Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suicide & Sin

SPOILER ALERT: If you're not familiar with It's a Wonderful Life or Miss Saigon, you may not want to read this! :)

Suicide is a very controversial area. Some people advocate for euthanasia (AKA suicide when you're sick), while we can involuntarily hospitalize someone who wants to kill themselves with they are mentally ill. I deal with suicidal people on a daily basis. And this is not a one-time thought of suicide, the people are often chronically and severely suicidal. Even the kids with whom I work.

Suicide is often described as sin. However, the more I understand and work with suicide, the more I have come to challenge that idea. From my experience, the idea of suicide as sin comes from the assumption that people suicide because they do not see the value in their lives and want to throw that away, thus rejecting a fundamental, valuable gift from God.

However, that is not always the reason for suicide. It often is not the case. It's a Wonderful Life and Miss Saigon are perfect examples of suicide for other reasons. In fact, I would argue that suicide in those shows occur out of love for others.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George considers suicide to save his family financially. Everyone in the film agrees this is a poor choice, but should we really condemn someone when they are willing to sacrifice their life to help the rest of their family? Now, there are other reasons he considered suicide, which was a loss of hope, but still that was not the only reason.

An even more potent example is in Miss Saigon, which I saw for the second time at CSUF this weekend. In it, Kim kills herself in order to give her son the life she believes he deserves. This suicide had nothing to do with selfishness, hatred of life, or anything we usually condemn with suicide. Rather, it was pure love.

These kinds of examples kind of challenge our assumptions about suicide, I think. What say you?


  1. When I told my wife that it's illegal to kill yourself in America and that cops will even try to stop you, she was very mystified. In Japan, it's accepted that if you need to do it, you'll do it. It's not even necessarily people who are depressed who kill themselves (a very common misunderstanding of the Japanese by westerners is that Japanese have poor mental health, when if anything the opposite is the case). A lot of their tendency towards suicide is an artifact of their shame-based culture. It seems sad to an outsider that sometimes people kill themselves when they have a good life and to essentially ritually purify their in-group.

    The explanation I would usually give to Japanese for the different view towards suicide is influence of Christianity on Western culture, but this may be circular. What someone calls "Christianity" from a sociological perspective envelopes not just Christianity itself, but aspects of the culture where it first flourished. In the same way we associate Sharia law with Islam, though it isn't in the Qu'ran, we associate certain western superstitions with Christianity. Indeed, the biggest opposition to euthanasia in the West is, of course, the religious right.

    Incidentally, I support people's right to die. Particularly, I think old people know when it's their time and certainly will themselves to death too (why else would so many people die on or after their birthday?). I know it's treated as a specific mental illness when a really old person has the belief that they are dead, but I can't help but wonder if the "senile" old man knows more than the doctors surrounding him in a way...

  2. Pinkboi...Thanks for your perspective so well explained.

    I agree with you and your wife.

    Certainly the subject of suicide is Taboo here in the West and that is such a shame, as those who need help cannot talk openly.

    Those who feel age and health has brought them to that decision are not necessarily wrong or senile.

    I took a degree in Gerontology and worked with seniors as a volunteer for several years and,
    as you said "I know it's treated as a specific mental illness when a really old person has the belief that they are dead, but I can't help but wonder if the "senile" old man knows more than the doctors surrounding him in a way...". I agree and also, obviously I do not think it is a sin!

  3. Thank you both for your comments! Excellent points!!

  4. Here's a comment someone emailed me:

    Well, so here is my thought off the top of my head:

    The immediate thought I have is of a soldier throwing theirself onto a loose grenade, sacrificing their life to save their comrades! That certainly may be an impulsive act but, at the same time, running the opposite direction, away from the grenade, would be an impulse so I feel most often it is an act of love that the soldier has done by smothering the grenade and allowing their own death as a consequence. Stay with me:

    Some would maybe say that is not really suicide but I would argue it is just one example of the suicides humanity accepts! There are others I accept and do not feel it a sin. Of course I would love for those who took their lives, either under the influence of a toxin or out of fear or lonliness or feeling they are unable to cope with life or loss to have found help but no, it is not a sin. To me at times a person has no one to openly discuss their feelings, suicide being so taboo in our society.

    It is so good you raise this subject here as it is seldom talked about except to say quickly. "our help lines are open 24/7". A greater dialogue and examination of the metabolic and situational causes is needed. Kids in particular need to know that some issues like bullying or failed exams are not the end of opportunities and wonderful things that they can do for others, as well as that wonderful things will happen in the future to them.

    Good topic!



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