Starting at the societal level might seem strange, or insensitive to some. I disagree. IF we really believe what we say and that *everyone* is a part of society, we should look at society when it comes to these issues. A neglect in this area, I think, has led to great harm. Of secondary consideration is that it puts me in the right mindset to write the rest of the series. As an added bonus, it also gives a coherent structure. Besides, I’ve gotten a number of comments (Thank you!) that indicate to me that this is a critical area that has suffered serious neglect.
Suicide has long been seen as exclusively a personal issue. Or, so we like to think. Before the maturing of Industrialization, this was simply not true. Historically, suicide was seen as a neglect of values, a failure of education and moral function. It was considered a neglect of duty, and personally, an affront to everyone you loved. It was considered, for these reasons, the ultimate betrayal. This would naturally drive anyone seriously considering this option to a frothy rage, for obvious reasons. I will address this issue later in the series.
We also think that it was never discussed. Once again, before Industrialization, this is simply not true. Indeed, for the educated, at least (and there was a sort of trickle-down effect thanks to orphanages and schools for the poor) these sorts of things were discussed with– what we today would consider young children. That is, children in the 7-10 range. The subject was breached in a way that we today do not recognize.
What we need to know first is what we lost through the maturation of industrialization. Ironically, one of the things we lost was the structure of a classical education. You may ask why we talk about education as a part of values, but– indeed, the only reason why you don’t see the connection is because we have strayed so far from the classical western model of education that our definition of education is different than it once was.
I promise this all connects back quite logically to suicide and society. Because I believe that the new prevalence of suicide (“new” being for more than three generations and counting) in our culture has everything to do with society and how we promulgate it. It also explains why today’s parents are left high and dry when it comes to explaining these sorts of things to little ones.
IN those days, children were taught the classics– that is, Virgil, Homer, and the great Greek and Roman comedies and tragedies. In particular, the Aneid, which according to wikipedia, encompassed all Roman values for their society. To put them in context, they were also taught history. They were taught not only as a vehicle of teaching Greek and Latin (indispensable for scientific and legal communication) but also to convey certain truths about the world. That is what Civics originally was.
First, to understand why our Western society is the way it is (or was), you have to understand what it was built as a reaction to. Christianity and Western Civilization has been formed largely as a reaction to condition of society around the time of the fall of Rome– and as a criticism (both positives and negatives– Criticism is NOT just insults to tear down the whole cloth of something) to the Roman way of life.
Remember that they were the oldest and most successful civilization that we Westerners had access and documentation for– so it seems reasonable to build a society in response to that. The Romans must have known what makes a society tick– at least approximately because they have had evident success. So it makes sense to first look at the stories the Romans told themselves to support their culture. There was also a great deal of misery there, based mostly on thoughts and ideas and the consequences of those ideas in society.
This is why the second tier of the Classical Education was the study of classical philosophy. These are the ideas that backed the conditions that children would learn about in primary school. One of those things was the ideal of suicide as a means of escape, lessening the burden of others, and in general “for the good of society”.
100-150 years ago, (perhaps), for those past the age of 7-10, the conversation would be a quite a bit different, and the child would have tools to have a sufficient grasp of the situation from a moral standpoint. They would still be devastated of course, but it would be in a sort of context, and thus the child would be better prepared– or at least as prepared as one can be. This is because he’d already read about the theoretical suicide of Dido and a few other classical figures who opted for this escape from life.
In school, in an impersonalized environment, one could see and discuss in a distant way what those implications were and how they affected society in truth, as opposed to one’s idea of how that would be. In this fashion you could garner a reasonable lens for how society looks at it, and discuss reasons why without threatening the social mores of the day. Also, it gives one a fine symbolic vocabulary for discussing such things with friends and family– things we are bereft of today.
This is not to say we don’t have “Childrens Literature” that covers these issues. but is not systematic, nor does it build on itself over time. There is no one body of “kiddie lit” that is read by most people anymore that covers these existential topics. Harry Potter might come close… but that has it’s own problems.
This makes it mostly hit or miss, and a lot of it assumes that children are all mentally deficient for tough questions. It also means that what they learned before has no bearing on what they learn tomorrow– which makes it harder to discern whether they’ve learned at all.
We still hold that certain ideas are inappropriate for children, but make no concessions for those boundaries in our raising of them. When they run across these ideas, they digest them and we are none the wiser. If we don’t have a perfect relationship with them– they digest these ideas on their own. We might not hear about it until years later, in an altered form– and we are entirely unprepared to deal with it and the building trauma, which only might be brought to the surface by a family tragedy.
In all of this, please keep in mind I am not necessarily criticizing parents. This is a society level problem which makes the parent’s job of keeping those boundaries effectively impossible without stringent intervention. (That is, home schooling, etc.) Part of it is the strengths and limitations of technology combines forces with the decadent and permissive nature of our society. We know that these trends regard “right and wrong” synonymous with oppression, and any form of pleasure to be synonymous with rights and freedom. These are not helpful forces when one wants to educate a happy, healthy child.
As far as I know we haven’t had a systematic program of these life issues in documentary form for the instruction of children since the classical education. Mostly, they support the issues of culture, rather than such global and yet personal issues of existence.
Indeed, in a lot of places, these existential ideas that used to be dealt with by tweens now erupt in the teen years, when there are far more complex chemical influences to magnify the emotionally charged nature of these ideas. Children in the 7-10 range are in a good place to think about these big issues, because they have the freedom to think about them when their bodies and brains aren’t a boiling cauldron of hormones coupled with a burning drive to leave home.
The volatile teen years are the worst possible time to deal with existential issues. If they’d had a chance to formulate “reasons why” in a more stable and supported environment, test drove those things, they could more easily see when passions of the moment might sway them from the things they really *want* to believe, and thus they would have a more balanced reaction to those issues dealing with being an adult.
It may seem like I’m speaking in contradictions, here. Why on earth would I advocate teaching children as young as 7 (depends on maturity) ideas about war, death and suicide? Well, because people die, wars happen, and people commit suicide. Young children are imposed to deal with these things whether we like it or not. It is better that they have the tools to begin to do so, rather than to be abandoned. This abandonment is the great shadow of industrialization. We are just starting to acknowledge that imbalance. Ironically, the cure is being blamed for the disease in the first place. But that’s another show.
It is a poverty of our society to insist that these children deal with issues alone and without a proper environment to discuss it safely, and outside of actual events. Leaving it to parents and family life gives us a cascading problem. The big waterfall looks like this: first, these things are often off-limits in schools, at this is where children spend most of their waking hours. It follows that there is a lot of time for ideas to become entrenched that don’t get fully examined until they become critical problems that grow in the wild, intense fervor of teenhood. Dealing with ALL those issues all at once is too much for anyone. This is why our teens are such a mess. It wasn’t always the case, and indeed, for much of human history, teens were adults.
Indeed, that is why dealing with sex was postponed until it became a self-evident issue. Because in order to understand the proper realm of sexual activity, you had to understand the issues surrounding life and death. Western thought is a coherent system of thought unprecedented and has no equal– except perhaps the Legalist teachings (see ref: Confucian and Daoist thought ) of the East. They come to a remarkably similar set of conclusions, which ought to tell us something.
As impersonal and remote as Greek/Roman literature and history seems to be, they deal with issues that we still care about today. They even answer questions about what happens– say when a government collapses, or what happens when you give up hope. We don’t have that anymore. This system gives the child a number of solid references to various states of society, so he or she may understand why our society is the way it is. OR I should say, why it was the way it was, and how it has gotten to where it is now. It was a coherent explanation to all those “why?” questions your kids ply you with about the state of the world.
What does all this have to do with a person wanting to kill themselves? Because all of Western Civilization — yes, even those dreaded Medieval ages– were based on the worth of the individual. We just had to outgrow things like having kings (who needed to justify their existence to an unruly populace) and certain very entrenched ideas about class and worth, first. Admittedly, that took an absurdly long time. But it did happen, and you can see that in history. We haven’t cured ourselves entirely of the tendency to grade people based on *other* classes, but that’s also another show.
This value of the individual is completely at odds with a favorable look at suicide. It is my experience that every person I’ve personally dealt with who wanted to die designated themselves (in one way or another) as useless or valueless (not the same, but considered equivalent in this day and age). In the fog of misery, they could not see that they had value, and indeed saw (somehow) that the world would be a better place without them.
The second part is the idea that suffering is the worst of all evils– which is patently not true. We could NOT value life at all if that were the case– because the Buddhists have a point. Life and suffering are pretty tightly intertwined– even with all the luxuries and technology that we have today. They just cover up the grit and wear and tear that life always brings us. Which brings us to the last aspect of how our society is bereft of riches it once had– and answers the begged question about the value of the individual, and how I can say with such confidence that we believed in the value of the individual– since the fall of Rome.
Perhaps if I mentioned the more relevant date, it would be more pointed. The birth of the belief in the Rights of Man originally should have gone to the Hebrews– if you look at the Old Testament you see the idea’s shadow and footprints.
It came to humans with the Life of Christ, His death, and His resurrection. Even an atheist– if he believes in nothing else, must acknowledge that the belief in the Rights of Man came from Christ and no other. Humanity since the beginning of time has found persuasive argument to degrade and devalue one set of humans to favor another. Our societies’ permissive attitude toward suicide kicks open that door and flash-bangs those who would otherwise see the error. But just because we have the tools, doesn’t mean we use them.
You don’t have to read much classical literature to see how devastating that would be. All you have to do is find those family stories, those painful memories of what it is when an infinitely valuable person, ANY person, extinguishes themselves in despair. Reason is a loaded gun without a set of morals and consistent value system that has no loopholes or weak spots. We can infinitely justify our actions to suit our aims– no matter how degraded. We can dress all that up to cover up the reality of sin. Unfortunately for us, our education system has done most of that work for us already.
In our evidence based society, it is difficult to justify the value of a system that we’ve had for so long and have neglected so much. But life in society is so much worse when we don’t have it, but that takes time to learn and understand, too. And if your ultimate cure all is the noose– you don’t have the time to learn. Because it all stops for you, and society has to clean up the mess, starting with those who love you most.
But without a firm foundation, that is too easy to forget in the warping haze of suffering. THIS is how education forms the individual, and prepares them for life. What we have today can’t possibly do that, and the parent doesn’t even know what pieces to fill in, because chances are extremely good that the parent didn’t get that holistic education either.
And yes, I know that this won’t stop everyone. People still have throughout history. But, I think that it would do a good deal to prevent a lot of “preventable” teen suicides, which are often made as a rash decision when things are too much, or perceived as completely intolerable. This sort of thing also gives the rest of us tools to communicate these issues more effectively.
Also, the personal suffering aspect is something I don’t know how to handle without religion. You can say that you are suffering “for society”. Then, you can also say you are dying “for society”, and you appear to have the same issue clashing with itself. Stoicism is pretty weak sauce to assuage the pain of existence. Humanity, as big as it is, is still limited. Limited things can be proscribed. God, who has no limits cannot be proscribed, so God’s will is unassailable.
So how does all this learning and philosophy ultimately affect a person who’s thinking of suicide? Because it is one’s value system that makes the ultimate escape possible in the mind, and seductive to the heart.