Saturday, December 21, 2013

Death, suicide, and the time of the year

"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. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer."

Albert Camus

A few days ago, I learned that the local mechanic to whom I usually bring my car for oil changes and other routine repairs had died; he had taken his own life. Yesterday, I got together with a few friends who also were his customers, and discussed the circumstances surrounding his suicide. One of them told me that she had heard that his business had not been doing well lately, and suggested that as a driving reason behind his suicide. I didn't say much in response to this, but mulled over this for a little while. For some reason, this just didn't strike me as a satisfactory reason. I mean, sure, many people have taken their own lives because of financial or business problems, but there are also many others who have suffered similar problems in life, who have nevertheless found ways of coping and finding reasons to continue living on this earth. So looking to external circumstances to try to explain why somebody would decide that continuing to take the trouble to stay alive simply isn't worth it anymore simply doesn't shed light on this issue. I believe that Camus is expressing a similar sentiment when he remarks on the act of suicide:

"An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had greatly changed since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it... It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering."

I think Camus expresses a whole bunch of things about this topic in a much more eloquent fashion than I ever could (at least in the foreseeable future), so I shall not offer too much commentary on his words, but allow them to speak for themselves. But I would like to relate something else that happened last night. Last night, I got together with some colleagues for some drinks. For some reason or other, the topic turned to suicide (there is no correlation here with my earlier conversation with my other friends; besides myself, there is no overlap between these two groups of people). It turns out that among the group of us (there were five of us in the group), everybody except me had thought of taking their own life at some point or other in the past. When I raised the only "dissenting" view, and said that I have honestly never contemplated killing myself before, even in my darkest moments, everybody else was really surprised.

After a brief silence, somebody in the group who knew his Camus quoted the above passage about suicide being the one truly serious philosophical problem, and not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps the reason why I hadn't thought of killing myself was because I hadn't thought seriously enough about my own life. I responded by biting the bullet (no pun intended), "Yeah, maybe that means that I haven't been taking my life seriously enough (big fucking deal!)..." I think the group was rather stunned by my non-attempt to rise to this challenge, because there was yet another brief silence. After about thirty seconds or so, another person (probably for lack of something else to say) simply blurted, "It must all the yoga you are doing!"

Well, honestly, I do not think that yoga practice is an automatic suicidal-thought-suppressant: If you want to kill yourself, you probably will, whether or not you do yoga. I can only say that, so far, I have been fortunate (?), in that even in my darkest hours, there is always this strong undercurrent of something (survival instinct?) that moves me along, so that the thought that living is more trouble than it is worth has never crossed my mind; or if it did, I only entertained it as a hypothetical intellectual possibility, and never with the existential force of a real life possibility.

 But then again, maybe I really shouldn't be jinxing myself by talking about such things so cavalierly. For all I know, tomorrow, or even the very next hour, may be the first time I ever seriously think of killing myself. Ah, morbid thoughts, morbid thoughts... There must be something about this time of year that brings such thoughts into the minds of so many. Well, but I can at least say that this is probably more authentic and less shallow than all that forced holiday cheer that is so prevalent in so many other quarters...



  1. Really interesting. As the pessimistic melodramatic type (ie. the type who thinks about suicide whenever things don't go my way in life :P ), I would say I am more often surrounded by people who get SERIOUSLY offended by anyone would ever dare to contemplate about taking their own lives for even a microsecond. You at least are willing to give this topic some thoughts, which means you are appreciated by us suicidal-thinking prone folks :D

    And thanks for sharing Albert Campus's quote. I've never heard of him before and I love how eloquently he gives his opinion on this issue. I think his thoughts are quite relevant and clarifying.

    1. Interesting. We must move in very different social circles... but then again, I'm pretty sure my folks in Singapore would also be seriously offended by any suicidal thinking, or any talk of suicidal thinking. Are Chinese people really less suicidal? Hmm...

      Yes, read Camus. He writes great stuff.

  2. Interesting post, I was just having this conversation over Christmas dinner (yes there is something pensive in the air this time of year). I recall some years ago just offhandedly remarking that I didnt see anything particularly wrong with suicide. Afterall, it is my life and my right to check out when I wanted to. Assuming of course I didnt have any dependents or other responsibilities. I think that when I come to a stage where there isnt a point to living, say if the rest of life looks to be a tedious struggle and no more joy remains in the foreseeable future, it makes perfect sense to quit while you are still (relatively) ahead, so to speak.

    So I remember saying this, I believe it was at a dinner with friends, and deeply offending present company. Someone remarked that I was being incredibly selfish. I never quite agreed with that. If I ever came to a stage where I'd contemplate suicide, I probably wouldnt have any remaining close family or friends in any case who would miss me. So the only inconvenience I'd forsee is that born by the poor sod who would have the misfortune of finding my aftereffects.

    Or perhaps I take my death too cavalierly.

    Anyway, I think suicide can and is often borne out of a calmly and logically considered series of thoughts where the pros and cons of continued life is weighed out with good care. Society however, likes to think of suicide as the product of calamity and upset, rather than calm consideration. Great post for the season, thanks for sharing!

  3. Greetings Nobel from Fargo! I just stumbled onto your blog while web surfing. Pattabhi Jois said that Surya Namaskara bestows lasting health and peace of mind on the doer.

    Suryanamaskara by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
    This small booklet on the Surya Namaskara is composed of three sections: a brief introduction by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to the philosophy underlying the spiritual practice of the Surya Namaskara; a reprint of the method and internal benefits of the Surya Namaskara from Pattabhi Jois' book Yoga Mala; and an interview with Pattabhi Jois on the Vedic, Puranic and mantric methods of the Surya Namaskara. The Surya Namaskara form the foundation for the entire method of the practice of yoga - and, as we all know, if one's foundation is firm, then whatever is supported by it will be stable as well. So, if the Surya Namaskara are first learned properly and their inner meaning grasped, then all the various asanas, pranayamas and the like that follow them will be useful and beneficial in their outcomes. available here

    Ashtanga Yoga draws the light of universal consciousness-
    prana- into the body and quiets the mind. Yoga makes us happy so suicide isn't in the cards.