Survivors of Suicide
While researching an article I came across a piece of information that made my jaw drop. Both Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi attempted suicide when they were boys. My first thought was, if they can’t get through life without wanting to end it how can the rest of us possibly cope? And then, what an inspiration these men can be to the rest of us who approach the brink only to return and try to make some positive mark on the world.
It's well documented that both men struggled with depression their whole lives. Depression is brutal, and in the depths of it it’s unimaginable that anything good could possibly come of it. But when the darkness lifts we must see some light that draws us to continue. A light that prompts us to live. A reason to go on.
The answer is often found in service to others, and the driver of this service is empathy.
People with clinical depression often exhibit high rates of empathy. In them extreme sympathy for the well-being of others, and extreme compassion for the suffering of others, can lead to serious emotional difficulties. While we can learn to channel these emotions into productive work and genuine service, as adolescents, confronting such feelings can be devastating. This was the case for Gandhi and King.
As a youth Gandhi struggled with the rules of his family that he found oppressive. He rebelled by smoking and eating meat, much to the chagrin of his parents and other elders in his community. Their punishment was severe. Unable to bear the restrictions placed upon him, he and a friend identified herbs that would kill them and began to experiment with the amounts they could consume to end their lives. They took enough to lose consciousness, but not quite enough to die. However, according to talks he gave as an adult, he really did want to die. In fact, thoughts of suicide hounded him his entire life.
King was 12 when his grandmother lay dying. He was left alone with her with instructions to take care of her. Instead, he snuck out of the house to go to a fair. While he was gone she died. Stricken with grief and guilt he jumped out of a second story window and, while injured, he survived.
We’re much better off that they survived. The trick is to convince everyone who attempts suicide and survives that the world is a better place with them still in it. I know how difficult this is. I tried to kill myself long ago, and it took a long time before I felt like I had something to contribute to others and work to do that would make life for me, and for those I was able to touch, worthwhile.
Suicide is a terribly lonely place to be, and after an attempt the thought of reaching out for help, and reaching out to offer help to others, seems a desperate act of futility. Life is filled with screams of “why bother?” But if we can see that the reason to bother is to serve others, we can find a way to continue living with compassion, love and, quite possibly, joy.
I maintain that the world today, in its elevation of the individual to some state of superiority, should not be surprised by the sickened state of our collective mental health. People often can see no further than their own demands for rights and equity, and, in striving for advantage, often lose sight of the profound impact their demands have on others. They end up living above and without community in their rejection of the culture that granted them some right to live free and rewarding lives in the first place.
What set King and Gandhi, in their fight for rights, fairness and equality, apart from the people who seek individual advantage today, was their emergence from, and dependence on, strong communities of faith and service. The same empathy for others that made them vulnerable to suicide as youth made them live exemplary lives that would inspire and elevate an entire culture, all the while honoring their commitment to that culture and its institutions of faith and service.
Often it is hard to find reasons to go on within ourselves. But if we’re bound to, responsible for, and indebted to others, reasons to live can be profound. King and Gandhi aren’t notable for rejecting something, they’re notable for creating something new within the boundaries of what came before them. What, in the end, was made better through their actions, held on to its strength and, through the proper application of empathy, not through selfish demands, became a better world that all want to live in. As a community. Together.
I write a lot about the need for community in my book Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. Please have a look at the book and, perhaps, buy a copy here. Thanks.