The Art of Reconciliation
The Art of Reconciliation: Grappling with the Tragedy and Gravity of Suicide
Our society often equates cynicism with intellectual sophistication and feigns satisfaction in attributing all tragedies to human nature. The natural selfishness of each person appears to reveal how little sacredness life can potentially hold. Yet, it is only after the personal experience of a tragedy, like the loss of a loved one to suicide or cancer, that we are forced to be honest with ourselves. Our natural reaction to mourn and deeply grieve the loss of life contradicts the reasoned conclusion society has already established about the value of a human life. When faced with the daunting task of comforting a friend who was contemplating suicide, I felt utterly helpless in trying to prevent her actions, while she felt utterly hopeless in trying to control her emotions. Only then did I recognize how powerless my words were and how powerful her actions against herself and those who loved her could be.
While we subscribe to a “‘throw away’ culture,” as Pope Francis describes it, in which “human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” such a view of human life appears to invalidate the pain we experience when such life is lost.[i] Tragedies like suicide shake the foundations of this culture. We are consequently forced to re-evaluate the various worldviews that inform our emotions and opinions.
One worldview to which many subscribe, especially in cultures that uphold democracy as a political pillar of justice, perceives human freedom to be of utmost importance, so much so that freedom and autonomy becomes something for which one might die. As Locke stated in the Second Treatise of Government, humans have both the freedom of “action and [disposal] of their possessions and persons.”[ii] Similarly, Kant’s autonomy formula of the “Categorical Imperative” that any will of a rational human being is “a will that legislates universal law,” complements this spirit of centering human value on autonomy.[iii] The source of life’s worth is therefore in itself subjective—both open and limited to personal discretion. Human dignity lies in our status as autonomous agents and value in the mere freedom to choose arbitrarily—according to one’s own will—rather than to choose rightly.
This autonomous view of the human person coincides with and informs a libertarian outlook on human rights that justifies suicide as a political right. Suicide, an action that does not directly harm another, is “a morally permissible exercise of individual freedom.”[iv] A person’s worth lies in his ability to choose and, therefore, requires respect for her choices, even when that choice is suicide or voluntary euthanasia. This particular view, however, does enforce one condition—that all action (and in this action, all harm) must be consensual. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics insists that suicide, while a “wrong to the state or the community,” cannot be condemned as unjust to the self, “for he suffers voluntarily, but no one is voluntarily treated unjustly.”[v] The choice to commit suicide for honor or proclaimed moral duty can in fact be praised. Locke’s statement on the state of freedom within humans’ state of nature explicitly gives license to abandoning “bare preservation” for a “nobler use.”[vi] While Locke does not specify what this “nobler use” may be, he acknowledges a justification for suicide that is potentially praiseworthy.
Hence, this non-tragic view of suicide emanates from the autonomy it elevates. The autonomy itself does coincide with our instinct to praise courage when one’s death represents defiance against political or social injustice. Today, the young martyrs of the Arab Spring are no longer mere “victims of the Arab states’ violence” but the “fuel [for] popular outrage at the Arab regimes.”[vii] For them, death represented the greatest sacrifice, which they selflessly chose to make for the larger community. Such acts invoke a deep respect that is granted by their personal autonomy. Yet, the elevation of autonomy fails to account for our natural discouragement of suicide. In fact, such a view belittles human dignity and life. Kant himself admits to the contradiction in attacking the very source of autonomy that gives us our moral duty. To commit suicide would be to “annihilate the subject of morality in one’s person” and thus to “[debase] humanity in one person.”[viii] By the standards of this view of life, suicide is both the ultimate attack on and appreciation of human autonomy.
In contrast to this glorification of autonomy, the Darwinian view of human life places self-preservation and gene proliferation at the center. This view bases its certainty in evolutionary biology and the capability of science to eventually reduce all human thought and emotion to the physics underlying the chemistry within psychology and neuroscience. The corresponding Darwinian creed of human life deduces that all morality must stem from self-preservation. Hence, while autonomists lament all illness, whether physical or mental, evolutionists cannot comment on the morality of any human action.
Such an outlook inevitably implicates suicide as contradictory to the natural love of living organisms, while simultaneously condoning suicide as an inevitable consequence of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Just as Plato attributes suicide to “cowardice or laziness, undertaken by individuals too delicate to manage life’s vicissitudes,” so Darwinists ultimately see the loss of life as a natural step in the evolutionary process in which the “fittest”—the physically and mentally healthiest—should survive. Depression remains the primary clinical diagnosis for those considering suicide.[ix] Psychologists have suggested that, within the emotional, cognitive, motivational, and somatic clusters of depressive symptoms, each cluster affects the other, resulting in a “paralysis of the will” that can almost be categorised as a “terminal illness.”[x]
This Darwinian perspective on the human person, however, undermines our deep-seated desire to mourn and grieve death. If love cannot exist except by hormonal reactions producing endorphins, the loss of a loved one only brings emotional pain out of the personal and selfish desire to retain that person for our own happiness. Our personal experiences show that suicide brings a more profound sense of tragedy in recognizing that someone chose to end his existence. Such a reaction causes to emerge the underlying question of whether life is sacred. Neither the autonomous nor the Darwinian view sufficiently captures the profundity of our emotional, moral, and spiritual response to the tragedy of suicide.
On the other hand, according to the Christian faith, the value of human life is defined by the initial intention of a human’s coming into existence. Just as children physically bear the image of their parents, Christianity also describes humans to be image-bearers and children of God. The Roman Catholic catechism teaches that, “It is God who remains the sovereign Master of Life,” obliging humans to “preserve it for his honour and the salvation of our souls.”[xi] Even when we are encouraged to entirely indulge in our own wills or animalistic tendencies as Darwinian creatures, we cannot ignore the pre-religious, intuitive appreciation for the sacredness of life, explained by the presence of a divine, intentional creator and a soul that longs to join its maker. The natural tendency to hold onto the essence of someone who has passed away reveals our rejection of the belief that life is purely physical. Christianity attributes this essence to the soul that cannot perish, even when its physical shell has been destroyed.
In light of this view, Christianity creates a unique and powerful lens for analysing the moral gravity and tragedy of intentionally rejecting the sacred gift of life. While the Bible does not explicitly condemn suicide, it does claim homicide is a sin (“you shall not murder”). [xii] The commandment’s omission of an additional conditional phrase (“against your neighbour”)—as seen in “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”—implies an overarching inclusion of the murder of one’s self: suicide. Furthermore, if life were indeed a gift that the Lord can give and take away, to kill oneself also involves “play God,” indirectly defying the commandment that “You shall have no other Gods above me.”[xiii]
St. Thomas Aquinas defended St. Augustine, the first to offer a justification of Christianity’s prohibition on suicide, on these grounds:
- “Suicide is contrary to natural self-love, whose aim is to preserve us.” He further wrote that “in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life” whether for the sake of desiring heaven or of ridding misery and shame.
- “Suicide injures the community of which an individual is a part.”
- “Suicide violates our duty to God because God has given us life as a gift.”[xiv]
Our bodies are described as “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God,” bought at a price.[xv] These three factors coincide with our own natural feelings of moral revulsion against suicide. In attempting to understand how one might want to destroy what is more valuable than his most valuable possession— his very self—we experience great pain and perhaps even anger. Each person is inextricably linked to a family and a community, from which comes an unspoken responsibility to care for or at least not to hurt the other members. Underlying this responsibility is the understanding that each life deserves to contain happiness. Regardless of whether we believes in a divine being or not, we instinctively treasure life as a gift, not only for ourselves but also for others, for once it is taken, it cannot be retrieved.
Just as suicide does not align with our natural instincts, based on the three grounds Aquinas laid out, it also does not align with the will of God. The great emotional suffering that the depressed endure and the consequent alienation, however, will only be exacerbated when not met with a response of kindness and mercy. Paul insists that, despite our tendency to regard one sin graver than another, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[xvi] The greatest comfort of the Christian view comes from Christ himself, who in the Gospel of Matthew invites those who feel despair—“all you who are weary and burdened”—to “come to him” and receive “rest.”[xvii] The foundation of the Christian faith rests on Christ’s death for each man to be redeemed in a regenerative hope and for his everlasting dwelling in our lives. God himself promises that those who “seek [him] with all [their] heart” will find him, their final rest and ultimate peace and happiness.[xviii] The Christian understanding of the sacredness of life that cries out against the moral travesty of suicide is the same wellspring within us from which tears of sorrow and waters of mercy flow. As Pope John Paul II articulated, the “temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy, and support in the time of trial,” rather than a blanket rejection of God and acceptance of eternal damnation.[xix] The aim of Christ’s fulfilment of the promise of hope embedded in the sacred vocation of the human person is not to scare us into obedience but to encourage us to enter a redeeming relationship with Him.
With the added, distinctive hope of salvation in an afterlife, Christianity promises mercy—not despite the gravity of suicide but precisely because of it. Just as “God has forgiven the inexcusable in you,” Christianity calls its followers to display the same love and be “imitators of God.”[xx] While Pope Francis identifies the potential exclusion that is rife in the language of “thou shalt not” to those suffering around us, he also insists that we “have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”[xxi] It is precisely this economy that shames and kills the ones we love.
Christianity ultimately preserves what we praise in the autonomous and Darwinian views. God himself has allowed free will to underpin our actions, even though this comes at the risk of us harming ourselves. Furthermore, the Christian faith condones the instinct to esteem martyrs for both Christianity and political activists. The Christian view of human dignity also aligns with the Darwinian view of psychology; both acknowledge the need to mourn the loss of life and encourage acts of mercy towards those who have taken their own lives.
Christianity also manages to reconcile the seemingly contradictory nature of these two views. Rather than degrading the value of autonomy in human life or dismissing human life altogether in the name of physical biology, Christianity brings to the surface the natural instinct to value life as sacred, and it therefore recognizes the moral gravity of destroying one’s own life. While Christianity does not condone the act of suicide itself and indeed cries out against it, Christianity simultaneously separates the sin from the sinner. Christianity consequently focuses love and mercy on the victims of suicide and brings hope to both the sufferer and those around him or her by promising the possibility of salvation.
Above all, the Christian view inspires much needed hope amidst the inevitable whirlwind of emotions experienced by those who mourn a neighbour, a friend, or a family member who has taken his own life. The natural desire to honour and keep a lasting relationship with the deceased through remembrance, as well as the moral abhorrence and profound anguish faced, are merged and justified by the Christian vision of human life. The Christian belief elevates human dignity to supreme importance, thereby elevating to the highest importance a mission to love and thrive in community, and a responsibility to care for those who lose sight of the sacred value of their own lives. When someone in the community does follow through with suicide, Christianity allows moral aversion, deep grief, and resilient hope.
Hence, while suicide inevitably triggers a profound sense of loss and perhaps even moral confusion, Christianity does not push the victim and the mourners into greater darkness and despair. Instead, the love of Christ from which the entire faith emanates offers an alternative perspective. While autonomy in suicide ignores its underlying moral significance and tragic alienation, Darwinians reduce the emotional causes and consequences of suicide to mere psychological diagnoses, stifling our commitment to human agency. By contrast, the Christian view of life’s sacredness resolves these contradictions, logically marries the emotional tragedy and moral weight of suicide, and even provides a third element of hope for redemption. Christ ultimately brings light to the life and afterlife of the sufferer, and he brings his followers the burden to embody his love in every circumstance.
i. Francis I, Evangelii Gaudium, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013) para. 53.
ii. John Locke, “Second Treatise of Civil Government,” in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011) 713.
iii. Garrath Williams, “Kant’s Account of Reason,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013 <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/kant-reason/>.
iv. Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002) 2.
v. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011) 307.
vi. Locke, 713.
vii. Elizabeth Buckner, “The Martyrs’ Revolutions: The Role of Martyrs in the Arab Spring,” The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2012): 2.
viii. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 423.
ix. Vernon J. Geberth, “Practical Homicide Investigation,” LAW and ORDER 44.2 (1996): 9.
x. Geberth, 9.
xi. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000) q. 2280.
xii. Exodus 20:13 (NKJV).
xiii. Exodus 20:16; Job 1:21; Exodus 20:3 (NKJV).
xiv. Michael Cholbi, “Suicide,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013 <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/suicide/>.
xv. I Corinthians 6:19-20 (NKJV).
xvi. Romans 3:23. (NKJV).
xvii. Matthew 11:28 (NIV).
xviii. Jeremiah 29:13 (NKJV).
xix. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 25 March 1995, para 67.
xx. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942) 135; Ephesians 5:1 (NKJV).
xxi. Francis I, para 53-54.
Jess Tong ’17 is from Sydney, Australia. She is a prospective Government major.Aquinas, Aristotle, Darwin, death, depression, freedom, friendship, hope, injustice, kant, Locke, love, mercy, politics, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, psychology, science, suicide