Struggling with suicide

While I am sure that suicide is difficult in any faith, in Unitarian Universalism it poses some distinct challenges. To begin with, as a faith that does not dictate a specific doctrine or creed, Unitarian Universalism finds cohesiveness around the mutual affirmation of some fairly general principles. As general as those principles are, even in our faith we wrangle about them and how they should be lived and interpreted. The main thing we do is agree together to affirm them.

In the end, that agreement that we make with each other is the main thing that holds us together. This makes Unitarian Universalism a covenantal faith; what holds Unitarian Universalists together is not a belief in god, or in a primary prophetic text, but in the act of making a covenant with each other.

This covenantal action bespeaks a premise that we do not make our faith alone–that it arises out of relationships. If you examine the Unitarian Universalist principles, you will find that they all refer to how we are in the world with each other. Even the fourth principle, which seems on its face to be about truth, insists on a “responsible” search for truth and meaning. Responsible to whom or to what? To each other and to the world? At least.

The theology inherent in the Unitarian Universalist reliance of covenant directly places the mysterious truth, what some would call the divine, into this web of relationships. We enter into these relationships freely, which is to say that we are not compelled by force or threat; there is no damnation to frighten a Unitarian Universalist (or anyone) into compliance. We are always in a set of relationships: families, friends, work, but also to nature, to the all the world around us, to the historical past and future, and,in a special way, to our fellow congregants.

This web of relationships can feel weighty at times. For instance, a cup of coffee enjoyed after worship explodes into the world as the web of relationships flowing from coffee in the cup expands ever outward. It is hard to be in the present moment, because no one thing is unconnected. All our choices become profound decisions. However, the web can also be a safety net–they are the ties that bind us to the world. It is not so bad to be bound to this world.

And so to suicide. Suicide is particularly hard because it severs relationships, and it shows that an individual has lost connection to the vast array of relationships to which she or he belongs. The survivors feel the loss because one part of the great tangle is no longer there. And because part of Unitarian Universalist theology is bound to all these relationships, that theology is called into question by the act of suicide.

No, of course not, one might argue, suicide is an act that belongs entirely to the person who enacts it. It reflects only on that individual and his or her state of being. I understand that perspective, but struggle with it, in some portion because I am a Unitarian Universalist.

One of the great mysteries–what makes the self– is answered not by cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), but by I am in relationship with the world therefore I am (help me with the Latin, please). This is a fairly radical concept, perhaps more so than we ever fully imagine, because there is no self without the world–the self is contingent on the world. Most would reverse that postulation.

But the world! Insistent and persistent. And then, if only it had been so for my friend, and how could it not have been when she knew all this and knew it more than I ever will? So, I struggle, and stay tangled.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “Struggling with suicide”

  1. Thank you for this reflection on the way suicide plays out in our theology of relationship. What bothers me, in the wake of this death, is how many UUs I relate to in only superficial ways.

  2. How terrible her pain must have been that she could be a vital part of such a community, could have accomplished so much and have so much left to give, could be a parent, and still find no hope or reason to go on. Depression is a cruel illness.

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