Choosing to live
In the early 20th century, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre claimed that we only had one authentic choice: to choose to live, or to kill ourselves. He argued, rather bleakly, that suicide was the true expression of man’s free will: one that distiguished us from all other animals.
According to the National Office of Suicide Prevention here in Ireland:
- A lifetime history of suicide related thoughts in certain general population groups can be as high as 49%
- 16% in Ireland, similar to the USA, UK, Australia and Canada.
In our modern, wealthy western world people who seemingly have everything to live for, are choosing NOT to live, whether by alcoholism, drug addiction, addiction to gambling or video games, eating disorders, through depression, hypochondria and suicide. Of course material wealth is not everything. But when you have everything you need for human life: health, food, a home, family and friends, why are so many in our culture turning to death?
I have been there myself. For short periods, but I have. So I have some personal understanding. But I also understand the frustration of dealing with a depressed person whose dark thoughts dominate not only their lives, but those of their loved ones, spewing blackness everywhere, removing joy, direction, hope and draining energy, resources, sympathy into a seemingly bottomless black hole of need, despair and stultifying inertia. I have one immediate family member in this place right now consumed by depression, suicidal thoughts and anger. Another two have been there in the past couple of years. A friend from my past killed herself a month ago. As have other people in my local area.
Why? Why do people in the prime of life, in the most privileged time in history, in comfortable circumstances find themselves so discontent that the only answer is not to live?
The Buddha taught that life is suffering, and yet we seem believe that we should be happy all the time and that if we’re not then we’ve been cheated and we’re not playing anymore. “It’s not fair,” “I deserve more,” “I just can’t carry on,” it’s all too hard, too much,” “everyone else is alright and only I am struggling,” our mind tells us. We feel alone, angry, isolated.
Depression is a very self-centred illness: it muffles everything else except the voice in our heads. In depression the mind turns against itself, just as in auto-immune disease (also hugely prevalent in our culture now) the physical body turns against itself.
As a culture we seem to be on self destruct. We have become a cerebral civilisation: a fact which has benefits, and dark costs it seems. Our culture is very good at creating dark “soul food”: horror films, fantasy war games, a lack of meaningful interpersonal interactions, incessant bad news, readily available drugs and alcohol, a lack of time in the natural environment, unnourishing food, a lack of work with purpose and meaning…If each is seen as a “poison” it is little wonder so many cannot “see the light”, they are consuming darkness, and you are what you eat.
I was watching Comic Relief (a UK charity telethon) on Friday night and I saw the power of the human mind to survive, the will to live despite horrific circumstances: a 16 year old African boy who had lost his parents through murder and was in charge of his household of 4 younger siblings, living in a one room shack next to the slum latrine; a new mother with TB and AIDS who was watching her baby die in front of her because she had no milk to give him and no money; a woman who had lost 7 of her children: a cancer sufferer in England; a girl who is the main carer for her mother. These people are, despite enormous physical and emotional hardship, despite loss, trauma and poverty, choosing to live…
And it is a choice.
Whatever our circumstances it is a choice to live or to die. For some it might be taken on a minute by minute basis. But if we choose what Sartre refers to as “good faith”, we choose to live. And once we make that choice (and it is one we can only make for ourselves, the ultimate act of personal responsibility) why not make it a life well-lived, as full as we can make it of love and gratitude, not negativity, anger and suffering? We each have a choice every moment what to focus our minds on: is it the pain in our heads or the beautiful tree swaying in the wind outside our window? We choose. Now, in this moment. What are you choosing, right now? And now? You can choose again. And again. However if you choose death you can never choose again.
We are both light and dark and need to experience and explore both sides. Existential crises are parts of life as we break out of one ingrained way of being and into another. “I cannot carry on like this” is an important place to get to… but then we must move on, not feed the negative voices in our heads.
Eckhart Tolle in his superbly insightful book A New Earth has a concept he describes as the pain body