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Poems and Prose on Suicide

Read excerpts from Jennifer Michael Hecht's book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, the original essay that she wrote following the suicide of a friend, and a few poems she read for us.

» On Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus
» "On Suicide"
» "No Hemlock Rock"
» "Men Wept"
» Conclusion from Stay

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Five years ago today, I witnessed a friend's suicide as I tried to stop him, to slow him down, to give him the pause to think about what he was doing. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him and what I could have said differently or done differently that day that may have kept him from making a mistake that would affect so many people. I'm still dealing with a lot of guilt for not being able to stop him. Thank you for for this show and it's timing, I feel like it came when I needed it the most.

Thank you. It's been over twenty years since I last battled suicidal thoughts, and your show reminded me of how grateful I am to have had excellent help in staying alive. Two thoughts from those days: One friend told me I couldn't kill myself because if I did, I wouldn't find out what comes next. Another friend said that when people told her to "put it behind her" (abuse), her reply was, "I didn't put it behind me; I stand on it." My wish for this world is not to take away anyone's pain, but to help one another to stand on it.

A big piece that is missing from this discussion with Jennifer and her work seems to be any deep acknowledgement of the intense suffering that one is feeling when suicide feels like a legitimate answer. The lack of this acknowledgement is a great void in this program.
Another important piece that is missing is that our culture doesn't safely allow one to discuss suicide or the fact that one is having thoughts and serious considerations of suicide. Even in supposedly safe environments such as therapy it can often feel unsafe to talk about suicide because of the labels that then get attached to the person. Jennifer seems to encourage that conversation be allowed, but she herself, even after all her research still can't comfortably talk about suicide! Calling it "IT" and stumbling over her words. I listened to the unedited version and was surprised by what appeared to be her uncomfortableness with talking about her own thoughts of suicide.
I do agree with Krista's reflection that the conversation about suicide needs to open up as it has with bullying. And an important part of that is creating truly safe environments where people can talk about the pain they are in and say the word suicide without others flinching. As family and friends, we need to expand our capacity to hear this from people we care about and others in our close and also greater communities.
I encourage On Being to have this be the start of ongoing conversations about suicide and our cultures ability to have open conversations on this critical matter.

I am sorry that Ms. Hecht has lost loved ones to suicide. I am sorry she has coped with suicidal thoughts. I appreciate her good intentions in trying to encourage people to avoid dying by suicide. Judging and shaming those who die by suicide, and judging and shaming those with suicidal thoughts is not the way to attempt to prevent suicide.

Regrettably, Ms. Hecht uses stigmatizing and disrespectful terms and thoughts about those who die by suicide in her attempts to stop suicide. Currently, it is preferrable to use the phrase 'died by suicide' rather than terms like 'committed suicide' and 'murder'. She has read some of the history about sucide. She manages to repeat a few of the facts and misrepresent others.

Sadly, she fails to grasp the distinction between rational and irrational suicide. Rational suicide is an individual choice. The vast majority of suicides die by irrational suicide (with underlying mental challenge). Irrational suicide has nothing to do with choice. Those who die by irrational suicide do so without the ability to reason. Had Ms. Hecht completed a bit more research, she may have come across the idea that those in the throes of suicidal ideation have tunnel vision. They are simply unable to grasp the consequences of their deaths. They are escaping pain. Talking, ideas, and compassion certainly may help. All of Ms.Hechts moralistic bullying of those with mental challenge and suicidal thoughts is pointless. Worse---her baloney takes progressive talk about suicide prevention and mental challenge backwards into darkness and shame.

Just because Ms. Hecht has managed to thus far quell her own demons does not give her the right to judge others. I regret that this person receives a stage to spread her woefully mistaken ideas about suicide. Also, she makes money on the backs of those who die by suicide while shaming them. She seems impressed with her own intelligence, her awards and her books; and her own abilities to dodge suicide's allure---but she fails to grasp that irrational suicide requires understanding and compassion---not stigmitization, judging, shaming, and blaming. Irrational suicide is a sad tragedy without blame, and without shame. Avoiding suicide is not as simplistic as eating a donut or writing a poem.

I think your interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht was very insightful and open. I lost my beloved son to suicide on August 21, 2010 and my life changed forever. I could relate to so much of the conversation about the aftermath of losing someone to suicide. It is unfathomable and horrifying.

I am now a suicide awareness activist. Please watch my speech at a suicide prevention conference in Belfast N Ireland in November 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSy3hU5hMEQ I do want to point out that when we say 'commit' suicide we are harking back to the time when suicide was considered either a sin or a crime. Please in future say 'died by suicide' or took their own life. Thank you.

I loved this interview and loved reading Hecht's book. That said, I was disappointed that the perspective and arguments about suicide were exclusively Western in scope. I would have appreciated a conversation with more cultural breadth. There are parts of Asia where the suicide rate (especially amongst young adults) is off the charts. Suicide is the leading cause of death amongst Asian American women between the ages of 18-30. While suicide may have universal, even biological, tendencies, society and culture, as Hecht herself argues, figures into how one confronts self-killing. Moving beyond a particular scope would have enriched this program.

It seems like the most productive discussion about suicide would be to question how the values of our society contribute (or not) to whether suicide seems like the best option for some. The next question would be: what can an individual do to support values found to decrease suicidality.
My own answer to the first question would include our valuing what a person does (doing) more than the person (being). Another would be the original mistake of thinking we can know that some people are good and some are evil, or bad, illegitimate, wrong, invalid. To put it in simpler words, judging people. Lastly, our culture values material success more than compassion, so people who are in pain feel quite alone and forgotten.
My own response to the second question is to rid my mind of as much judging, blaming, shaming as I can possibly find. I try to value every person I meet as much as I would Buddha, Jesus, Mohamed or Alanis Morissette. I work to find accessible methods to relieve people's suffering and bring them to people who need it.

This interview was a stunning narrative on the interconnection of all human beings. A profound production... thank you!

I found this episode difficult to listen to knowing how many people are suffering who do not have support or a network, who feel completely "outside the camp." In a rather fragmented, individually oriented society such as ours, this is not uncommon. I just listened to a lovely teaching on the weekly Torah portion by a rabbinical student< Jessica Kate Meyer, talking about how it is all our responsibility to try to make sure no one falls through the cracks. https://romemu.org/sermons/metzora/the-long-journey-home

The broadcast focused on two main aspects of suicide. One aspect being how committing suicide is sometimes celebrated as a moral freedom and seen as something people have the right to do when they decide to end their current suffering. The second and main aspect discussed is how demons and the devil have been associated with suicide, committing the act is looked down upon and seen as a very selfish escape from a situation that may soon change and get better.
The broadcast was a very interesting look at suicide in the human and humane context, which is a commitment to live, and a commitment to other human beings. One quote that really stuck out was “sometimes to live is the real act of courage.” This really is a deep way to look at suicide and the comment when really thought about is a powerful one. Another related comment I found powerful was "Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment." The broadcast does a good job looking at suicide as something that places far more burden being left on the loved ones and the pain and anguish families deal with.
Jennifer states that suicide is usually always impulsive which she gave the example about the suicide fence at the Golden State Bridge, if a person couldn’t find a way to get over the fence they usually went home instead of going to another bridge. Another example was about the contrast of feelings and mood. We have fallen in and out of love with the same person, we have yelled at family and friends and said we would never speak to them again, even though most of the time that only lasts a short amount of time.
Jennifer says, “We have many different moods that profoundly change our outlook and it’s not right or fair to let the worst one murder all of the others.”
Although I do not personally deal with depression I have experienced how difficult it can be to communicate and get through to someone who is severely depressed. One idea mentioned by Jennifer to help people who often fall in and out of depression was, when your in a time where you feel happy write yourself a letter that reminds you that happiness is possible and to not do anything crazy because you want to experience this happiness again. When your feeling down look at the letter to remind yourself this will only last short term. “Remind your mood that the other one exists.”
This was an interesting and enlightening look at the views of suicide from the aspect of the people left behind.

A comment in response to the idea of writing yourself a letter for times when depressed or suicidal … That is a lovely idea but, as a very aware and informed commenter commented above, at those times (more during deeply serious suicidal depression, where a person is very close to completing a plan), such a letter means nothing. Because at such times, often one's thinking capacity is very filtered (I agree that this piece really doesn't address what often happens to the thinking capacity of someone who is genuinely planning or considering suicide) and hence it is very easy to dismiss things that even we have written to ourselves, when they are entirely the opposite of our experience at that time. Also, reading all of these arguments / suggestions is also likely only to help people who are not in the depths of suicidality / on the edge but rather be concepts that may help people not get that far, perhaps, if they hear them in advance. However, I do wholeheartedly agree that the availability of skilled and attuned therapists can be invaluable (and access to these needs to be worked on, as well as 'safe' non-hospital environments where people could stay, without necessarily having to be subjected to pathologising and heavy medication - which may actually just delay the realization of how a person got there and lead to continuation of a cycle of suffering). Even if nothing that is said in a therapy session that seems to get through, simply being able to talk about what is happening and - hopefully - agree and plan to wait another day, or two … and perhaps another day or two … can at least help create some space where hopefully the tunnelled thinking passes somewhat and then there may be space for stepping back a bit from the edge and hearing other options…

The broadcast was a very interesting look at suicide in the human and humane context, which is a commitment to live, and a commitment to other human beings. One quote that really stuck out was “sometimes to live is the real act of courage.” This really is a deep way to look at suicide and the comment when really thought about is a powerful one. Another related comment I found powerful was "Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment." The broadcast does a good job looking at suicide as something that places far more burden being left on the loved ones and the pain and anguish families deal with.
Jennifer states that suicide is usually always impulsive which she gave the example about the suicide fence at the Golden State Bridge, if a person couldn’t find a way to get over the fence they usually went home instead of going to another bridge. Another example was about the contrast of feelings and mood. We have fallen in and out of love with the same person, we have yelled at family and friends and said we would never speak to them again, even though most of the time that only lasts a short amount of time.
Jennifer says, “We have many different moods that profoundly change our outlook and it’s not right or fair to let the worst one murder all of the others.”

This interview was very interesting and had a lot of good points in it. I felt that Jennifer Hecht brought up some good issyes that relate back to suicide. Suicide is a hard thing to talk about and even deal with. There are so many different questions to why do people do this? what drives them? But learning from the interview that as time goes on, the rates of suicide have gone up; mostly in college students and even adults. I know life can be very hard especially when you're young; your still trying to figure life out and sometimes it just takes longer to get a grip on life and figure it out. but in time it'll happen, just wait. I liked in the interview that Jennifer says "give your future self a chance", very true statement. we only get this one life; lets try and make the best of it and make ourselves happy as possible. Life has so many great things to offer; maybe sometimes we are blinded by negativity, but the bright light is there.

One of my favorite quotes from the interview was "Others see things in us that we can't see in ourselves". That is so true. I can say I look at myslef and I just see a person, just me; but ithers see something more than that. They see a lover, a friend, a brother, a best friend, a son, etc. And I myself look at other people and say the same thing. My best friend the other week called herslf fat and not attractive, I said I see someone beautiful and amazing. We are blind in whaat we see in ourselves because we live and see ourselves everyday; others don't. But the moral of the interview was that suicide isn't the answer, yes we can do it but its not worth it. Life has so musch to offer and as people we need each other. I don't like sucide, thankfully I never knew anyone that went through with it bacause as being still in the land of the living, its harder for us to understand than the person that is already gone. When bad things happen in life or we are feeling down we all just have to remember that there are more days ahead of us and we don't know what the future holds, so just hold on and wait for life.

you're asking for cultural resistance, not to suicide, but to depression. This is an interesting question.

Had i wished I heard this a couple of weeks ago prior to a friend taking their life.

Re: communal understanding of the impact of suicide.

Awareness of how my death would impact others is the only thing which has kept me alive. If I were not married with kids I would not be alive.

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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.

Production Credits

Host/Executive Producer: Krista Tippett

Executive Editor: Trent Gilliss

Technical Director: Chris Heagle

Senior Producer: Lily Percy

Associate Producer: Mariah Helgeson

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