Untimely Observations

Why Not Suicide?


A new study from the Masculine Pathology Department of the University of British Columbia has found, as hoped, that traditional “stoic warrior” ideals associated with masculinity contribute to a male suicide rate that is often as much as three times higher than the female suicide rate. Men who are “suffering from depression” appear to be less likely to ask for help than their female counterparts. However, John Ogrodniczuk, who is seeking publicity for the study, offered that men who “had a strong commitment to their families” and who envisioned themselves as protectors and providers were less likely to commit suicide. The positive spin seems to be that those who are trying to steer a depressed man away from suicide should focus on the “protector and provider” ideal -- but it should be noted that this masculine role is hateful to feminists and, according to Hanna Rosin’s recent report, fewer and fewer men will be their family’s “provider.” So that could prove a thorny route.

Men’s rights advocates often use the higher male suicide rate to gain favor with fence sitters who are sympathetic to pleas framed as public health concerns. The coalition currently pushing for academic “male studies” programs (to replace the expressly feminist “men’s studies” programs) cite male suicide rates as a major concern.

If suicide is always bad for society, and “choosing life” is always better for society, then suicide should always be discouraged. But is that really the case?

Sinatra famously sang, “What is a man? What has he got? If not himself, then he has naught.”

If a man can’t choose to end his own life, what has he got? The default Western assumption that choosing life at any cost, no matter what your situation is or what you have done, is a Judeo-Christian carryover. The Catholics condemned it as the work of the devil. But apparently in Ancient Rome you could apply for permission to commit suicide and, if your reasons were considered just, they’d dish out the hemlock gratis.

The Japanese take everything a bit over the top in their wacky Japanese way, but some of their thinking on suicide makes sense. The word hara in hara-kiri means “belly” and in Japanese culture there’s some crossover in meaning that puts sincerity in the belly -- similar to the American expression “I can feel it in my gut.” To cut your stomach open can be an expression of what you feel in your gut. Hara-kiri has been done in protest, to make a powerful statement, to expurgate shame or simply to make things right. Suicide can be the ultimate form of atonement.

Why prohibit a man from taking responsibility for his own actions? In many cases, suicide may be the best form of atonement, the best way for a man to try to right his own wrongs. It seems insane to prevent suicidal murderers and child molesters from killing themselves when they want to, but that’s exactly what we do. Instead we pay to keep them alive for decades. I wonder how much we could save if we simply allowed suicidal convicts to kill themselves. I’ve heard morbid justifications for keeping them alive -- that forcing a man to live with his own regrets and the knowledge of his crimes is the real punishment. I remain unconvinced, and at any rate that’s some really expensive psychological torture.

Wicked men aside, maybe men have good reasons to be depressed. If you take an honest accounting of your deeds in life and decide that you’re a fuck up, or that you take more than you give -- that you’re always a burden on those around you --- calling it quits seems like the honorable choice. If you’ve done a wrong that you can’t live with -- because you hold yourself to a higher standard than others do, or because you know things they don’t know -- who is anyone to tell you to live forever? Sure, if you don’t take the starlet route, you’re going to leave a mess for some poor bastard to clean up. And the people in your life will be upset. But if you think you have good reasons, if you’ve really thought about it and you’re not just being melodramatic, you should be able to leave a note and have your kin respect your decision.

American conservatives get this issue wrong because they so often allow Christian dogma to dictate their default positions, even if those positions don’t always make a lot of practical sense. Creating a “culture of life” is essential for a healthy population, but a civilization isn’t doing itself any favors by keeping people around who would rather be dead.

If we are to re-examine traditional concepts of honor, the honorable or virtuous suicide is a traditional theme. It’s a notion that seems to resonate with men, especially virile, strong, independent men who loathe the idea of growing decrepit and dependent on the charity of others. The idea that it is better to die in your prime, sword in hand, is another way to defeat impending debility. There’s also something empowering in choosing one’s own death.

As far as those grumpy men’s rights advocates go, well maybe they should start thinking “glass half full.” Post-divorce suicide could be a way for a fella to get the last laugh. No alimony for you, sweetheart. Or perhaps the men should ask why women don’t beat themselves up so much when they screw up or become a drain on those around them. Maybe the problem is that not enough women kill themselves.

I’m half joking.

But it truly is a grave error to discourage stoicism in men, simply because it forces some of them to shut down and eventually kill themselves. The alternative -- a nation of weepy, hyper-sensitive, impotent men who share far too much -- has much graver consequences.