Thoughts on compassion and the wrong response

At some point shortly after Robin Williams’ suicide, someone angrily commented that suicide was a selfish act, which drew the fairly enlightened and angry response, “No, it’s not. Here’s why.” At least that was part of what lit up my Facebook newsfeed last week. And there was anger and there were enlightened responses about depression, the meaning of depression, suicide, and the meaning of suicide.

Not so strangely, I’ve had a bit of time to think about suicide this past month. I appreciate the discussions about mental health and depression. Clearly, anything that takes the lives of 30,000 Americans each year bears serious thought and discussion. All our lives must have come into contact with several people who made this choice. In my life, I have known more than five and less than ten people who have either succeeded or made truly serious attempts at suicide. It’s not that unusual a number.

And so, I can’t help spending more time about those who the parlance calls survived. The leftovers. What is a good response to suicide? Quite honestly, this time around, among my first blush responses were some less than charitable impulses. I stand with Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I did not act on these impulses; I had other work to do with people who were struggling as much, more, than I was struggling. Nonetheless, I felt them and tried to manage them, but it was not–is not–an easy task.

I watch people around me take up the cause of suicide prevention. This is a good cause, and an act of unselfish kindness on their part. I understand this also as a way these people work at healing the tear in the universe left behind by the suicide of our bright and generous minister. And this is what we who remain are left to do: work at the tear in the universe.

When the universe is torn abruptly, I can’t imagine a response that does not turn finally towards compassion. I also cannot imagine the possibility of a full throated, “No!” In my case this “No!” was accompanied by many Anglo-Saxon epithets. My father would have quietly said, “This is shitty.” I say, “fuck.” A lot. Mostly in private.

There probably is not, within reason, a wrong response to suicide. But even that “within reason” is a hedge. Surely some Devil’s Night act of savage protest in which the dispossessed, the angry, and the desperate burn a city to the ground is not a reasonable response. Okay, maybe just one fire? But 30,000 fires? One for each suicide in America this year?

Probably not a good response.

Nonetheless, my compassion ends up getting turned toward those who are here, whose work will be to poorly sew back together what has been put asunder. I listen to those who try to make sense of the senseless, to those who rapidly respond: “Fix it, fix it,” to those whose “No’s” bear the added weight of personal struggle with suicide and suicidal thoughts. I even feel compassion toward those who yell and scream, who turn to anger, because I feel that too. I feel a little compassion for me.