Yesterday, I attended a think tank’s panel discussion on Syria.
Then, later that night, I spoke on the phone with a suicidal man. Let’s call him Dave*.
The think tank discussion was three hours of hypothetical outcomes (“If Assad… If the rebels… If the international community…”) interwoven with pointed appeals (“We must take action, now”) and chilling statistics (“92,901 confirmed deaths and counting”). I left the event feeling a little sick, skipping the chatty hour of networking and business card-exchanging that followed.
That night, Dave told me he was just sitting in his apartment, eating some take-out Chinese, and thinking about his own mortality. When I prompted him to elaborate a little, he explained that it was wonton soup. Also, he felt worthless; nothing he did made any positive difference anymore, and the giant, spinning world didn’t seem to take much interest in his sad, little life.
After rambling about the futility of forming relationships for a long while, Dave stopped mid-sentence.
“You know. I think I’m gonna commit suicide. I just don’t see the point in living.”
When he said these words, his voice turned flat and hollow, more of a machine voice than a human one. I asked him some risk assessment questions, and for the next ten minutes, let him rant.
And while he ranted, part of me fumed silently, in an abandonment of all empathy. I could feel anger growing in the pit of my stomach with each grievance Dave aired.
Every day, Syrian children are dying. In the moment that he said, “I just don’t see the point in living,” that fact dominated my mind. Instead of visualizing Dave, cradling his wonton soup on the other end of the phone, all I could see were gutted out, once-beautiful streets of Aleppo and Homs, filthy tents housing swarms of human refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
There is a civil war in Syria. And meanwhile, in Virginia*, Dave just didn’t see the point in living. The apparent selfishness in that dichotomy was infuriating, and the fury lasted until I was about to cover the microphone with my palm and collect myself with a few deep breaths of stale air.
At that moment, Dave stopped speaking. A thin, pitiful whine traveled through the line, replacing his voice.
Alone with his quickly cooling Chinese food and my disembodied voice, Dave had begun crying into space. Like a cracked dam giving way to a dark swell of water, the almost noiseless whine in his throat quickly collapsed into wracking, broken sobs. They filled the space between the cold plastic telephone and my ear, sounding like someone who had nothing left to give and nothing left to be taken. They brought me away from Syria and back to this sad, human moment.
This much was clear: it wouldn’t have mattered to Dave if there were a civil war raging in Richmond that night; the horrific events of Syria bore no impact on the state of mental and emotional darkness that drowned him. Just as the bloody reality of a prolonged conflict cannot lesson the severity of someone’s diabetes, it similarly cannot lessen the severity of someone’s depression. One does not cancel out the other. Dave was not selfish; Dave was sick.
And I know that if Dave were suffering from a visible, physical malady rather than an unseen, psychological one, I wouldn’t have judged him as selfish.
Suicide is a symptom, of larger illnesses. Depression, schizophrenia, addiction, PTSD, heart break, abuse: these are the things that bring people to that point of desperation, to uncontrollable sobbing and to suicide hotlines. Why would I condemn the symptom instead of address the illness? Why would I choose criticism over empathy? And why on earth, in a world where I have virtually no power in determining the course of international conflicts, would I choose to dwell only on a distant war while ignoring the suffering directly in front of me?
“Oh, god. I think I might actually commit suicide,” Dave cried into the phone between the crest of two sobs. “I’m going to hell.”
We commit felonies. We commit fraud. We commit adultery.
We commit all manner of sins and crimes, but I can’t say we commit suicide, because to me, suicide is neither sinful nor criminal. It isn’t a deliberate choice of a wrong over right; it’s blindness to the very existence of choices. It’s more blind desperation than calculated decision that drives a beautiful young human to swallow three fistfuls of sleeping pills and bury himself under crocheted blankets, prepared to never awaken.
Maybe framing suicide as a sin scares some believers into staying alive, out of fear of the afterlife. But I worry that by describing suicide as sinful, or even selfish, we are distancing the condition from possible treatments. And I worry that we limit discussion, because whether sins are something to be discussed privately with God or confessed to a priest, they are certainly not something to address openly in public. For Dave, I worried that his resignation towards an afterlife in hell augmented his misery rather than alleviating it.
The next morning, I read about Syria in the news while drinking black coffee. I thought of Dave, who had ended the call in a much calmer state and was beginning to focus on the causes of his depression: an unsatisfying job, a recent break up, a long-term case of feeling inadequate around his dad. I remembered what I had told him on the phone, with conviction:
“Suicide isn’t sinful. And you’re not selfish. You just need some support.”
I hope he heard the sincerity in my voice.