I am struggling with the recent discussions about suicide. I've been silent hoping to figure things out for myself. The media’s emphasis on mental health, as well as genuine concern, makes sense, but somehow misses the mark. The problem seems larger than an individual one. Each person makes their own decisions based on their experience of the world, but as social creatures we all influence each other. We all bear some responsibility for our sisters and brothers, I believe.
When I read the article, “Artificial concern for people in pain won’t stop suicide. Radical empathy might.,” I felt like I’d stumbled on something closer to my experience than anything else so far. The author, Richard Morgan, writes, “Suicide is a kind of fatal exhaustion. It knocks on your door not as a monster, but as a healer making a house call.” He then notes that we need to “make that knock at the door less appealing. Give it less space to be heard.”
How do we do that? Something he calls radical empathy. Morgan says that empathy “is a commitment to assert that other people’s loneliness matters.” He writes, “We need each other desperately all the time. That’s what society means. That’s what civilization is. It should be the core of more than just our personal, private conversations. It should be the animating concept behind public policy, taxes, civic duty.”
This position underscores something lacking in our current historical moment: we ignore the suffering of others and consequently believe that we are responsible only for our own lives or those who are within our own tribe. (This is being played out on our Mexican border right now where children are being ripped from their parents’ arms in the name of safety.) Empathy, writes Morgan, “should be a way of life and love; it should be our other oxygen.”
If you’ve made it this far into my post, please check in with a neighbor, a loved one, or even a stranger and ask how they really are at this very moment. It’s OK to go deeper than social niceties. Dig a little if you get the sense that something’s awry. You don’t need to fix anything, I promise, you just need to be present for someone. When I sit with a client talking about suicide I don’t need to fix that person. I just need to care enough to understand what it feels like to walk in their shoes. That's it.
And if you’re up for it, take a risk yourself; let someone know where and how you are today. It’s OK to be hurting, you’re human! We need to share our pain if we hope to fully embrace our own humanity. We need to disagree actively with the notion that a good life is glamorous, sexy, delicious, blessed, and joyous. No, a good life is one lived honestly, with eyes wide open, ready to embrace everything, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, blessed and cursed, sexy and plain, and especially ready to embrace someone when they need it and perhaps least expect it.
Finally, see if there's a way to incorporate empathy into your civic life. When you vote, think about someone other than yourself. When you hear an opinion that makes you want to scream, take a breath and look below the surface to what's really going on, even if it takes longer than you'd like. Consider the possibility that you don't know everything. And entertain the notion that you are not an isolated entity, but that you exist only because of and for others. Individualism is great, but it's mighty lonely.