Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fierce Goodbye

"Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen,
They did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now."
(Vincent, Don McLean 1971)

            Theological and moralist thinking aside, if you're going to stand in front of a train and let it hit you on purpose, there is something wrong in your head. Any sane man would jump out of the way. Speaking from experience, there is no way I was in my right mind any of the times that I tried to take my own life. With proper treatment, especially the right medication, I stand as proof that there is light at this end of the tunnel. The fact that I should have died on a starry February night is all the proof I need. My fate was not in my hands. I don't believe for a second that we have the power to take our own life. For me it rings true, what kills one man does not kill the other. It is in God's hands who will live and who will die. We have no more control over life and death than we do over a starry, starry sky. No matter what anyone has tried to convince me of, no matter their revelation, that’s how I choose to see it.
            Having survived my own suicidal rampages, and having experienced the suicide of a loved one, I am convinced that the less than magnanimous opinion towards those who off themselves is nothing but complete ignorance and a means to an end. It is easy to justify our fears through these victims, so we just send them all off to hell. People who have never been in the suicidal "passageway" can't comprehend what it is like, how when you arrive at that state inside yourself, there is no turning back but for by the grace of God. It really is like tunnel vision; you cannot see past it. On the other hand, the threat of eternal damnation has always kept such activities in check, making folks too afraid to live but too afraid to die. Fear has always been a means of controlling people. I have to believe there are circumstances only God can know, leading to these fierce goodbyes. Whether because of religious or social influences, we seem to lack any kind of compassion at all for people who lose their way and end up so lost.
"They's plenty men thet are mean and hateful, son, or they cheat folks, or beat their wives and their colored, but when they die, them preachers cain't say enough nice thangs. Well, Camp he warn't evil or hateful, either one. He jest couldn't do nothin'. So doggit, Will Tweedy, ain't you or nobody else go'n say he's gone to Hell. He jest couldn't stand it no more. Would a lovin' God kick a boy unhappy enough to do what pore Camp did?" (Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns 1984)
             In antiquity, survival of the tribe was the dominant force. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, even spilling your seed was punishable by death (Genesis 38:9-10). The growth and development of a strong clan meant harsh consequence for those who disregarded this reality. Laws against adultery (Exodus 20:7) and homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13) speak volumes on the importance of maintaining the tribe and producing offspring for the Israelites. Of course, adding God's approval or disapproval to man-made rules of behaviour, cemented ideas regarding acceptable practises involving not only the decisions of life but also those involving death. We started speaking for God. Anything against the grain, leading to a deficit in, or threat to, the population, became an abomination. Ironically, the punishment usually was death. 
            It is not reaching to suggest that early ideas regarding suicide were determined through standing rather than just through stigma. I find it strange that the negative, hellbound condemnation of such victims does not always apply to everyone, especially in scripture. King Saul, rather than face capture at the hands of the Philistines who fought against Israel, "took his own sword and fell on it" (1 Samuel 31:4b). This may have been seen as an honourable act in its time, but it was still self-murder. The tradition that Saul now dwells with Samuel, a prophet of Yahweh, seems to indicate it is his intent rather than any action which dictated his reward or punishment. I assume all was forgiven.
            Samson, set on revenge, pushes against the walls of the temple of Dagon, shouting out to God, "Let me die with the Philistines!" (1 Judges 16:30). Samson is buried beneath the rubble. In this case, it is not the means by which he killed himself but his intent, his seething need for vengeance that brings the walls down with him. He commits his revenge suicide but is hailed as a hero. According to Hebrews 11, Samson is held in much esteem alongside other heroes of the faith such as David, Gideon and Samuel. I assume that, as with Saul, all was forgiven. 
            In these cases, the biblical record doesn't condemn those who have taken their own life, rather it rewards them. In fact, both these characters are revered throughout biblical history. I remember reading about how great Samson was when I was a child. No one bothered to mention the unpardonable sin he had committed in the name of vengeance. No one pointed out what really happens to someone when they take their life. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered God gets to pick and choose who is cast down after taking to suicide. The rules for everyone don't apply to everyone. Still, I can only conclude great men of God do not dwell with the damned.
            Survival is our strongest instinct. In spite of this natural predisposition, we kill ourselves slowly and with foreknowledge. We smoke too much. We eat too much. We use toxic things. We drive too fast and we take stupid chances. We know these things can harm us but we do them anyway. In a sense, we are killing ourselves and don't seem to care. Is every moron, like me, who drags off a cigarette, sentenced to hell because they knew what might happen? We are offing ourselves systematically, but we do not presume that each of these careless souls will be cast into the pit.
            Some would argue then that Jesus himself committed suicide. Like the man who stands in front of an oncoming truck, He saw it coming. It was His destiny to die. He didn't just have human insight, He had divine awareness (or so the story goes). He even claimed to have permission from God to do so. He knew exactly how it would all go down. Did He stop Judas or deny Himself to Pilate, no, He took his own death into His own hands and embraced it. He encouraged this fate when He could have easily slipped away to some spa instead of the temple that day. He laid down His own life; it was not taken from Him. Although He did not cause Himself physical injury, it is arguable that the punishment inflicted on Him did not cause the end of his life. Jesus gave up His Spirit. This act would have occurred regardless of His mortal condition. The question one has to ask then is, would it not be suicide if any other person did the very same things? Would we not consider such actions in and of themselves self-destruction?    
" The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18, NIV)
             I'm not trying to justify or condone suicide; I just don’t think we should be tossing those most troubled into everlasting punishment, whether real or imagined. The completion of a suicide is enough for most survivors to have to deal with, and then along comes well-meaning religious folk to heap coals by reminding us just where God has sentenced our loved ones to dwell forever. It is obvious, to me at any rate, that anyone who would choose their own death has a serious psychological problem. They are not responsible for their actions. I don't think God overlooks these things. If God was, most certainly, able to look past the sins of those who championed Him, then how much more compassion would He freely give someone so compromised that they take their own life?
            As hard as we try, we do not understand the mystery of existence. Perhaps in death we will come to comprehend what we could not through living. For someone so fractured and unbalanced mentally, death offers something that life cannot. People who kill themselves are witness to living through rose-colored glasses. Their loneliness, despair, fear, sense of rejection, mental incapacity, self-esteem, or lack thereof, their struggle, convinces them that death offers more, including a solution to all their problems. Sometimes suicide isn't about why, but why not.
            Perhaps the most contrived idea of damnation for those who take their own life comes from Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy. In part one, Inferno, Dante visits the layers of hell with Virgil, the Roman poet, now in angelic form. Dante's hell contains nine circles (levels) of suffering located deep within the earth. The seventh circle (reserved for the violent), has a middle ring appropriated for those who commit violence against themselves. Here these dead are transformed into knotted, thorny trees and bushes, which malicious and ferocious Harpies (winged beasts) feast upon.  The trees act "as a metaphor for the state of mind in which suicide is committed." Dante is instructed that these suicides are "unique among the dead." Those who commit such acts, he learns, "will not be corporally resurrected after the final judgment since they gave away their bodies through suicide." They will maintain their place in hell with their human body hanging from their branches.
            Judgment and blame have always belonged to God, but human beings tend to delight in both. Dante's imagery only helped to cement an already blossoming vision of the afterlife for those who take their own life. The writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, during the Middle Ages, reinforced the widely held belief that suicide is a sin. This was predominately based on the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). The idea that violence against yourself is a criminal act rather than anything modern medicine might call psychiatric only strengthened a place in oblivion for those who abandon it all.
            If suicide is murder then surely killing someone else is murder too. Just back from a long trip with Moses (the book of Exodus), Joshua knows the commandments very well, yet he slaughters most of Canaan, claiming to follow divine orders.  To assume Joshua was a murderer, he killed, would be one huge understatement; Joshua slaughtered. Apparently, once again God overlooks the sin in light of the sinner. It's okay to break the Law if God Himself says you can. The idea of 'thou shalt not kill' is pushed aside for this man of biblical greatness. I assume that all was forgiven.
            If God can see past the Law for Joshua, Samson and Saul, then perhaps we are selling Him short by thinking this seemingly standard forgiveness is not for all, particularly those who commit suicide. Although I cannot speak for God, I assume He recognizes any inability one might have to discern between right and wrong. He must understand the human flaw called madness, of losing control of one's own mind. Surely, while it may not excuse the act, this explains it. Some would argue that suicide goes against natural order and so it interferes with God's Will. I am convinced that while suicide may not be part of God's Will, He can work His Will within it.

“If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide,
If cool my heart and high my head
I think 'How lucky are the dead.”
(Complete Poems, Dorothy Parker 2003)
            It's no secret that I don’t believe in hell. I do believe in heaven and that is where everyone goes, in my estimation. I'm sick of people telling me that when someone kills himself, it automatically means he goes to hell or oblivion. I have to believe, as with a few great martyrs for God, that forgiveness is the rule and not the exception. God doesn’t play favourites (1 Peter 1:17). He judges all people by the same measure. There is no special exemption for the holy man, or the warrior of God or the prophet; we all stand equal in His sight. We are all held to the same standards and we all can access His mercy and forgiveness. Even Jesus confirms His mission was for those lost and unworthy of salvation (Luke 19:10).  We forget, the only unforgiveable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29) and that information comes from the Boss Man Himself.
            Suicide is the ultimate act of self-absorption. Obviously, those who complete suicide just could not handle what the world had to offer them. In the end, it often takes more courage to live than it does to kill yourself. Death does not have to hold the last word. In my mind, God doesn’t look at what you've done, but why you did it. If He can overlook what one person does, He can overlook what we all do. Any judgement made is governed by our intent. His compassion, forgiveness and mercy, outweigh any rules of damnation man has placed upon himself. It is so easy for us to judge each other, but we forget we must love each other above everything but God. No one really knows anything concrete about the after world, but I cannot help feeling that it would be a lesser place without souls like Doug Hastings, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh.
"For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you."
(Vincent, Josh Groban 2001)

Sermons on Suicide
James T. Clemons (Editor)
Reed Business Information, Inc