David Brooks published a column about suicide yesterday.
Brooks spends half the column dithering -- he tells us, in typical Brooksian fashion, that people who commit suicide "need an idea or story to bring them to the edge," and urges us to "attack the ideas and stories that seem to justify" suicide, but he never tells us what he thinks these ideas and stories are, or how he believes we might attack them. It's as if Brooks is just reverting to being Brooks, telling us that suicide depends on stories we tell ourselves the way he might tell us that our voting patterns or opinions of Obamacare depend on stories we tell ourselves, a clever-seeming bit of faux-wisdom that leaves Brooks feeling very pleased with himself.
Only near the end of the column do we get to the gist of what Brooks believes, and it's essentially that if you're in crushing emotional pain, you're a selfish pig unless you suck it up and go on living -- which may have a kernel of truth, but is one of the worst things I can imagine saying to a person living in a state of profound despair:
In her eloquent and affecting book "Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It," Jennifer Michael Hecht presents two big counterideas that she hopes people contemplating potential suicides will keep in their heads. Her first is that, "Suicide is delayed homicide." Suicides happen in clusters, with one person's suicide influencing the other's. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives....I agree that some people who are suicidally depressed might spare themselves if they thought about the people their suicides affect. I also agree that people who set out to commit suicide and survive often carry on with their lives, grateful that their attempts ended in failaure. I wish more of our bridges had suicide barriers for this very reason. I think people who do suicide prevention work are on the side of the angels.
Her second argument is that you owe it to your future self to live. A 1978 study tracked down 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Decades later, Hecht writes, "94 percent of those who had tried to commit suicide on the bridge were still alive or had died of natural causes." Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance, the assumption that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades.
But "Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance"? What kind of person thinks of the deeply depressed and writes about "arrogance"? What the hell is wrong with Brooks?
To some extent, it's his source material. I haven't read Jennifer Michael Hecht's book, but she directs us to a sample of the book's contents, an article she published in The American Scholar on the subject of suicide among members of the military. She uses the story of Ajax's suicide in Ovid's Metamorphoses as a jumping-off point:
By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.This makes suicide seem like a yuppie lifestyle choice -- or maybe I should say a Bobo lifestyle choice. This makes crushing depression seem like the ultimate White People Problem. No wonder Brooks likes Hecht's book.
I'd only add that the suicidal situation is an ironical situation. A person enters the situation amid feelings of powerlessness and despair, but once in the situation the potential suicide has the power to make a series of big points before the world. By deciding to live, a person in a suicidal situation can prove that life isn't just about racking up pleasure points; it is a vale of soul-making, and suffering can be turned into wisdom....So on top of actually enduring suicidal depression, a suicidally depressed person has to shoulder the burden of persuading others not to spend their lives "racking up pleasure points"? Isn't that the job of David Brooks and other moral scolds?
That person can commit to live to redeem past mistakes. That person can show that we are not completely self-determining creatures, and do not have the right to choose when we end our participation in the common project of life.Hecht associates suicide with "things that make us feel ashamed in the morning." Brooks sees surviving suicidal depression as a way of "redeem[ing] past mistakes." Does it occur to these people that the depression they're talking about is quite likely to have a source other than shame or guilt? Brooks tries to show off his research by quoting something the poet Anne Sexton wrote before her suicide (though Brooks didn't seem to know her name at first -- when the column first went online, he called her "Annie"). Here's part of how Sexton described her state of mind:
... to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can't, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but ... to do it all wrong. ... I'm not a part. I'm not a member. I'm frozen.For far too many depressed people, depression doesn't stem from an awareness of having made mistakes -- it stems from a feeling of being unable to endure one's own makeup. It stems from a feeling of not being built right. (In the case of returning soldiers, I imagine it can stem from a feeling of not being rebuilt right after a tour of duty in a combat zone.)
When Brooks scolds the suicidally depressed for acting out of a "chronological arrogance" that, in his view, leads them to believe "that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades," he's ignoring the fact that we all act in ways that set us, more or less irrevocably, on certain courses. People drop out of school or get into bad marriages or settle into dead-end job paths. People party too much and let ambtions slip away, or maybe they waste a decade trying unsuccessfully to get a dissertation written. What we did years and decades ago may not drive us to despair, but many of us have at least mild regrets about choices we made years ago.
I suppose it's hard for Brooks to understand this, given the happy way his career was made:
... it was a piece of satire that changed his life. Senior year, William F. Buckley was coming to campus, so Brooks decided to write a parody of his memoir, Overdrive. Brooks attached a postscript: "Some would say I'm envious of Mr. Buckley. But if truth be known, I just want a job and have a peculiar way of asking. So how about it, Billy? Can you spare a dime?"Brooks wasn't in the audience, but a year after he graduated, he got in touch with Buckley and asked about the offer. He became a National Review intern; since then, he really hasn't put a foot wrong, career-wise. I don't think he has any idea what life is like for people can't say the same thing about themselves.
Buckley, it turned out, could. When he spoke at Chicago the next week, he paused mid-lecture and said, "David Brooks, if you're in the audience, I'd like to give you a job."
And when Brooks wags his finger at the suicidal for regarding humans as "completely self-determining creatures," he forgets what we're all told, day in and day out, by his own ideological camp: that we all make our own breaks, that anyone can be rich and successful, that failure is always the result of an unwillingness to work hard. There's no racism or sexism or homophobia, there are no societal impediments to social mobility, there's no burden you can't overcome if you just put your nose to the grindstone. If we see ourselves as "completely self-determining creatures," maybe it's because Brooks's fellow conservatives tell us we should.
I don't want this to read as a defense of suicide. It's not. I'm just asking for more empathy for people who can't cope. I don't expect it from Brooks.