Several months ago, I left the classroom under a dark cloud. Suicide was on my mind.
It came up in a class discussion. How we got to suicide, I can’t remember. What I do remember is the student who said that the person who commits suicide deserves respect, if not praise, for showing courage and assertiveness. Suicide is an act of defiance against the nothingness of the universe, my student said. It gives meaning to a life. The person who commits suicide takes ownership of her life in the most definitive way there is – by ending it.
I’ve been gnawing on that discussion since. Not least because so many young people kill themselves.
Earlier this year at the University of Guelph, for example, four students committed suicide, prompting university officials to take mental health interventions door-to-door at the university residence.
And in January of this year, three 12-year-old Wapekeka First Nation girls forged a suicide pact. By June, the third child had killed herself.
The stories shock and sadden. And these are just two from a long and lengthening list.
Looking back, I wish I had done more to refute my student’s questionable views on self-murder. The claim that suicide makes life meaningful is bizarre and wrong. Suicide is foremost an evacuation of all meaning and potential. The what could have been never has a chance to transform into what is.
The idea that suicide is the quintessential expression of individual freedom, is, I suppose, partly true. The person who choses death does makes the ultimate choice for himself. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory and the end of all choice.
The philosopher Josef Pieper sees life as a choice, as an invitation to a dinner party, and each of us must choose to accept the invitation and partake the feast. And it is a feast. You can leave the table if you choose, but the bounty on the table is the only meal there is. Are you not curious to know what the next course will bring?
Edmond Lee Browning, former head of the Episcopal Church in America, puts his philosophy in less figurative terms. Given a choice between more life and less life, he says, always choose the path that delivers you to more life.
I admit a fondness to viewing life from this perspective, as a choice between more life or less, rather than choosing happiness. Choosing happiness is easy – it’s usually a selfish choice. To choose the route through life that puts more people in your path, that takes courage and assertiveness.
But life is hard. For some, life’s torture. Why not escape the pain?
Albert Camus considered the question and found his answer in the myth of Sisyphus. The gods, angered by Sisyphus’s arrogant, cheating ways, sentenced him to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again.
Life is a boulder rolling down a hill, forever. But it isn’t meaningless. Still down in Hades pushing his rock, Sisyphus is proud of having become good at his work. He pleases himself by devising technique for moving his burden up the hill. He studies the surface of his rock for every moment of eternity and he finds it beautiful.
So he pushes. To stop pushing that rock is to accept futility, to admit defeat. In a universe that drags everything to death and wants you to die, living is an act of defiance. Rebel!
It sounds easier than it is. Finding meaning in life is the most daunting challenge. Even the best teacher can’t tell a student what life means.
For each of us, it’s a lifelong project.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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