Live the tension

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new, neat and large enough;
I tie the knot in a conscious way
Like the one who ties his tie for a ball;
But just like all the neighbors – on the wall –
Take a long breath to shout “Hooray!”
The strangest whim seized me. … After all
I don’t think I’m going to hang myself today.

– GK Chesterton, A suicide ballad


Standing on the platform, gazing impatiently into the darkness, waiting for that sudden breath, that draw of air that signals the approach of the metro, I can’t help but wonder: “Why not jump? What is stopping me? The answer, terrifying as it is, is: nothing at all. There is nothing that can prevent me from taking the fatal leap, from rushing headlong into my own defeat. Just me and my decision not to. Or, maybe something less than a decision, just a whim.

This problem of human freedom and its scope has been known since ancient times. Plato understood that laws are necessary to restrict certain human actions. The discovery of the destructive impulse was not, as Freud would have us believe, the result of the psychoanalytic method. We have always been aware that our fate is in our hands, even when we have been too confused to say it out loud. Otherwise, why would Plato find it necessary to introduce one of the oldest and oldest arguments against self-killing? We are, his Socrates tells us, the possessions of the gods and to die by suicide is to exercise a power over one’s life reserved only for the divine. And yet, this is not Socrates’ last word on the subject. In the next breath, he dies of laughter; having voluntarily drunk from the poisoned cup, he asks his friend Crito to offer a sacrifice to Asclepius, god of good health. Suicide, suggests the master of irony, is two-sided: both an offense to the gods and a blessing bestowed by the gods on those who pray for a cure for life.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the importance of gallows humor in philosophy. A colleague asked me to act as sponsor of Simon Critchley, who was give a lecture on his magnificent book length essay Notes on suicide, just reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions. A few weeks before the conference, I woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling of tightness in my chest, suffocating shortness of breath, and an unshakeable fear that I was about to die. My heart was pounding; muscles contracted in my shoulders and neck; I felt that I couldn’t stand or lie or sit. I was having a panic attack. I’ve had them for years and learned to live with them (especially by waking my poor tired wife and making her talk to me until the episode was over). My anxiety was not brought on by the thought of my next conversation with a thinker I deeply admire. There were also no specific life events I could pin him on. It seemed to come out of nowhere, digging into my psyche and leaving me physically and mentally exhausted.

As I read Critchley’s book, however, I began to notice a connection between the underlying conditions of anxiety and suicide. Both are fundamentally related to the problem of meaning, each revealing a different aspect of this problem. To say that is to ignore Critchley’s expressed desire to leave meaning behind. “The question of the meaning of life,” he writes, “is the wrong question and I humbly suggest that we stop asking it.” It may be a bit rude for a respondent to take as a starting point the very topic that the speaker asked his audience to forget. But good manners have little to do with understanding, and honest thinking is rarely polite. In any event, as I considered the wide range of behaviors that we refer to as ‘suicide’ – Critchley mentions self-killing as a consequence of terminal diagnosis, loss of love, feeling of isolation. and societal alienation, commitment to a religious or political ideology, and many more – I asked myself, “What, if anything, links such disparate acts?” What do these different reasons for committing suicide have in common? “

It was then that I remembered a footnote from the first pages of Camus The myth of Sisyphus. “I heard”, Camus tells us, “of […] a post-war writer who, after completing his first book, committed suicide to draw attention to his work. Attention was actually drawn, but the book was not considered good. I’ve always thought that a sense of comics is essential for philosophy – and when comics can be successfully married to the tragic, all the better – but revisiting this anecdote in light of Critchley’s essay me opened. What stood out now was that the postwar writer’s first book was also his last. Once he was done writing it, he had nothing more to do. He must have committed suicide. As a writer, I could sympathize. A lot of writers I know finish jobs and get horribly depressed. The worst part is finishing a project you’ve been working on for years. As long as the task awaits us – indefinite, unfinished, waiting in the indeterminacy of the future – there is hope, possibility, life. But a task done is a dead thing; and when we have linked all our meaning to this task, it is difficult to continue living.

I’m not trying to say that everyone who struggles with suicidal ideation is doing it because he achieved his life goal. I suggest that suicidal thoughts creep in when you feel that her life has been defined, that she has a fixed meaning, and that nothing unexpected or new can creep in on her and change her direction. Consider the much-discussed rise in self-destructive tendencies among older, middle-class white Americans. In just one reading, it could be attributed to the fact that many people feel they are not living particularly meaningful lives. By another one could say that the life of these people is too meaningful – monolithically significant, confined to one sense (eg, that of a worker officer) – and that there is nothing in front of them, no possibility of change.

Or consider the examples Critchley mentioned above. The recipient of a terminal diagnosis sees no future. His fate is final. The woman abandoned by her lover knows that love can no longer be. She has found her purpose, and no one else can replace it. The lonely and isolated are trapped in their loneliness with no possibility of escape. The religious or political fanatic has discovered the meaning of life and sacrifices himself (and often others) to it. All these people have found a meaning and, to quote Camus once again, “what we call a reason to live is also an excellent reason to die”.

“Suicide,” Critchley writes, “abolishes the future.” To this I would add that the one who dies by suicide does so because his future has already been abolished, denied by the sense of the present, a sense accomplished and yet not finished, which cannot be suppressed. Critchley identifies this predicament – hence his insistence that the search for meaning “should simply be given up” – and, in response, urges us to open up to the insignificance of existence, to stop trying to define it, abandon the vain attempt at the damn thing below. The worst thing we can do, his essay suggests, is get what we want and find that there is nothing more to do, no future to pursue, more possibilities on the horizon. “The question of the meaning of life,” he writes, “is a mistake. […] The great revelation will never come. So instead of wandering aimlessly in search of it or committing suicide when we think we have found it, Critchley encourages us to seek out moments of ecstasy in the everyday, glimpses of the sublime in the mundane. It ends with a beautiful meditation on what it means to open up to the sweet indifference of the world and to do so with tenderness, with love. He concludes – echoing Mrs. Ramsay’s exhilaration of the speckled things in Woolf’s Towards the lighthouse – “That’s enough.”

I want this to be true. And yet living with panic attacks makes me suspicious. Because caught in the clutches of anguish, it is precisely the indifference and indeterminacy of the world that fills us with fear. The lack of meaning in everything, the fact that there are too many possibilities and that one or none of them could come true, leaves one breathless. Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “the actuality of freedom as a possibility of possibility”. What he means is that anxiety is my awareness of my freedom, my recognition that I live as a free being with an endless number of possibilities in front of me. Given this experience, given the unbearable weight of indeterminacy, we would choose any meaning, even horrible (even maybe death) about nonsense, possibility, freedom.

Dostoyevsky tells us that “nothing has ever been more unbearable for the human race than personal freedom”. In times of intense anxiety, I can’t help but agree. This is why, I suspect, that when caught in the clutches of a panic attack, our thoughts immediately go to death – the final possibility and the end of all possibilities. The very death we fear is the only hope, the consolation of getting through the terrible night. Yet, as Critchley’s essay reveals, if we hold on a little longer, if we find a way to endure it, life goes on. In the tension between anxiety and suicide – infinite, stifling possibility and finite sense that forever closes possibility – life goes on.

It’s learning to live with the tension that’s the trick. Learning to bear the weight, to bear the burden, to hold on to the cross of human existence and not to try to descend makes life worth living. As difficult as it may sound, it can be done. It is done every day. Each of us is already doing it.


Matthew Clemente is a lecturer at Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College.

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