Most of us have healthy survival instincts. We feel great dismay when someone commits suicide, unable to reconcile our intrinsic will to live with the thought of someone who has lost that will. No animal in God’s creation would do such a thing. But a suicidal person does not live in a normal world. To understand them we have to leave normality and descend into the abyss of depression. And once we’ve descended we will understand that suicide doesn’t really seem like a such bad thing from down there. In fact, it could be seen as an expression of courage, of desperate willpower, of faith in something beyond the nightmare of existence. A university professor of mine once witnessed a man jump to his death from a building in NYC. A crowd was gathered below. Some were taunting the man, encouraging him to jump. Others tried to talk him down. He finally decided to jump, and my professor said he will never forget the look on the man’s face as he fell: he was smiling.
Robin William’s death prompted me to revisit his beautiful film What Dreams May Come, where he plays a modern day Orpheus who goes to hell to redeem his wife who commits suicide. After a long Dantesque journey he eventually finds her in a dilapidated and haunted house which reflects her disfigured emotional world. She doesn’t recognize him but something touches her as he recounts the story of his marriage and their tragic life together. He explains that on earth she had been committed to a mental institution. Professional colleagues couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just snap out of it. They were impatient because she couldn’t meet her deadlines. Because of her mental illness, he himself had reached a breaking point and almost divorced her. But love drew him back. He visited her in the institution offering to stay with her through thick and thin, even if it meant embracing her unsettling world of madness and sorrow. In a flashback, we hear him telling his wife, “What’s true in our minds IS true, whether some people know it or not.”
She weeps when she hears him say this, not tears of sorrow, but tears of happiness because he finally understands that what she is feeling is real. What’s true in our minds IS the truth. His journey to understand his wife’s truth reminded me of Christ’s atonement: “he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions…that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
We can interpret Christ’s death as a suicide. He was given many chances to escape but took none of them. He egged the Pharisees on by telling them He was going to destroy their beloved temple and build it in three days, deliberately deceiving them by refusing to reveal His true meaning. Jesus descended the path of the suicide that He might experience it from its own perspective.
I’ve never been suicidal, but I can imagine myself falling into it under extreme circumstances. I’ve lived a blessed life, full of loving family and good fortune. But even with all the blessings, I still have a frequent vision in which I see myself pointing a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. Having gone through a severe bout of depression, I sometimes feel a kind of perverse admiration for suicides, people who descend so low they come out through the worm hole onto the other side. During one of my darker moments, I came across Hermann Hesse’s Klein and Wagner. It presents suicide as it sometimes is: liberating, even beautiful. Yet the final secret is that suicide itself is a comical and foolish gesture, swallowed up in the transcendence of eternity.
At the moment he fell, when for the fraction of a second he hung between the edge of the boat and the water, it came to him that he was committing suicide, a piece of childishness, something not bad, certainly, but comical and rather foolish. The pathos of wanting to die and the pathos of dying itself coalesced within him. It amounted to nothing. His dying was not necessary, not anymore. It was desirable, it was fine and welcome, but it was no longer necessary…
…The universal stream of forms flowed on, the forms inhaled by God and the other, the contrary forms that he breathed out. Klein saw those who opposed the current, who reared up in fearful convulsions and created horrible tortures for themselves: heroes, criminals, madmen, thinkers, lovers, religious. He saw others like himself being carried along swiftly and easily, in the deep voluptuousness of yielding, of consent. Blessed like himself. Out of the song of the blessed and out of the endless cries of torment from the unblessed there rose over both universal streams a transparent sphere or dome of sound, a cathedral of music. In its midst sat God, a bright star, invisible from sheer brightness, the quintessence of light, with the music of the universal choirs roaring around in eternal surges.