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so let’s talk about suicide

08/02/13 , , , , , , , , ,

recently, i read mary karr‘s poem “suicide’s note: an annual”, which she wrote in response to her friend david foster wallace hanging himself.  i wanted to share it with you just for literary reasons.  however, i thought it might be a good opportunity to discuss the larger issue of suicide.  i know it’s an uncomfortable topic for some, but we should devote some attention/thought to it instead of ignoring/avoiding.

let’s start by reading karr’s poem over a few times below (via poetry mag).  i’ll use some of the lines as a springboard into the broader talk:

Suicide’s Note: An Annual
Mary Karr

I hope you’ve been taken up by Jesus
though so many decades have passed, so far apart we’d grown
     between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters
           and phone calls and your face vanishing into a noose that
I couldn’t
     today name the gods
           you at the end worshipped, if any, praise being
impossible for the devoutly miserable. And screw my church who’d
     roast in Hell poor suffering
           bastards like you, unable to bear the masks
of their own faces. With words you sought to shape
     a world alternate to the one that dared
           inscribe itself so ruthlessly across your eyes, for you
could not, could never
     fully refute the actual or justify the sad heft of your body, earn
           your rightful space or pay for the parcels of oxygen you
inherited. More than once you asked
     that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera
           I loved so my ghost might inhabit you and you ingest my belief
in your otherwise-only-probable soul. I wonder does your
     death feel like failure to everybody who ever
           loved you as if our collective CPR stopped
too soon, the defib paddles lost charge, the corpse
     punished us by never sitting up. And forgive my conviction
           that every suicide’s an asshole. There is a good reason I am not
God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.
     I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
           your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,
     each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.
          We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.

“With words you sought to shape/ a world alternate to the one that dared/ inscribe itself so ruthlessly across your eyes”: wallace’s 2005 commencement speech @ kenyon college continues to inspire to this day.  here’s a fancy clip from it (directed by matthew friedell).

that wallace was able to uplift others while being bogged down by a depression that ultimately pushed him to end his life is inspiring in its own right.  also, when you think about the times when people are shocked by a suicide, it shows how people’s words or expressions could be part of a world that they’re trying to create (for themselves & others) but not always a complete depiction of the world that they personally see & feel every day.

“More than once you asked/ that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera/ I loved so my ghost might inhabit you and you ingest my belief/ in your otherwise-only-probable soul”: breathing is an important theme throughout the poem.  love (as people, words & feelings) is inhaled like air, showing its bond & the high degree of necessity to a person.  at times, depression can sap not just one’s desire to live, but the mere ability to live as well by cutting off such love.  self-esteem boosts from friends and family can serve as cpr for the soul, breathing fresh belief into the depressed.  however also like cpr, sometimes those boosts aren’t always enough to ensure survival.

“There is a good reason I am not/ God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten”: maybe my favorite line.  i love the idea of thinking about good reasons why you’re not god.  there’s also a raw anger here that echoes the confusion, the frustration, the loss of those left behind by the “self-smitten.” at the same time, the speaker’s acknowledgment that it’s good for her not to have the almighty power to act on those emotions (added to her hoping the deceased is with jesus & later requesting forgiveness for her “asshole conviction”) makes me read more compassion than the words might show on the surface.

sometimes when people say that they want to die, i think they really want their specific way of living to end instead of life in general.  they’re in a rut of some design that they desperately need to escape and death looks like the way to freedom.  as wallace points out in the video above, there are everyday choices available to us that we can exercise to change our trajectory and improve our outlook on life.  however, sometimes that’s not enough.  in that case, having a support system is critical.  whatever combination of god, loved ones, counselors, and medication that works best.  and yet still for some, that too isn’t enough (or worse, the necessary support system isn’t always available).

this is important to remember for those looking at the suicide from the outside.  personally, i think suicide is wrong.  you can focus on your value to the people around you (even if that value hasn’t been fully realized yet).  you can think about how you’re throwing away breaths that the terminally ill would kill for.  however way you wanna slice it, your life is precious.  your life is worth protecting.  as long as you’re alive, your life can get better.  that said, without fully knowing the depths of one’s despair and torment, it’s not right for me to judge the depressed/suicidal as weak, selfish assholes who will roast in hell.  ultimately, that’s something between the person and god.

i want to hear from you.  what are your thoughts on suicide, from the perspective of the depressed and of those close to the depressed?  how do your views mesh with those depicted in the poem?

related: an interesting read on suicide and why we should talk more about it (via harpers) | the full audio of wallace’s 2005 commencement speech | “feed your faith…”


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This is really deep and timely. Depression is a phenomenon that many battle on a daily basis. Unfortunately too many succumb. No one is immune. Social support and a non-judgmental attitude are integral to the care. Life is so precious. Hopefully, we will not merely look, but see and make every effort to alleviate, and ameliorate and help, especially those closest to us – those we claim to love.



nicely put



2 notes

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