Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mockingbird: Suicide Paradoxes and the role of expectation

One of the things Roy Baumeister said several years ago I have been wanting to write about for some time is that the paradoxical necessity of men in the creation and transmission of culture is their disposability. He bluntly put it this way, if half the men of a generation died there would still be enough penises left to impregnate the rest of the female population and ensure another generation. If half of the wombs in a generation died the human race in a region is in considerably greater peril. Men, he pointed out, are historically likely to form broad but shallow social networks and to commit to unusually high risk/high payoff ventures, most of which fail. Males, broadly speaking, band together in the constant and often unsuccessful contest to obtain glory.

As noted over at the Freakonomics website

... For men and women, being unmarried, widowed, or divorced increases the risk. The most typical suicide is a man 75 or older. But in that age bracket, where a lot of people are dying from a lot of things, suicide isn’t even a top 10 cause of death. For people from ages 25 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it’s in the top five for all Americans from ages 15 to 54. In terms of timing, suicide peaks on Mondays

The beginning of the work week, right?

WRAY: So, yes the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns. This may turn out to be a very powerful explanation and explain a lot of the variance that we observe. It’s backed up by the fact that the one state that is on par with what we see in the suicide belt is Alaska.

DUBNER: All right, so now you can get a picture of the American who’s most likely to kill himself: an older, white male who owns a gun, probably unmarried and maybe unemployed, living somewhere out west, probably in a rural area. Now, don’t you want to know: where aren’t people killing themselves?

These are men who have discovered, if I may hazard a guess, that they are disposable to society. An answer to this crisis of meaning would not be solved by a self-help statement, or even an affirmation of one's great value in the abstract. Christians who propose to such men "You are loved by God" will be saying something meaningless if it is not backed up by the flesh and blood love that gives proof to the abstraction affirmation of the value of the person.

Whites are more likely to commit suicide than blacks. Quite a bit more, it seems. White men from relatively affluent backgrounds are more likely to kill themselves than women from comparable backgrounds. The crisis, to hazard a guess, is an existential one in which a man discovers how disposable he really is to the society he has tried to be part of. If one lives in a much poorer region or society in which infant mortality is high or death is simply a normal risk of life there is no commensurate crisis of personal meaning or value in society because, well, you could kick off at any time due to an illness or a war or starvation.

DUBNER: “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to him life.”
HAMERMESH: Exactly. Well, that’s just an economic statement. You’re weighing the benefits on one side of the equation, the costs of the other. If the costs exceed the benefits, you chop off the investment.

This is not to say i'm endorsing suicide or that any of the above are but it is an interesting proposal and it seems to have a ring of truth to it. When i consider the suicides in Scripture, most particularly those of Samson, King Saul, Ahithophel, and Judas I see men who rose to a particular level within their culture, frequently to the top or very near the top of their social unit. Then they made a mistake, a huge mistake which could be described as either an irreversible decision or as an irremediable character flaw or both. Samson's dim-witted horniness led him to marry a Phillistine and compromise the national security of the people he was pledged to protect. King Saul was forsaken by the Lord for attempting to conflate kingly and priestly roles and chose suicide over death at the hands of the Phillistines who defeated him. Ahithophel sided with an insurrection against king David as retaliation for what David had done to his descendent Bathsheba and to Uriah the Hittite, one of his in-laws. Judas, well, we don't really have to get too detailed about the same of betraying Jesus now, do we?

What is a common thread in each of these suicides described in scripture is that men who had a substantial role or at least the potential for a substantial role in society failed. They saw that their own lives did not measure up to what they either expected of themselves or what they realized was expected of them. Death before dishonor. But at another level these men could see that they had through their decisions rendered themselves disposable. Samson's hope in the end was that with his own death hundreds or thousands of Phillistines might still die with him. Saul killed himself knowing that Samuel had annointed another man king. He was utterly forsaken by God and left to die on the battlefield. For a man in despair about his circumstances and having seen his sons die he saw at the bitterest level that he was disposable. God had appointed someone else to rule in his place and at that point Saul decided that ending his life was the only decision to be made if the alternatives were death at the hands of the Phillistines or life deposed from the throne and with David on the throne. Ahithophel saw his advice was not followed by Absalom and went and killed himself. At that moment he knew what Absalom's fate would be and realizing he had betrayed king David and that Absalom had no chance of success ended his life.

Obviously for thousands of years people have discussed suicide, its motives, its reasons, its effects and the like. Christians generally have agreed that suicide is wrong. I agree with all the reasons you would suspect would be brought forth. And yet Samson was considered a hero of the faith. Some even go so far as to insist that we cannot even say that Samson killed himself. Samson's suicide/genocidal gesture at the end of his life is recast as an act of war and not just a suicide. Why? Because we want to insist that Samson's act not be viewed as a suicide due to a theological preconception that suicide is, say, an unpardonable sin. If it were, however, then how could the author of Hebrews say Samson was a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11? Samson could have and should have chosen to not commit suicide but to go out like a man killing as many Phillistines as possible before they killed him, not taking the sissy route of killing himself. If you don't catch which sorts of theological positions I'm making sarcastic quips about never mind them.

My main point here is that if we try to sidestep Samson's suicide we are deliberately ignoring the prayer "Let me die with the Phillistines" to ensure our systematic theological ducks are all in a row. We could say that in the annals of scripture those who commit suicide have come under disciplinary action by the Lord without necessarily assuming, as some are want to do, that this indicates the person who commits suicide cannot possibly have been a real Christian.

What is more by making such a move the risk we make may not be worth it--we may decide or presume that the man or woman who kills himself has done so out of selfishness when the decision may be based on a sense of failure and a realization of the disposability of one's own life. If it is always wrong for a man to make a decision in which the outcome of death is better than a dishonor then what do we say of those who chose martyrdom rather than renounce Christ?

There was a man who committed suicide at Mars Hill years ago. I never really knew him well but he seemed on the few occasions that I had spent time with him to be rather withdrawn, even morose. People were shocked at his decision and dismayed and this I can understand, but I also got the impression that when the death was done that lives were going to go on. As sad as it is to make this observation, in a megachurch that has talked a lot about community the man's suicide left hardly more than a few ripples.

If suicide can be said to be motivated by a man's realization of his disposability within a society then, unfortunately, it would appear that the suicide was undertaken with an accurate realization. This is the part we can object to but must concede is unfortunately true, those who kill themselves are taking themselves out of a society which will forget them. Let us not forget the grim observation of Koholeth in Ecclesiastes that even the great men who accomplish great things and do much good will be forgotten within a generation after his death. How much more the man who is considered for a short time only after he has chosen to end his life?

Though I stand by my observation that in scripture those who commit suicide were under disciplinary actions from the Lord I do not wish to presume this indicated damnation automatically in every case. But today I go a bit further and suggest that the suicides in scripture were committed, as I have been saying, by men confronted with a combination of the shame of their own failures as they perceive them coupled with the realization of their disposability within the community in which they lived.

Consider Saul, his male heirs were dead. His daughter could not inherit the throne, could she? His appointed successor had even gone off to the land of the Phillistines and was, so far as Saul could perceive, preparing to take down Israel and claim the throne for himself. God Himself had rejected him at every turn. If you were in Saul's position would you have considered suicide to be the lesser failure than being killed by Phillistines in battle? Would you have considered a platitude such as "repent and God will restore you?" Restore you to what?

It is here useful to borrow an observation from Adolph Schlatter regarding the Christian message presented through Paul. Paul observes that the human heart is incapable in itself of repentance and that Paul's good news was not to be seen strictly in terms of his being a "preacher of repentance". Preachers and theologians who insist on a preaching of repentance are not, I suggest, necessarily all wrong to preach this but there is another sense in which if you insist from the pulpit that people do what they are unable to do then what have you achieved?

A peson who struggles with the question of whether or not to continue living who is told that those who commit suicide are selfish and will incur the Lord's judgment are not likely to take from this declaration the observation that they should just not kill themselves because they have a chance to repent. They likely already see themselves both as failures and as those in some sense forsaken by God. If you tell a man contemplating suicide that if he goes through with it that he will incur God's judgment he may internally reply by way of his attempt that he considers himself stricken by God already. And doesn't Ecclesiastes warn us that it is possible God may bless a man with immense possessions but not give him the capacity to enjoy those things? As Koholeth put it, there is nothing new under the sun.

I've already been putting this all in potentially polemically terms. You or I could say that the man who commits suicide has selfishly decided his life doesn't measure up to the greatness he expected for it and would rather end life on his own terms than go through shame and failure. But could it not be also said in reply that the man who commits suicide feels a judgment within himself from you and I that nothing he does will matter enough to make us miss him when he is gone or to make him anything less than a disposable man to us even while he lives? Our judgment that he is a failure for having taken his life may be as much a part of his decision as our belief that he undertook this destruction of self out of a selfish sense of unrealized entitlement. It may not simply be his own wish for more meaning that spurs his action.

Remember that those men who killed themselves in the Scriptures were those who faced the prospect of living with a shame for which society would never forgive them. We should be careful to avoid a judgment on the man who kills himself as thinking too much of himself when it may also be our propensity to deem him superfluous that his act of suicide paradoxically recognizes. It may not be his own dreams of meaning and greatness thwarted that leads him to this but his realization that he ultimately cannot ever fulfill those things required of him. The judgment is internal, yes, but the criteria can be as external as internal.

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