The recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have gotten people talking about the problem of taking one's own life. That's good.
But I don't feel like we're talking about an important issue that is almost a taboo topic: the gray area between (1) the black badness of people killing themselves when there are better options available to them, and (2) the white goodness of people taking control of their death when they are suffering and only have a few months or less to live.
What I see as a gray in-between area is when a person considers that life doesn't seem worth living, but they aren't terminally ill, and there really isn't much or anything that can be done about the bleak situation they're in.
Is it OK to kill yourself in such a situation? I lean toward saying "Yes," but I'm not completely sure. Which is why I call it a gray area.
Now, I want to be clear that my use of the term gray area doesn't mean that someone is semi-suicidal, as in this person's description of how they feel most days. What I'm talking about is the middle ground of a societal agreement about when it is right or wrong to kill yourself.
As noted above, virtually everybody would agree that if a person is thinking of committing suicide when there are better options open to them (such as mental health treatment, or changing one's situation), every effort should be made to prevent them from taking their life.
And at the other end of the suicide spectrum, if medical professionals agree that someone is near death, and they're seriously suffering from their terminal condition, there's increasing agreement that assisted suicide, or medical aid in dying, is morally acceptable.
(Seven states currently allow this, including Oregon, where I live.)
That's the black and white of suicide. The difficult gray area is when a person has very good reasons to feel that they don't want to keep on living, and there's little or no chance of changing those reasons, and they aren't terminally ill.
On a personal note, fairly recently I had direct experience of what it is like to be so depressed, the idea of not being alive held considerable appeal for me. Fortunately, I got help with my depression and am feeling much better now. I wrote a blog post during my dark period, "Too depressed to do anything else, I'll write about my depression."
I mention this because it was a wake-up call for me, given that I've been a person who had a distinct fear of death, which to my atheist mind means being gone forever -- a disturbing sensation I described in "Death and the primal fear of non-existence."
So it was a decidedly unusual experience for me to be aware of my thoughts about death during my depressed period, which were along the lines of You know, being dead doesn't seem so scary anymore. In fact, it sounds pretty damn good.
Thus even though I wasn't really in the gray area that I'm talking about here, because my suicidal tendency was situational, curable with an anti-depressant, plus the support of loved ones and the passage of time, now I have a better understanding of how someone can feel like life isn't worth living, because the situation they're in is just so damn shitty.
And sometimes shitty situations can't be changed, as when someone has a chronic medical condition and it seriously affects their quality of life.
Like I said, I'm undecided about this gray area of suicide.
My leaning is toward society being more accepting of people taking their own life after careful and full consideration of the pros and cons of committing suicide, when there is little or nothing that can be done to change the situation that is causing them to contemplate choosing death over life.
Autonomy is a wonderful thing. Conversely, feeling trapped is a bad thing. I readily admit that even in my current non-depressed frame of mind, I feel comfort in the fact that if the quality of my life ever degrades to a really low point, there's the option of ending my life.
Writing those words just struck me as strange. I almost feel ashamed, or embarrassed, to have said what I just did. But it's how I feel. And I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way.
The strangeness of saying "there's the option of ending my life" seems to come from a taboo in our society against talking about the suicidal gray area I'm referring to.
We're accustomed to urging people contemplating suicide for bad reasons to seek help. Increasingly, we're accustomed to praising people who are terminally ill and choose to hasten their death to avoid needless suffering. But there's an awkward silence about those who have good reason to feel that life isn't worth living, and those reasons are difficult or impossible to change.
I don't know how to deal with this gray area. I just wish that as a society, we could talk about it more openly and honestly. This blog post is my small step in that direction.