Though it’s a horror from which Catholics may recoil, it is a fact that since 2001, the year our continuing war in Afghanistan was begun, more U.S. military personnel have committed suicide than have been killed in action in that country and Iraq combined. Apart from age and occupational groups where it has been on the rise for some time, suicide is also now the second leading cause of death among teenagers after car crashes. The rate of it is also on the climb among senior citizens.
The statistics on suicide are based on what is known. How many fatal automobile accidents aren’t really accidental? How about fatal drug overdoses, especially when prescription drugs are involved?
Suicide has touched my own life a number of times over the years, beginning when I was five and a next-door neighbor, mother of two of my playmates, killed herself. I remember distinctly being shocked by the suicide of this lady, someone I knew, but not by the idea of suicide. Obviously I was already familiar with it.
Of course I was growing up in San Francisco, and it has always had a higher than average suicide rate. The Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of the city, is probably the most famous suicide site in the world.
Perhaps geographical location had to do with San Francisco’s high suicide rate, at least in the past. I’m thinking of the days before computers made it difficult, if not impossible, to escape a life’s past failures or misdeeds. A person might head to San Francisco to start a new life. If he failed or his past caught up with him, out there on the edge of the continent with nowhere farther to go, he might kill himself.
Nothing like that explains the contemporary phenomenon of the increased rate of suicide in all age groups and among persons in all lines of work, but I’m not really concerned here with looking for an explanation. It is today’s social attitude toward suicide that troubles me and should all remaining Christians.
Suicide can be likened to gay sex insofar as both were once known to exist but, being scandalous, were never a subject for polite conversation unless a public figure killed himself in the one instance or was “outed” in the other. Now society is more than merely tolerant of both. The law in much of the country compels acceptance of the open practice of homosexuality to the extent of recognizing same-sex “marriage,” and when it comes to suicide we are supposed to be “understanding,” even sympathetic. If you haven’t noticed, there are sympathy cards for it.
This is wrong. Suicide is the ultimate “No,” an affront to God, author and owner of life. It is the human equivalent of Lucifer’s “Non serviam” (“I will not serve”).
That used to be understood by Christians. In Catholic Europe in bygone ages, the person who killed himself was hastily buried by a roadside, not in the hallowed ground of a cemetery, and without a Mass.
I said I wasn’t much interested in an explanation for today’s high number and mounting rate of suicide, but shall observe there is one thing that no longer deters it. The person killing himself need not worry today about inflicting shame and scandal on family members left behind.
Yes, I am aware the Church does not always condemn suicide. She has always seen insanity as mitigating its heinousness, and in a couple of cases I’ve had reason to hope a temporary strain of it gripped persons I’ve known who killed themselves. That is not the same as the line taken by many modern Catholics: “You have to be insane to kill yourself.” My sense is that in many cases nowadays, if not most, it is an act of ego, a punishment the person wants to inflict on others who did not appreciate him as much as he thought he deserved. That, or it results from the kind of gloom that causes a person to ask, “What point is there to living?” Ego is still involved. It’s the person really saying, “Why should I bother to stick around?”
About ten years ago, a filmmaker put together a documentary, The Bridge, about persons who leap to their death from the Golden Gate Bridge. What he did was train the lenses of numerous cameras on the bridge from various locations. In this way he was able to capture footage, all of it from afar, of most of one year’s jumpers. The footage was interspersed with interviews of friends and relatives left behind, witnesses, and psychologists and other “experts”.
The year the film was made, the jumpers happened to include a young man who was one of the few persons known to survive the plunge. He was interviewed. He acknowledged that the second he jumped he wished he hadn’t, but that isn’t what made the interview with him illuminating.
He told of taking two city buses to reach the bridge, crying all the way “and nobody paid attention.” On the bridge, “cars kept going by and nobody stopped.” A smiling tourist, “a German, I think, from her accent,” asked him to take her picture. “She didn’t even see how I was suffering.”
Loud and clear, in everything he said, you could hear, “me, me, me,” the notion that no other human suffering could compare to his, that if there was a universe outside himself he was its center, and if the world didn’t recognize this it was unworthy of being graced any longer by his presence. One hoped, listening to him, that he had grown up since the film was made.
Too many no longer do. Modernity and its preferred political system, liberal democracy, promise equality as well as freedom and thereby all the happiness individuals want and think they deserve. What they really do, by doing so much, is limit within an ever narrower range what we would do for ourselves if left truly free. Most don’t mind this. Many welcome it. It spares them the effort of thinking and trouble of living. It also keeps them in an infantile state. Then reality impinges. They wear the right clothes and express the right opinions, whiten their teeth and freshen their breath, and still can’t attract the partner they seek. Their job bores them. They don’t become rich and famous. There is something they want and don’t get, and they do what a child does: throw a tantrum. It takes the form of jumping off a bridge or taking a turn in the road too fast.
As these lines were being written in real time, the end of June, news media reported a development in San Francisco. I should have surmised, but didn’t think of it, that the number of suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge, as everywhere else, have been on the rise. Last year produced a record, climaxing in August with one every three days. So, after years of debate about a suicide barrier, bridge authorities have decided to install a big net. It will run the length of the bridge and extend twenty feet from both sides. One supposes it will itself be something tourists want to see.
Present at the news conference announcing the decision was the young man, now 32, featured in The Bridge. He has become an anti-suicide crusader. That’s good news. Otherwise, what we have with this net is modernity once again at work. Present it with a problem and its solution is always the same: technical.
Problem: Roads in the suburbs are jammed with traffic.
Solution: Build another highway.
Result: More cars and further suburban sprawl, proving thereby the truth of the saying, “Build it and they will come.”
Problem: Teenage promiscuity and more pregnancies.
Solution: Sex education in elementary school and free condoms from the nurse’s office after that.
Result: Let’s not get into it.
Problem: More suicides than ever at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Solution: Hang a net.
Result: Liberals will be smugly satisfied that they finally succeeded in “doing something,” and the nearest Coast Guard station won’t be kept busy fishing bodies out of the Bay because, yes, there won’t be any more suicides at one particular location. However, we should not expect the number of them or the rate of their increase to stop growing. Moral problems require moral solutions, not technical ones. Christ saves, not nets. What society needs is public reverence and obedience to Him, not somebody at Hallmark (or wherever) thinking up a new way to make money by producing a line of sympathy cards for suicide.