Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pain, Labour and Suicide

The internet has been awash for the past couple of days with discussions of suicide. The discussion seems to break down into three basic groups: people who have actually experienced suicidal depression who are trying to explain what it is, people who have never experienced it but who are trying to offer compassionate support, and people who have never experienced it but are pretty sure that people who do are whining narcissists.

At the heart of the debate over suicide is a basic disagreement that has troubled philosophy for as long as people have been asking the Big Questions: Is it possible for a person to experience suffering of such intensity that they become functionally incapable of rationally exercising their moral free will?

The obvious test case is the problem of people's wills breaking under torture, but most of the time people discussing this case have no actual experience of being tortured so the discussions basically devolve into thought-wank. So instead I'm going to examine the closest experience that I have: giving birth.
Labour is, in my opinion, a fantastic existential laboratory for examining the relationship between pain and the will. Excruciating physical agony is there, freely on tap, and nobody will accuse you of being masochistic or self-destructive if you choose to confront it head on. Also, you can pretty easily set up conditions and then test your ability to pursue your pre-established goals once the pain sets in. For example, you can test things like “Can I continue to keep my thoughts sufficiently clear to continue reciting the rosary throughout the entire birthing process?” “Can I resist the temptation to ask for pain medication?” “Can I follow all of my midwife's instructions and maintain rational control over my actions?” “Can I prevent myself from screaming?” If you have a lot of kids, you can test more complicated things like “What is the difference between the relationship between my will and my body if I spend several months psychologically preparing myself to adopt an agonistic posture towards pain, vs. the same relationship if I prepare myself to adopt a cooperative/embracing attitude towards it?”

Obviously I only have tentative conclusions based on a very small pool of data involving a single subject: me. But based on that, I would have to say that I've arrived at two basic principles which I think are probably true.

a) It probably is possible, through the use of a variety of interior techniques, to achieve the Stoic ideal of rational detachment from any kind of pain.

b) This is not accomplished without practice. And I don't mean “practice” in the sense of performing various exercises to strengthen the will (though that may help), but practice in the sense of actually enduring the kind of pain that you want to be able to endure.

What this means in practical terms is that when you encounter a new kind of pain, or a new depth of pain, or a new duration of pain for the first time you're probably not going to be sufficiently well equipped to take it on. The radical volitional position is right in so far as it is possible to prepare the will for anything, but it's naive if it suggests that this can be done simply by willing it. Successfully resisting overwhelming pain involves technique and experience, not just guts and good will.

So what does this have to do with suicide?

Well, basically suicide (at least in a contemporary context) is usually not a error in rational judgment. The days when Cato and Seneca calmly and philosophically contemplated their options and soberly arrived at the conclusion that self-slaughter was the most rational option are past. Most contemporary suicides are motivated by intense psychological suffering. The psyche literally hits a point where it is no longer capable of dealing with the amount of emotional pain that it is experiencing and it starts writhing around, contorting itself, looking for any possible way of alleviating that pain – not unlike someone in massive physical agony who constantly changes positions, moans, cries, screams, gets in the shower, gets out of the shower, lashes out, stands up, refuses to stand up, lies down, refuses to lie down, demands an ice pack, throws the ice pack across the room, etc. etc. etc. in a vain attempt to achieve some kind of relief.

In the case of someone in physical pain, we all understand. If a woman in labour starts screaming that she doesn't want to give birth anymore, or that she wants to die, nobody comes by and tells her that she's being selfish or narcissistic. If she has to make a hard moral decision that will result in the prolongation or intensification of her suffering, nobody will treat her like a self-indulgent whiner if she's unable to make it. Even people who have never been in that kind of pain themselves are able to see that the degree of suffering is clearly beyond anything that they've experienced, and usually they humbly suspend judgment.
In the case of emotional pain, however, there's very often an assumption that the person is somehow responsible for bringing this pain upon themselves, and that they are fundamentally always capable of dealing with it if they really try. This is exacerbated by the fact that the causes of unendurable emotional duress are often not observable from an outside perspective and the person suffering is rarely able to adequately articulate them. The kind of anguished cries that tend to issue forth from the lips of the suicidally depressed often sound like completely irrational nonsense. “I hate myself.” “I'm incapable of loving.” “I'm a bad person.” “I'm utterly alone.” Statements like these seem to reflect an error in judgement, but what they actually reflect is an experience so painful that there are no other possible words for describing it. Perhaps “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which was also not an error in judgment, coming as it did from the lips of a man who understood perfectly why He had been forsaken and who knew that in fact He had not been.

This experience of forsakenness, of emotional anguish to the point of desiring death, is not a product of selfishness, narcissism, self-indulgence, or ingratitude. It does not only happen to bad people. Scripture tells us so. Look at the book at Job: Job in his anguish not only pleads for death, but demands to know why the stars did not close their eyes on the day of his birth, why the womb brought him forth. He not only wishes for death as an end to his present sufferings; he is so overwhelmed by pain that he wishes his entire existence to be stricken from the scrolls of Being. And of course Job's very righteous and virtuous friends tell him that this is his fault, the punishment for some secret sin. But God tells them that they have spoken wrongly.


  1. Good words, Melinda. Thank you.

  2. Suicide is one of those things like divorce, abortion, homosexuality where you don't want to go blundering in making judgements about people. I'm not sure that the days of the ancients are over though. There are people who believe in the right to self-determination in terms of when life ends. At the moment this is just for people who are deemed to be already in the last months of a terminal illness, but how long will it stay that way?

  3. You *could* spend nine months thinking all those things, or you could buy baby clothes and go to yoga classes to prepare for labour. :)

  4. Thank you, Melinda, for such a thoughtful and sensitive response! As someone who has been suicidally depressed, it was so refreshing to hear you articulate elements of the often unspoken complexity that surrounds expressing deep emotional pain. I enjoyed your analogy and think it well communicates our cultural inconsistency regarding types of pain.
    My close family friend took his own life last month, a couple of weeks before the flood of internet responses to suicide. Lately I have avoided internet discussions of suicide because too many lack empathy and understanding, but I am really thankful I did read your blog post. Thanks again! :)


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