On Friday, June 8, Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef turned convivial diner to the world, was found dead in Kaysersberg, a small village in the Alsace region of France. He had died by suicide at age 61. His death partially eclipsed the apparent suicide of Kate Spade, the fashion designer, especially famous for her accessories.
The June 25 cover of People magazine was entitled “Talent and Tragedy.” It was shared by glossies of these two “beloved icons.” This past month the media has been suffused with tributes to the two. They were well deserved. How one dies does not delete how one has lived.
One can certainly complain, however, that these tragic celebrities were turned into commodities, marketed by the media. Yet that is the very nature of modern media. People and events are products, ever more so in a modern, information-based economy. June’s most famous media commodity was, without doubt, the little refugee girl, crying in terror at being separated from her mother. That this did not actually happen—at least to this particular little girl—is, from an economic point of view, irrelevant. Packaging is not always precise.
Are we doing enough as a society to discourage suicide?
No commercial enterprise begins with a business plan to market evil. All businesses seek to make a profit. Positive effects are almost always conjoined with some negatives, and so the modern media, just before it profits from tragedy, reminds us not to imitate what they present to us as titillation. Even more challenging is offering tribute to a life without encouraging imitation of a death. That is, as we say, the cost of doing business, in this case, media business. Yet the question should be posed: Are we doing enough as a society to discourage suicide?
Perhaps human nature lacks the ability to maintain balance. Maybe equilibrium belongs only to the deity. For centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims did not permit “suicides” to be buried in common, consecrated land. At least among Christians, these souls were thought to have committed the unpardonable sin. In killing themselves, they had despaired; they had closed themselves off from God. In “Hamlet,” when the body of Ophelia arrives at her grave, the priest says:
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her (V.II.251).
Having evolved into societies where individuals are considered more sacrosanct than communities, we find such a policy to be harsh and punitive. Our ancestors, however, saw it, along with other forms of social coercion, as necessary to preserve and enhance life.
Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death, for all ages, in the United States. Every day, 105 Americans die by suicide, about one every 12 minutes. For young Americans, ages 15 to 24, suicide is now the third leading cause of death. For them, it vies with accidents and murder.
We cannot adequately nourish, heal, protect or educate ourselves as individuals. We cannot save ourselves from suicide that way either.
It is time for us to think again about communities. Some evils, indeed most evils, transcend the individual. They do not begin or end within a single soul. That is why community among humans has always been and will always be a life-giving necessity. We cannot adequately nourish, heal, protect or educate ourselves as individuals. We cannot save ourselves from suicide that way either.
It is not time to again shun those who have died by suicide as perpetrators of evil. They should not be denied the sacramental rites extended to others. All of us die in sin. The contemporary church preaches and believes that suicide does not represent absolute despair because it agrees with the experts, who argue that only those who suffer from some profound psychological pathology could go against our strongest instinct, that of self-preservation.
But then the burden of balance should bother us, at least a bit. We used to blame all addictions on moral weakness. The addict was, plain and simple, a sinner. From that ethical extreme, we swung to therapeutic intemperance: Addicts are only patients, suffering from pathologies. Their addictions have no ethical component.
The truth, however untidy it might be, is that all of us are constrained by factors beyond our control in most everything that we do. No one ever acts with perfect freedom, uncontaminated by physical, environmental and relational factors. Those addicted and those who die by suicide are still human beings. We all act with some limited freedom, but only God and the individual soul can figure out the extent of his or her culpability. Interestingly, therapeutic strategies for addiction that recognize both duty and disease, ethics and pathology, seem to be the most successful.
Have we gone too far in saying that addicts and those who die by suicide are never culpable? Separating sin from the sinner is a slippery business. Human beings perpetrate great evil, but they also suffer from it. We need to try to identify actions as wrong, as destructive, as needing to be avoided, without speaking of individuals as those who have embraced these actions. Truth is, we never know if a “who” used a “what,” or a “what” seized a “whom.” Is this person victim or a sinner? The doctrine of original sin would seem to suggest that the answer to the question is always: both. Yet to what degree? Who can say?
We do know that:
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome (Wis 1:13-14).
The Catholic tradition asserts two delightfully dogged truths about the deity. The first: We know that God exists. The second: All we know of God is what God is not. The core of Jewish, Christian and Islamic revelation is that God is not about death, indeed that we look for God by seeking what is life-giving.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it (Wis 2:23-24).
We must learn again that communities exist to create, sustain and protect life. To fall away from communion of life with others, to be separated from community is life-threatening. It matters not who is to blame, the community or the individual. The one who is isolated is in danger. Communities that seek out their lost are alive; those who stop searching are in the throes of death.
We must learn again that communities exist to create, sustain and protect life.
Balance is a blessing of the divine, but a burden for we who are mortal. Yes, communities can and do oppress individuals. This is true of every government, every community and every church. But the solution is not to cast individuals out or to tear down communities. Living under what Scripture calls the reign of sin, we will always wound each other in life shared. Still, the alternative is no option. Our very humanity dies in isolation.
We also know this. When a Christian asks what he or she owes to community and when we wonder what is our due to our fellow human beings, we claim a crystalline clarity to be revealed in the Christ.
For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.