"On Suicide" by Jennifer Michael Hecht

"On Suicide" by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Hi. I’m posting out of turn today because I’m sitting here still kind of freaked that Rachel Wetzsteon killed herself. I was friends with her and I was friends with Sarah Hannah who killed herself a few years ago. We all got our Ph.D.s at Columbia around the same time (me in history, them in poetry) and were all three poets in New York City over a lot of years. The last time I saw Sarah was at the MLA just a few months before she died. My husband bumped into Rachel a few months ago on the highline, the new park on old elevated train tracks, he had the kids with him, they were all just up there walking around, looking at the flowers.

So I want to say this, and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself. Life has always been almost too hard to bear, for a lot of the people, a lot of the time. It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear, it’s only almost too hard to bear. Hear me out.

In the West, in the past, the dominant religions told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it, if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into a bloodbath. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.

I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. You are going to like this, stay with me. 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 that every suicide is also a delayed homicide. You have to stay. The reason I say you are going to like this is twofold. First of all, next time you are seriously considering suicide you can dismiss it quickly and go play a video game (or something else meaningless and fun, it’s when we try for meaning that we go crashing into the existential wall – the universe is absurd, to get along with it, you should be too). Second, and this one’s a little harder to describe, if you are even a tiny bit staying alive for the sake of the community, as a favor to the rest of us, I need to make it clear to you that we are grateful that you stay. I am grateful that you stay alive.

Since I started thinking about this, when Sarah died, I started thinking about how if I’m grateful that you haven’t killed yourself (even though the fact of it only recently came into my mind), then you are also likely grateful that I haven’t killed myself (whether consciously yet or not). I have found that thinking about this can feel like a multitude of invisible arms linking to support me. I can fall back into faith in humanity (which is hard to have, admittedly, but the guy I hope is good at least exists). We have to carry each other, like Bono says.

The truth is I want you to live for your sake, not for ours. But the injunction is true and real. Anyway, some part of you doesn’t want to end it all, and I’m talking to her or him, to that part of you. I’m throwing you a rope, you don’t have to explain it to the monster in you, just tell the monster it can do whatever it wants, but not that. Later we’ll get rid of the monster, for now just hang on to the rope. I know that this means a struggle from one second to the next, let alone one day at a time. Know that the rest of us know that among the faces we have met there are some right now who can barely take another minute of the pain and uncertainty. And we are in the room with you, going from one moment to the next, in whatever condition you manage to do it. Sobbing and useless is great! Sobbing and useless is a million times better than dead. A billion times. Thank you for choosing sobbing and useless over dead.

There are poets and other artists, psychotherapists and average Joes, who are thinking of your struggle and appreciating what you have managed to put up with. We are grateful. Best of all, practicing tuning in to your gratitude for other’s staying alive also tones up your ability to feel the gratitude that people are extending to you too, you start to feel the support of it, the invisible arms. Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.

Originally published in The Best American Poetry on January 11, 2010

Voices on the Radio

is a poet, philosopher, and historian. Her books include Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Doubt: A History, and Who Said.