Noah Smith—The Fight of the Ages: Pain and Death

The other day a good friend of mine killed himself. So I’ve been thinking a bit more about death lately.

For a long time, I’ve thought of death not as a single event, but a continuous process. Elements of your personality, your desires, your beliefs and habits–everything that makes you you–are constantly being altered by experience. An individual is like a ship that gets taken apart and rebuilt plank by plank, until it’s not clear when the old ship died and the new ship came to life. Life is experience, experience is change, and change is death.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who wants to be preserved in amber? If you want to imagine how bizarre and inhuman that would be, just read “Daddy’s World” by Walter Jon Williams, or “The Wedding Album” by David Marusek.

We fear death because of inborn self-preservation instinct. We’re sad about the deaths of our friends and family because of the lost opportunity of interacting with them in the future, and–sometimes–because we feel frustrated that our friends and family didn’t get the chance to live as much as they should have. But death isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it’s an inevitable and natural thing. It’s what you and I are both experiencing right this moment.

Far worse, I’d argue, is a bad life.

We don’t know why people commit suicide (though we know factors that forecast it, and there are some theories). But it seems certain that for most suicidal people, life involves a great deal of either physical or psychological pain. That pain is a tragedy that is distinct from the tragedy of death itself.

We often see suicide as a mistake, at least when neither terminal illness nor extreme physical pain are involved. We certainly tell people it’s a mistake, in order to stop our friends and family from committing suicide. In fact, it probably is a mistake, from a rational-optimizing-agent economics-type point of view. I know firsthand that depression dramatically distorts people’s estimates of the probability of living a good life. I have no doubt that suicidal feelings (which are not quite the same as depression) create similar breakdowns of rationality. Things like cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative psychology are intended to help people be more rational and not make that big mistake.

But even though suicide is usually a big mistake doesn’t mean that it comes out of the blue. The psychological pain of suicidal people is obvious and undeniable. For some suicidals, the pain lasts for years or decades before it finally becomes too much. And I’d argue that it’s that pain that’s the biggest tragedy. Life is crueler than death.

As a society, we expend a lot of effort trying to stop people from committing suicide. When I searched on Google for reasons that people commit suicide, it sent me straight to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Thanks, Google!). But we spend a lot less time and effort trying to alleviate people’s psychological pain long before they have suicidal ideation. As happens so often with our healthcare system, we ignore preventative medicine and focus entirely on crisis management.

This may be due to a lingering tendency of our society to downplay psychological pain. People who have never been depressed often regard depression as a choice. Deep down, many people probably regard depression and suicidal feelings as a weakness of will, or a manipulative plea for support and sympathy from others.

How many times have you heard some hippie barista in a coffee shop tell you that “Happiness is a choice?” That sounds cute, but it’s really just a modern hipster equivalent of a military commander slapping a soldier with PTSD and yelling at him to snap out of it. We seem to think that if someone doesn’t have a gun to his head right this minute, he’s not in big trouble.

Part of that is understandable. Psychological pain is much less visible than physical pain, and it also probably varies more from person to person. But part of our disdain for psychological pain probably comes from a lingering culture of personal toughness and responsibility.

This approach to psychological pain is not working. The U.S. suicide rate has soared by about 30 percent in recent years. The suicide prevention hotlines are not getting the job done, folks.

As for what we can do to eliminate psychological pain, I have some ideas. But those will have to wait for another time. The point I want to make today is that we need to stop thinking so much about the tragedy of death, and start thinking more about the tragedy of lives filled with psychological pain. Like Mel Gibson said in “Braveheart,” everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives.