Stay: On Growing Up Atheist & Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Secular Argument Against Suicide

Whether religious or not, many people suffer thoughts of suicide, and much has been written about the topic. On November 12th Yale University Press published another voice in this discussion: Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

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In Stay, Hecht (a poet, philosopher and historian) presents the historical and philosophical views of suicide over the past 2,500 years. There are many arguments made against suicide, and a few in support of it.

What we find with the arguments in support, though, are that they are either from first recorded history or more backlash against Christianity than actual determined support of suicide. Even Socrates while drinking his hemlock denounces suicide, and he lived in an era that often glorified morally driven suicides.

Besides the fact that the act of suicide statistically both directly and indirectly causes more suicides (a time-release homicide) through all of recorded history, Hecht finds a few other common threads, the most important of which are community and the intrinsic worth of life.

“We are all in this together. The twin insight is that, first, you have a responsibility not to kill yourself; and second, the rest of us –and you yourself– owe you our thanks and respect. We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith– a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”

The world is our collective creation, thus without our belief in it (which is identical to our belief in ourselves) to sustain it, it ceases to be. That this is true means that no matter how utterly alone you might feel and believe yourself to be (trust me, I’ve been there more times than I can count), the ontological truth is that you are actually inexorably interwoven into humanity and your community. You think you’re useless? You are literally useful just by staying alive.

Hecht on the medieval Jewish scholar and sage, Moses Maimonides, who said, “He who destroys himself destroys the world.”: “The human world is held together by our optimistic trust that life matters to others and that the things we do in concert with others, even just living are invested with that meaning.”

Furthermore, Hecht says, we should then respect and thank one another for staying alive, for keeping life in existence; we should also thank our current (possibly deeply sad selves) for staying for our future selves.

Lastly, it is also important to conceive of life as a thing containing hardships and that these hardships have purpose and meaning — they bring us to peace, understanding, and happiness in this life. We should be aware of this and the difficulty of it and thank each other for going through it, so that we can find the strength to do it too. We should award this courage.

But you, like me, might say the concepts of interconnectedness and community have always been difficult ones to grasp. I’m not sure why — there has always been love and support in my life from my parents if from no one else. Because of this the long-standing argument that others need us or that our community does never quite seemed compelling enough to me. I get the idea, I just have a very hard time feeling the truth in it when it comes to myself. Its incredibly hard for me to believe that something I do could possible effect other people on a scale large enough to be meaningful.  But since I know I think very little of my importance, it seems most logical to trust the greatest thinkers we’ve had and modern statistics rather than my own views.

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Jennifer Michael Hecht

Hecht on Montaigne: “Montaigne had a pervading sense of the world as unknowable to human beings. For him there is so much reality beyond what our senses can report that we always must remain humble in our attempt to understand the universe and our place in it.”

Of the few things I know to be true, I know that there are people who believe in life and in their lives. That as Hecht and Maimonides point out, my death could unravel or set in motion the unraveling of this belief does feel like a wrongdoing to me. The act of suicide can be seen as a billboard reading “There’s nothing about life that’s worth real pain”. You are potentially taking from someone the natural impulse to strive and succeed, to become fulfilled, the belief in the worth of fortitude — all of which are the things that give our lives meaning, the things without which we would not be capable of happiness. You leave them a shell.

Virtue, liberty, politics, God, etc  – I don’t see the meaning in honoring these nor do I feel beholden to any of them. But to hope, to the happiness of others and their belief in the world as a place that is good, that makes them happy, a place that gives them that almost unattainable feeling of belonging? I remember having those things; they are sacred. Without them I don’t know what we’re doing here.

I’m not the person who hands out the Kool-Aid, don’t misunderstand. I have no interest in lying or perpetuating lies about the nature of the world. But I know equally that I am wrong all the time. The fact that I currently believe false the idea of goodness in the world on a large scale, the world itself as a good place, isn’t a valid reason for supporting suicide, it means only that that’s where I am in my life right now. That is my reality, not necessarily universal law (you can see now how narcissistic and ridiculous I’d sound), and even if I thought it was universal law I could so easily be wrong in the assumption no matter how much logical thought I subjected it to. The margin of error is too great.

As for growing up atheist, the problem with not having a religion or a God to turn to with my questions is not that I was left without morals or community, that’s all been realized before. The problem, if we’re to call it that, the struggle or the hardship rather, is that we have to figure out the world ourselves to find the answers to our fears and to how we should spend our lives. We start with nothing but the conflicting messages from family and community. That we have to measure, and weigh, and try out our hypotheses throughout decades of our lives to come to the conclusions that will give us peace and understanding and support. I’m not saying people brought up in religion don’t have these struggles too, but they have a framework to go with or against — the atheist child is just floating.

But is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. I would rather trudge through confusion, and pain, and feelings of isolation ’til I figured out the world as it truly is, than to live my life held back and burdened by rules and mythology and often lies — to never reach truth or real happiness.

Is ignorance bliss? I don’t know, but how could it be fulfillment? To sit back and let all the power over your life float away in the belief that someone else was figuring it all out for you or already had? What does that person feel when death comes? Have they lived? Is it foolish to say, “Sure you feel happy this way, but you don’t know what happiness you’re missing!” Isn’t happiness, happiness? We know the more of it we try for the more likely we are to loose; we gamble with our lives.

And maybe you’re also like me when I say that all of the arguments for preservation seem trumped by the deep belief that this life ends in nothingness, that it erases you. That we die and are dead and all the mountains we climbed with such struggle, all the happiness we spent our life striving for disappears as if it never happened. Why force ourselves to play the un-winnable game when it hurts this much? And if you add to this the cyclical nature of pain? Someone tells me it’ll get better and I agree, but it’ll also come back. But if you say to me that wisdom will keep the next bad time from being as bad as the last, then are the bad times worth the good?

Consider this: Is it enough to have peace but only after half a lifetime of pain, to get to spend the rest of your life being able to endure without so much pain while also keeping other people you care about alive, even if it awards you nothing at the end?

All the questioning comes to this: is life an end in itself? Is it? We know that to live is a gesture of great faith and belief in the human experience — is it worth it? As much as my sadness wants to say no, there’s some part of me, the part maybe most human, that always says yes, of course it is.  Is that how I know? Is this the feeling religious people talk about when they say they feel God? I was in the subway a handful of years ago with another boyfriend. He was saying how he had no belief in anything, and I said the thing I believed in was people. His astonishment was genuine. “I wish I believed in people,” he said.

Enter Albert Camus. Camus says the point of life is to live it. To be conscious of all its absurdity and beauty, to allow it to be absurd as it is and just let that be true, with the only consequence that it can release you to really experience life: “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.” The point of life is to experience it and we’re all on a level playing field, so more of it is always better.

Hecht on John Henley: “He acknowledges that life can be tiresome and hard but believes that as we go through life we gain wisdom and the ability to be the person we want to be.” That’s all I’ve ever wanted, to be wise and the person that I am, all things flow from these.

I’ve made so many huge mistakes in my life, but somehow I’m sitting here now realizing that despite that I might still be…OK. What if I really am OK? I kind of can’t imagine. Part of me is happier than I’ve ever been. Another huge part is utterly destroyed to a point I thought I’d never experience. I’m making the decision to stick around and see what happens — I want you to stay with me.

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