At the ‘bottom’ of the ‘cave’ of desperation, of course, as well all know, lies the desperation of taking one’s own life. Lists of signs, often conflated with causes, include: isolation, trauma, narrow (tunnel) thinking, and lack of support. Triggers can and do include some traumatic incident: job loss, death, divorce, bankruptcy, serious illness, alcoholism…all of them projected triggers that easily and readily cross the minds of most people.
And, given that males in our culture are ‘conditioned’ if not expected/required to operate within a very stringent and commonly held parameters of healthy masculinity, and that our cultural norms diagnose symptoms more regularly and more intensely than processes or developments that may lurk behind the presenting symptoms, men are caught in a double bind: the straitjacket of perceived and learning expectations/roles/deportment/attitudes/beliefs/trustworthiness and
the cultural rejection/avoidance/disdain/surfacing that tends to seek immediate “causes” or triggers, without taking the time, money, human resources and care that would delve into the background of each and every man (and woman) who contemplates terminating his life.
We are a crisis-management oriented culture, highly schooled in considering anything that smacks of aberrant behaviour as either “sick” or “evil”. And given how literal, empirical, and task-oriented to “fix” whatever “we” collectively consider to be “wrong” or “unmanageable” or “too complicated” or “too invasive into one’s privacy” or “too dangerous” we fail both to “see” the totality of an individual’s plight (helped, doubtless, by his rigid protection of his privacy (also considered a kind of self-walling-off from others). Medicine, law and certainly theology have individually and collectively fallen into the trap of this “crisis-management,” and “literal” and “reductionistic” and nominal (putting names on syndromes as if to do so is to “explain” what is going on)..in the way “problems” are assessed, diagnosed, addressed and for which a “plan” of attack is usually prepared. In medicine, a treatment plan, whereas in law, action falls under one or more files entitled: strategy/tactic/proceeding/filing/intervention. In theology, too often, turbulence is dumped into the ‘trashcan” with the word “conflict” emblazoned on its wall. And then, as conflict, it is too often reduced to a conflict between parties, unless it slides into the inner conflict where it magnetizes a name like “doubt” or “fear” or anxiety” or even “loss of faith”…and depending on the expertise, skill, sensibilities, and even disposition of the presiding clergy, referred to counselling, referred to a prayer group, referred to some form of bibliotherapy like bible reading or some other recommendation.
Whichever professional approach might be considered, and then approached (however tentatively and hesitantly and untrustingly) the fullness of the “story” of the troubled man is rarely, if even, fully disclosed and fully comprehended, likely through a combination of reservation on the part of the troubled man, and the pressure of intervening in a purposeful and effectual manner, first, to attempt to prevent serious harm being done, and then to moderate the emotional and psychic pressures on the individual. Naturally, too, all those within whatever circle of influence of the individual will have ‘stopped breathing” (metaphorically) in anticipation of the “shoe” to fall, in some dramatic event. Consequently, their/our shared anxiety will inevitably generate a degree of both impatience and hopeful expectation both of which compress time into a kind of pressure-cooker-circle, desperate now for ‘answers’ and relief.
Whether a man is afraid to speak about depression, anxiety, meaninglessness, loss of identity, loss of a sense of self and worth to anyone (a spouse, an employer, a colleague, even a counsellor) the rest of us are never ready and open to acknowledge some “aberrant” behaviour that starts us questioning. And, again, the evidence seems to suggest that shortly before committing the act of suicide, the individual seems even more calm and relaxed than previously; one interpretation being that the decision has been made and the time merely has to be right.
So much talk, study, research and energy is dedicated to the means, the immediate “cause” and the most recent “event” that seemed to foretell the inevitable (if only we could have seen and understood the signs) that long-standing, yet barely visible flags remain covered, and too often ignored. This ignorance, however, cannot be relegated to “irresponsibility” on the part of family, colleagues, or even professionals. After all, none of us spend our days looking for others to indicate a pattern that could signal their self-inflicted harm. On the contrary, most care-givers are tuned into a sunny and hopeful mind-set, and would themselves like to end their workday reflecting on how a client/patient/counsellee is showing signs of improvement, whatever and however that might be defined.
Tapping these keys, and these words this morning is not an act which I would have been unable to anticipate, or even imagine, only weeks and months ago. And yet, on reflection, from early childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood and then culminating in grad school, the notion of death, especially by suicide, has seemed more important than most other notions. Violent and loud verbal and highly personal accusatory battles between two parents, played out and often turned my own hope into despair, when as a ten-year-old, I found myself burying my head in a pillow, holding my breath for as long as I could in what now seems like a futile and highly melodramatic moment of self-abnegation or self-erasure. Wishing to evaporate into something ghost-like, however, is not an exaggeration. The conflicts, as well as the chant about being “no good” levelled at both my father and me, the physical and emotional abuses at both, and later on my sister, tended to coalesce into a mental focus on any local story about someone (too often a man) who took his own life, including the location, the method, the age and the general situation in which the life was ended.
Was it a pistol, on a dark December night on a hill overlooking the ‘bay’? Was it a rubber tube linked to the exhaust pipe of the black Dodge locked in the garage on William Street? Was it a rifle in the basement of a drug store? Was it another pistol in a home, of someone suffering both extreme mental and physical distress? Later on, I read about prominent men who, having suffered a debilitating stroke, after living an active and robust life, could no longer withstand the physical, emotional and mental prison of patient-hood. Then I also learned of a former family physician, brilliant, impulsive, impetuous and practically adored by patients, whose life ended by his own hands. A former high school math teacher, one of the most brilliant and organized and articulate in detailing the minutest steps of any equation or proposition, ended his own life, years after I left high school. In obituaries, the word “suddenly” notified readers of the fact of suicide, too often in young men, and the conversations that followed were replete with shock, wonder, mystery and even unnamed fear.
On any of these stories, and we all have our own memory bank, the ‘event’ had to have tendrils of biology, family history, enculturation and triggers, none of these contributing factors were public and one has to wonder if some or any were even conscious to the person himself. And a list of signs, while important and relevant, in order to trigger some kind of supportive response, is barely enough to change the culture in which mental illness continues to be a collective demonic not really comparable to a broken leg, or a tumor in the lung. And here is where each of us has a far more important part to play than merely as reporters, sociologists, criminologists, lawyers, doctors even psychiatrists. It says here that we would all move to a more health public/social/cultural/psychic/emotional/ethical space if we acknowledged our own psychic disturbances as honestly, openly and courageously as possible. And that kind of disclosure needs a far more resilient, receptive, courageous and non-expert kind of empathy, compassion, and even identity which at least in North America, so far, we have been unable (or unwilling or both) to adopt. Learning about the psychic truths of our friends, our classmates, our summer job co-workers, our team-mates, in ways that do not judge, demean, disparage, dissociate, or worse, abandon the ‘other’ who is struggling will take all 400 million-odd persons on the North American continent to re-shape our attitudes, beliefs, expectations and human exchanges.
We are not doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, clergy, lawyers, probation officers, or even human resource specialists; we are just human beings with all of our warts, gaps, wounds, traumas, shamefulness, guilts and hopes and aspirations. And to identify with another who is struggling is not an idea for which we need a graduate degree. Nor do we need a summons, or a prescription, or a treatment plan, or a specific and named responsibility. We are, nevertheless, not blind to our own vulnerabilities, blind-spots, traumas or potential needs. This is not an argument that portends or pretends to extol humanism specifically or metaphorically. Humanism that stresses the potential value and goodness of human beings, as envisioned in the Renaissance, tends to turn a blind eye to the human reality of many voices/gods/demons/daimons and themes that play out in the lives of humans everywhere.
We are not perfect nor shall we even attempt that perfection that sees no snakes in our grass. We are also not given the playing field from which all traumas have been etherized, eradicated, disemboweled or levelled. And we bring them with us, wherever we go.
It is our relationship to the demons/daimons that can shift from one of avoidance, denial and distractions of so many varieties to one of recognition, acceptance, and then of reflection. The content and method of those reflections, too, can shift from our dependence on the literal, the empirical and the diagnostic/criminal charge to a more literate, metaphoric, archetypal and depth perception. Rather than chasing our tails, and our obsessions with illness, and crime, could we not shift our individual and our collective gaze to a very different plane: from the operating or the court room to the theatre where the gods are having their/our say and way with us.
And these gods will not remain as solo voices, without new casts of
gods/goddesses entering on the stages of our psyche, given the appropriate circumstance, with others who, too, are giving voice/action/meaning/purpose to the voices of their own gods. None of us is only a “king” or “queen” nor is anyone of us only a warrior or a trickster. None of us is only a seducer or a seductress, or an innocent, an orphan or victim. Thinking metaphorically, archetypally and non-literally can be a release from the small, concrete and steel cages of the literal, the empirical, the nominal and the avoidance in which we try to “live.”
These are not original thoughts of your scribe, but rather interpretative borrowings from James Hillman and others, whose scribblings have been, and continue to shine a light into the darkness of so many tragedies for which we are neither prepared nor are we even tolerant.
We need not become tolerant to self-destruction in order to stretch the limits of our shared, shrivelled and shrivelling imaginations to places not where self-destruction becomes normalized but to where we are much more tolerant of our own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and even of our strengths without having to adopt their “crowns” as integral components of our identities as men especially.
Slaves to an unattainable, unreachable, and even distorted and fallacious notion(s) of masculinity, in order to belong, and to fit in, and to achieve success, especially when that success is both ephemeral and addictive, seems like a potential recipe for self-sabotage. And for some men, it is literally and metaphorically lethal.
It is not from merely a firm conviction opposed to capital punishment that these notions emerge but rather from the conviction that from the observations and experiences of a single life, it seems clear that too many men are struggling, like King Sisyphus, condemned to rolling a stone uphill only to have it continually roll back down, for eternity.
Sisyphus cannot be the only Greek king worthy of our unconscious emulation!