Must you really go? It's a life and death decision: Review of Stay (Yale)
By Bel Mooney in The Daily Mail 1/24/14
The recent controversial suicide storyline in Coronation Street caused some people to worry that it might encourage desperately ill - or just desperate - viewers to take their own lives.
That fear is not scaremongering. Between 2007 and 2009, 25 people between the ages of 15 and 28 killed themselves in or around Bridgend, South Wales, and experts were surely right to talk of this as a ‘cluster’ - a local epidemic of the desire to leave this world, among young people who unwittingly fed each other’s lack of hope.
Such copycat behaviour is not new, as Jennifer Michael Hecht makes clear in this life-affirming book, subtitled A History Of Suicide And The Philosophies Against It.
She reminds us that Plutarch wrote of an epidemic of suicide among young women in the ancient Greek city of Miletus that was stopped only by the warning that their naked bodies would be dragged through the streets.
In the past 45 years, suicide rates all over the world have increased by 60per cent and Hecht wonders if this may be because the old religious prohibitions have all but disappeared. It used to be a crime against God to kill yourself; now people argue that it can be the ultimate act of self-determination - I am free and therefore I can choose to take my own life.
But Hecht will have none of that. She makes it clear she is not talking about those who wish to take their own lives because of terminal illness (the Coronation Street storyline) and/or intolerable pain, but for the rest who might succumb to despair she holds up a hand and cries: ‘Don’t.’
This powerful book was prompted by a double personal bereavement; two friends (poets and academics, like herself) who seemed to have everything to live for killed themselves within a year. Deeply upset, even angered, by these losses she wrote what amounted to a passionate manifesto for life.
‘I’m issuing a rule,’ she announced. ‘You are not allowed to kill yourself. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay.’
Her passionate plea drew a huge response and then led to this book. Stay is a fascinating, intelligent exploration of the way suicide was regarded in the ancient world, reminding us of the punishing treatment meted out to the poor corpses, then describing the change of attitude in the 18th century, when a turning away from religion led to a secular philosophy tolerant of suicide.
Hecht’s approval is for those through the ages who argued against the suicidal impulse - like Albert Camus, the existentialist novelist, who suggested that once we see that life is always absurd and accept that fact, we can accept life, too. This is not to ignore real despair. It is to assert that it can be overcome and that ‘more life’ is always ‘better’.
To reach the heart of Hecht’s own belief, we can go back to John Donne’s famous sermon beginning, ‘No man is an island’. The idea that we are all interconnected, like a vast jigsaw of souls, leads logically to the ringing assertion that ‘any man’s death diminishes me’.
This is the core of what the author calls ‘the human project’ - the root of all compassion, all empathy, everything that makes us truly human in the best possible sense.
Hecht’s history, from ancient texts and the Bible through to modern thinkers is essential (and accessible) reading for anybody interested in the subject, but what impressed me most of all was the freshness of her passionate belief that ‘human beings contribute just by continuing to persist in life and rejecting suicide, despite anguish’.
It is true that she fails adequately to address the type of depression which leads some people to kill themselves. The point about Stay is that it provides a message which needs to be heard amid the too-easy relativism of modern life.
Hecht is crisp: ‘Clear as it is that suicides can cause more suicides, it is clear that talking to people about rejecting suicide can help them reject suicide.’ And convincing: ‘When we cannot see our own worth and are tempted to leave life, we are doing a shining service to our community and to our future selves when we choose to stay.’
When I review a book I underline special passages, stick post-it notes and write comments in the margin. By that token this one has inspired me more than anything I’ve read in a very long time. Full of life and spirit and hope, and deeply moving, it communicates a generous love of suffering, flawed humanity. I cannot praise it highly enough and feel grateful to have read passages like this, which confirm all I hold dear: ‘None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at… the surprises life brings - the endless possibilities that living offers - and to persevere….Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2544694/Must-really-Why-not-stay-talk-STAY-BY-JENNIFER-MICHAEL-HECHT.html#ixzz2rdhKC2LJ
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