Our popular understanding of suicide mainly relates to despair, depression, and sin.
People kill themselves out of despair, the deep sense of hopelessness which we feel in the face of insurmountable suffering and hardship. Examples include people killing themselves to escape captivity, hunger, poverty, and abuse.
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Suicide due to depression means to escape the often indescribable, combined feelings of sadness and despair, which is further deepened by the isolation imposed by solitude or loneliness. A gnawing sense of guilt, prolonged grief, and sorrow, feelings of alienation and withdrawal from society are part and parcel of the depressed that leads to suicide.
In these two contexts, suicide means the sense of giving up, a surrender to forces beyond our abilities to defeat.
Another popular understanding of suicide is in relation to the Christian concept of sin. In a world primarily dominated by the Christian worldview, suicide is regarded as an offense against the Creator, a usurpation of divine authority, and a rebellion against natural law.
Christian theologians like Augustine in his City of God and Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, as well as Vatican documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, point out that the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”, covers the prohibition to kill one’s self. The Protestant line also remains the same as in the case of John Calvin.
According to the Catechism: “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”
Some secular thinkers also oppose suicide: Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau share the view that suicide is a betrayal of a person’s duties to the community and to the state. Immanuel Kant considers suicide as a betrayal of man’s responsibilities to himself as a rational and moral being. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre likewise argue against suicide because, like Sisyphus, man should face head-on the futility of existence and not give in to the easy, illusory promise of freedom in death.
Negativity and defeatism dominate our views and understanding of suicide. Most of us think that suicide isn’t worthwhile; that it is cowardice, that the dead should have fought instead to live. That their courage to die, no matter how twisted it is, should have been instead used to see the brighter side of life.
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But if we believe that the individual is the captain of his own soul, that he alone is responsible for his actions, the one who determines his course, then why do we regard suicide, the conscious, self-willed, self-conducted act of terminating one’s own existence, as bad and detestable?
This issue, we will take on the next part, “An Invitation to Understand Suicide – Part 3.”