March 29, 2015
(The media is deliberating if this weeks tragedy of Germanwings Flight 9525 is a suicide. Having written prior to the crash, I don’t deal with the tragedy. However, I will say at this early moment after the crash, I believe when one takes the lives of others along with their own, it is not an act of suicide, but something very different. What that difference is, I don’t know.)
A friend of mine, Daniel, sent me a note soon after Robin Williams’ suicide last August. The note has nagged me ever since. He gave a few of his thoughts on Williams and suicide and asked if I might have a few of my own. Schooled in a Catholic high school, Daniel received an earful on the sin of suicide from a particular perspective. Gaining the wisdom that comes with living life, he is now a young adult who has allowed the idea of suicide as a Cardinal sin barring one from heaven to go by the wayside. As he puts it, “how can a truly all loving God turn his back on someone who is filled with so much dread, torment, and affliction that in their greatest time of need his love would not be shared?” Fleshing out his thoughts, he answered his own nagging questions. Good for him, but that did not get me off the hook.
When it comes to suicide, there is little difference between my protestant upbringing and my friend’s Catholic high school. The elders and pastors of the Christian church of my youth were clear suicide is a sin and if you choose such you’re going to hell. No much slack on this one.
Suicide didn’t come up much in my young life. Once, in the preteen years, a friend headed home from a day of hiking Iron Canyon and came across a pickup truck parked at the end of road that was hardly more than a trail. He found a guy bent over the steering wheel who had shot himself. The story came to me by way of my parents. My friend and I never talked about it. Another instance came up in high school. A 4-H friend, who played football in the neighboring school, had a motorcycle accident the summer of our junior year. He lost most of the use of his right arm. His father put a lot of stock in football. As the physicality of the arm diminished and it began to atrophy, his father had trouble supporting his son. This meant my friend had trouble seeing himself as whole. One Friday evening he walked up a canyon, climbed a ridge at sunset, and shot himself.
It was not until adulthood that I found a church who gave a few tools—philosophy, considerations, conversations, theology—by which to consider suicide from other perspectives. These were not tools that gave answers, but tools that allowed a bunch of non-theologian pew sitters to enter into conversation and grabble with the subject without condemnation or a fear of being bound for hell for considering traditional Christian teachings on suicide as wrong (which of course made the non-theologian pew sitters theologians).
Today, I cannot say I have a structured and defined theological statement on suicide. My God-talk theology keeps it simple and close to what my friend said, no loving God refuses to walk beside and eternally hold closely any person who has struggled to a point of committing suicide.
If I were to work toward a theological statement though, I would begin with the premise: death is good. In fact, I would argue, death is the best thing that will happen to any one of us. Perhaps that needs a bit of fleshing out, but another time, okay? Additionally, dying is not living. One has life, but a time comes when one leaves what we call life and living and enters a time of dying. I argue people do not live into death, as we often hear, but rather die into death. Furthermore, where folk might say he or she had a good death, I argue every person has a good death, but there is a spectrum of bad to good dying.
For some, dying is such that they have the opportunity and the ability to experience the fullness of both dying and death. Such awareness and involvement does not eliminate the option of suicide but enhances it. Suicide is but one good option in the course of dying.
In 2008 the Washington Death with Dignity Act was on the ballot here in Washington State. I found it surprising Hospice organizations at that time could not find themselves able to support the Act. A basic fear of supporting such an act was the existing stigma, they had fought against for years, that when one chooses hospice they have chosen a death sentence. They had no desire to have the public mindset make that tie any closer. I thought it too bad. Folk need all options on the table in the days of dying and the right to decide their death. When we allow society to restrict a person’s decision on how (and when) to die is the ultimate form of governmental control.
I have restrictions though. I want to make it near impossible for children and teenage-adults to take their own life. Living in a community where young folk take their life in unimaginable numbers, I want a whole lot less child, teenage, and young-adult suicide and a hundred times more resources for preventative measures. I believe most suicides in this age range are not about ending dying but about ending living. Recognizing the difference calls society to come up with better terminology. The singular word suicide cannot mean both the taking of life and putting an end to dying (as I am using it).
Because I believe one has the right to make death decisions in the days of dying, I cut Robin Williams a lot of slack in making the decision of the when and how of his death. Might it be that by the time of Williams’ death he was no longer living life, but dying? Who really knows the difference between living and dying when it comes to depression or other ailments that tear at ones physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing? The crux of it all is to grasp dying is something other than living, those who are living do not know what it means to be dying, and death is not bad but good.
I am therefor less willing to think of Williams’ suicide as tragic. Instead, Williams may not have taken his life, but ended his dying. In either case, suicide is never a sin (theologically or otherwise), the Creator of life is always beside us in our dying, and death is always good.