Last year, I saw a lady crying when I was riding on the “L.” If you know anything about Chicago’s “L,” it’s that it is a sight for peculiar things so I suppose this isn’t the most unusual thing I’ve witnessed. If I remember correctly, I wasn’t having the greatest day of my life either. She had sun glasses on but it was very obvious to anyone who is attentive that she was crying. I have been her before, crying under the protection of sunglasses or a smile, or with my eyes closed, hoping no one would notice.
I got out at her stop and grabbed her by the arm. I asked if she was going to be okay and if I could do anything to help. For some reason, my mother’s voice is always in my head in situations like this. If there is anything my mother wanted her children to be, it is Christ-like and kind to everyone. If my memory serves me well, the lady looked at me through her sunglasses, tears streaming down her face and said, “Oh, you can see? Everything is awful. Thanks for caring but I have to go.” She ran down the stairs too fast and in among the many people, I couldn’t get to her.
I ran into her early this morning on the “L’ and she asked if I remembered her. I usually have darn good memory but I couldn’t for the life of me, remember her. She told me that I had stopped her last year and asked if she was crying and then it all came back to me. She said she’d been suicidal then but has since received help and continues to be seeing a psychiatrist. She said she’d always hoped she’d run into me again because just that small gesture made a huge difference. And just like that, she was off at another stop. I would have liked to introduce myself and find out who she was too. I was a little speechless and confused, and I also started thinking about all the times I have been unkind to strangers and what difference that might have made. I also started thinking about suicide.
In my culture, which is African, Nigerian, and Urhobo, suicide is a taboo. Yes, I live in times and a society where it’s still uncomfortable but yet so prevalent. In one of my classes this spring, we talked about suicide and what it means and how the culture articulates the difference between straight youth suicides and gay youth suicides. Then we discussed the subject as a whole. For the first time, I expressed in a very public way my thoughts about it, thoughts that aren’t so popular. I said, “Where I come from, how I’ve been raised, you don’t belong just to yourself, you belong to a family, your friends, you belong to loved ones; suicide is selfish.” There was a moment where I felt the silence of what I’ve just said. My professor was glad I said it though because he saw value in what I was saying and further expanded on it. The class didn’t necessarily disagree but obviously it’s an uncomfortable topic and I made an uncomfortable statement. And one that I believe requires an explanation.
One of the differences between many African cultures, actually African, Asian, and Latin American cultures and Western cultures is the “collective” over “individual” constructions of how people participate in society. When I say my body is not just my own, I mean it multiple ways and it is something I have to explain to people who do come from individualistic societies. I don’t belong to simply myself. I belong to my parents who brought me into this world. I belong to my siblings and my friends and my culture and my society – who have all played a part in raising me. From my religious perspective, above all, I belong to God who created me. So who I am is not just about me, it’s about everyone who’s played a part in raising me, to those who came before them, potentially to my future children. I don’t just belong to myself.
And the truth is that’s why where I’m from suicide is a taboo. When you take your life, it is a symbolism that you belong to no one and in so doing the culture perceives it as you cursing God, your family, your friends, and all the people who made you, you. There is a great solace in knowing this because with every celebration, you know that there are people who are genuinely happy to see “one of their own” make it. And when you fail, you know that you don’t fail alone and that there are people around you who will pick you up because you belong to them and they belong to you.
But there is also a lot of pressure. Pressure to succeed and make everyone you belong to proud. Pressure to conform. Pressure to give up your individual happiness sometimes for the sake of the collective happiness. Coming from a collective society can be great but it can also be very hard and it can make individualism look very attractive. But when it comes to suicide, I stand with the collective.
I find it very disheartening when suicide occurs and I cannot claim to remotely know how it feels to be at a point where one believes that taking one’s life is the best decision. With the exception of mental illness and insanity, I cannot imagine being so alone in suffering in the world that one would rather die. I get it but I don’t get it. And it breaks my heart but it is also testament to a selfish mentality of a selfish society – a society where people are not seen as belonging to other people. A society where people truly believe that they have to go through their pains alone and that their burdens in life belong only to themselves.
No, I don’t believe that. We are meant to belong to other people. It is why we long for love and friendship and companionship. And whatever hurt you are going through, you belong to other people and you would hurt others were you to choose to take your life. So maybe people would disagree with this message and that’s fine, feel free to do so. But one thing I do know is, people are hurting – a lot of people are hurting, every day. So if you see a stranger on a train crying, ask them if you can help. If you see someone who needs help, help them, no matter how small. And let’s stop being so unkind to each other because however different or similar we are, when it’s all said and done, we belong to each other.