Like most secular people, I used to believe that everyone has a right to choose death. As an atheist, I had no patience for the religious argument that God created your life, and only he should end it. The legal argument against suicide seemed bizarre: you cannot steal from yourself, so it shouldn’t be a crime to take your own life. And, to my mind, the government has no right to force me to live for its sake or for mine. I had never heard a good secular argument against suicide. I suppose I also enjoyed the rebelliousness implied in defending suicide and the satisfaction of acknowledging that life is brutal and deserves to be rejected now and again.
But I have changed my mind about the right to suicide. I’m mostly talking about what I call “despair suicide,” not end-of-life pain-management suicide, so it is not exactly the condition being addressed in this special section. Still, I think the discussion is important for this conversation. Let me explain my case against despair suicide.
In the past few years, I have lost two friends to despair suicide. Also, I have myself been, at times, miserable and suicidal. The friends I lost were very successful writers, both women without children. We all got our PhDs at the same time at Columbia University, years ago. When troubled by suicidal thoughts, I had been glad to know I could not actually follow through because I have two young children. But could it really be true that it is less important that a childless person survive? I started paying a lot of attention to what happened in communities where suicides had occurred, and I also did a lot of reading and thinking.
I now believe that despair suicide is wrong. One of the best predictors of whether a person may commit suicide is personally knowing someone who has. The closer that person was to you, the more at risk you are. This means that many suicides take someone with them, eventually. Suicide is also homicide—delayed homicide but homicide none the less. There is a great deal of sociological, epidemiological, and psychological data confirming the long-held suspicion that committing suicide influences others to commit suicide. The effect is strongest in the closest relationships. Other kinds of perceived kinship also apply, such that even the reported suicide of a stranger will result in a rise in suicides among people of that person’s age and gender. Today we call it “suicidal clusters,” “behavior models,” or “suicidal contagion.” What this adds up to, if you look at it from an ethical point of view, is that despair suicide is wrong. If you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you must make it through yours.
This may sound harsh, but realizing that you are needed can reduce the despair that drives people to suicide in the first place. If I am grateful that you haven’t killed yourself (and I am), that helps me to realize that you are probably grateful that I haven’t killed myself. Imagine the headline: “Atheists Are Taking Their Own Lives,” or imagine hearing such news about a half-forgotten friend, a former teacher, a favorite author, or even a stranger with whom you later learned that you had shared something in common.
The more I wish we could have saved others from anguish and annihilation, the more I feel your care for me. I and the other people who go through dark times have to support one another—at least in the abstract. When you feel that we owe each other our lives, just making it through the day is an accomplishment for which you should be proud, and I’d like you to know that you are being publicly and privately thanked. Thank you. To the sad person who is reading this right now: thank you for staying alive. I’m thinking of you. I’m staying alive, too, in part because I feel your thanks for that.
You may be the kind of atheist who scorns the comforts of religion and anything that reminds you of those comforts, but consider that there are other atheists who do not believe in the supernatural yet are delighted by the superlative aspects of the natural.
Human beings are made of meat, but we have consciousness and giggle when tickled, which is to say that our experience is not pureley rational. Reality has real wonder to it. Love and awe are real. Reality for human beings is full of irrationality—we make guesses and mistakes and have imagination and emotion. Our experience of being feeling creatures is real, and religion is partly just a record of that strange truth. We need to keep some of the ideas of religion but let go of the supernatural.
In our dark nights, when we feel miserable and alone, we must realize that we are not alone. We have each other. We can lean back into the arms of humanity. I know it is difficult to believe that people know how to help you—and are willing to do so—but at least we exist, right? The idea of having faith in humanity may be a little poetic, but at least it is hope for something that is possible.
Suicidal people often speak or write of being a burden. They may have been crying and withdrawing for some time. They may decide that they aren’t contributing anything to society and that they are wasting time, effort, and money and hating every day of it (though perhaps not every minute of it). It seems like an easy equation: people might be better off without them. But that is a huge miscalculation. It would hurt too many people if you killed yourself, so it is important for you to stay here and keep trying.
If your suffering is entirely psychological, you have to stay. I think we can help you, and I think you deserve to give yourself another chance. If you don’t, it will influence other sad, hurt people, who may also not give themselves another chance. Furthermore, if you think about it, you can steal from yourself, because the mood you are in when you take your own life is very particular. It is not fair to let that one version of you end life for all the other sides of you.
As I mentioned above, the situation is not at all the same for a person suffering physical pain in an advanced, chronic, fatal illness. If cancer is going to kill you this month anyway, and you have said your good-byes and are in agony and want to be done, I don’t even consider that suicide. It seems more correct to say that if a person is imminently dying, a vial of morphine is a mere variation in the manner of death.
However, there are a few points worth thinking about when it comes to illness, in light of this argument against despair suicide. If physically healthy, depressed people feel that they are a burden, think about what it feels like to those who are miserable, believe that they are not contributing anything, and, on top of all that they are presenting the many demands of illness.
Often, people believe that their particular contributions are what cause others to love them, because when we are healthy, we feel that the point of life is being necessary. People who get sick are often shocked by their new role and feel like a burden. They might not realize how much they are loved and wanted or how much the human community can embrace the wounded. They might not know how much their suicide would sadden and even endanger others.
Meanwhile, healthy people have their own delusions. Many people are so frightened by sickness and disability that they think no one who is so affected could feel that life is worth living. That reaction is more about their own deep fears and psychological issues. So if the sick person who feels like a burden says, “It would be better if I were dead,” a caretaker who overestimates the misery of physical disability (for his or her own reasons) may agree, and the two might do the wrong thing just because they do not have a language for articulating an alternative. I am suggesting that if disease is not already actively, painfully killing a person, there is good reason for that person to hang on and not rush into death.
American lawyer, writer, and activist Diane Coleman has been arguing against the legalization of euthanasia for decades now, for the entirely secular reason that the physically impaired deserve the same protections as the hale and hearty. In 1996, Coleman started the group Not Dead Yet, charmingly named after the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a man tries to toss a body on the cart and the body protests, “I’m not dead.” The cart driver brains him with a cudgel. Coleman is herself severely disabled. Several other groups are also devoted to this cause, such as the British organization Caring Not Killing.
Carrying on is a brave, good thing—monstrously difficult though it is at times—and we do honor to it and to each other when we respect it. Even without God’s big imaginary eyes watching, it matters what you do and that you live. Certainly there are situations where what I am saying does not apply. You don’t have to be Peter Singer to see that some medical expenses may be too high, and in some cases a person would be morally justified in choosing to pull his own plug. There are going to be cases in which burden and misery are good arguments for ending life.
But projections of burden and misery are not good arguments. If you are loved, it’s better that you allow yourself to be weak and even humble and stay alive. If you do not think you live within a community of love, well, I know this is strange and even a little crazy, but I love you, and I want you to stay here. I think others can help you. If you are reading this and you don’t want my weird love from afar, then fine; but if you do, well, I love you for just that reaction, for just wanting you and me to survive and having hope and love and being absurd and ridiculous and human.
Historically, secular thinkers became so devoted to the idea of a right to suicide because the opposition was the church—it said no to suicide, so we said yes. But this is too important a subject to leave in a sad and half-examined state. Viewed on its own terms, it is obvious that living is generally a better choice than suicide and that the reason for that truth has something to do with love, hope, mutual kindness, the lives of our children, the future of our species, and the beautiful dream of meaning.