Sunday, January 17, 2010

Secular injunction against suicide

Many religions prohibit followers from taking their own lives, but of course, this does not stop roughly 1.1/10,000 people in the U.S. from doing so each year (2005 statistics). Poets, for a complex set of reasons, have an long and awful track-record of taking their own lives. Recently, one of the country's premier poets took her life, and in response, Jennifer Michael Hecht, a fellow poet and friend of the deceased, issued a plea/injunction against suicide. In "On Suicide," she writes (the emphases are mine, though):

"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.

"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 others' 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."

Below is a poem by the late poet, Rachel Wetzsteon, who provoked the outcry against suicide. I am grateful that she lived for the time she did, but it's so painfully true what Hecht writes about her: we need you with us.


At the Zen Mountain Monestary
Rachel Wetzsteon (1967-2009)

A double line of meditators sits
on mats, each one a human triangle.
Evacuate your mind of clutter now.
I do my best, squeezing the static and
the agony into a straight flat line,
but soon it soars and dips until my mind’s
activity looks (you can take the girl...)
uncannily like the Manhattan skyline.
Observe your thoughts, then gently let them go.
I’m watching them all right, unruly dots
I not only can’t part from but can’t help
transforming into restless bodies -- they’re
no sooner being thought than sprouting limbs,
no longer motionless but striding proudly,
beautiful mental jukeboxes that play
their litanies of joy and woe each day
beneath the shadow of enormous buildings.
Desires are your jailers; set them free
and roam the hills, smiling archaically.

It’s not a pretty picture, me amid
high alpine regions in my urban black,
huffing and puffing in the mountain air
and saying to myself, I’m trying but
it’s hopeless; though the tortures of the damned
make waking difficult, they are my tortures;
I want them raucous and I want them near,
like howling pets I nonetheless adore
and holler adamant instructions to --
sprint, mad ambition! scavenge, hopeless love
that begs requital! -- on our evening stroll
down Broadway and up West End Avenue.

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