Jews who were obviously facing certain horror did not, as a rule, commit suicide. Why? Because of the possibility of something different tomorrow always gives hope. In Greek mythology, Pandora's box unleashes sorrow and tragedy, but also hope. In Christian cosmology, God sends the rainbow after the floods. In Buddhism, the idea of the non-permanence of any state of affairs means that if you are going through hard times, you need to change your own attitude to the situation or simply wait it out. This too will pass. You walk away from life only when you see there is no hope. No hope is a place of darkness.

Hill: No, I think "no hope" can be a place of great acceptance and enlightenment, like the man who has stage 4 cancer and knows the end is near. I feel I am simply not sentimental about life. Sometimes continued clinging to hope can be a form of psychosis, a failure to accept reality. The "suicide" is afflicted with hyper-perception of reality. Many of the Jews in the Holocaust should have committed suicide because they did go on to live, but they lived lives of compromise, eviscerated dignity and deep anguish. Why was it worth it?

As a scholar I want to look at suicide a bit differently. A person can make a well-informed judgement with complete lucidity that the life she is living is not the one that is optimal and conducive to flourishing. To cling to life at any cost seems sentimental and simply a form of socially sanctioned masochism. I am not a masochist. I think Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom had undergone periods of madness and hospitalisation, realised that they were not going to get better and acted with a deliberateness and dignity I find moving. We can accept terminal physical illness and permanent physical scars but fail to extrapolate that fact unto the psychological landscape. As an atheist, but someone with deep moral convictions and values, I do think that in re-conceiving what it means to be a human being -- a post-human, if you will -- we rethink the categories under which life ought to be suitable. We suffuse life with meaning and significance; we own our lives. Why should we not be able to terminate our history? We made it, after all!

Powe: I think community, friendship and love have a crucial role to play in stemming the incidence of suicide. There is a great TED Talks by Kevin Briggs, the Sergeant who has successfully talked down would-be 'suicides' from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He has an exceptional track record in that he has only lost two people in all his years on the job. He says the most common reason people give why they came back from the edge was that he was finally an ear who would listen. This suggests that, in most cases, people who commit suicide are simply not thinking clearly. In the cacophony of modern life, where one no longer has a close relationship with a priest or with a life partner, people simply crave a sympathetic ear. In order for us to affirm life, we need to be affirmed by each other. And this affirmation is not through Likes on Instagram. We have to hold each other through the dark times and help each other see through the tunnel. Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... In my view, the irrational sentimentality about life is exactly what makes it worthwhile.

HILL: You make an interesting point. I think 'suicides' are thinking clearly, but they are often responding to a cold, detached and cloistered world. In general, suicide is not advisable because we are fallible creatures who are also deeply imaginative and creative. But I do want to make it clear that an unsentimental view of life allows us to affirm the choices made by the suicides as not always tragic and irrational. People can and should be the authors of the terms under which their lives make sense to them. We should disagree and allow them to simply rest in peace. We should never pronounce judgement on another person's suffering.

Nevada Powe is a Campion College graduate who holds a BA in philosophy from Amherst College and a Harvard MBA. He currently teaches critical thinking to the sixth form at Campion.

 


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