Several years ago I began wondering if my generation would experience an unprecedented rise in suicides. My logic was, and still is, that some boomers who lived life large and saved little will simply check out when they realize the party is over and they have before them only the vicissitudes of old age and death.
I would like to believe we can “disrupt aging“ as AARP President Jo Anne Jenkins suggests in her book of the same title (disrupt: to interrupt, obstruct, delay, suspend), but that would be to defy nature. I would like to believe “old people are cool“ and that my golden years will be spent strolling a tropical beach in windblown white linens, hand-in-hand with my youthful and athletic lover, amber rays of the setting sun glowing in our tawny faces. Or that my blue-jean clad hipster self will ride a Harley through the serpentine roads of the canyon lands, top down and Wayfarers on baby, my silver hair peeking out from under my helmet.
But for the truly aged, these are lies.
As one who cares for an elderly person, I can tell you that at some point in the process there is no putting lipstick on the pig of old age. It is hell, not to mention incontinence, loss of independence and control, mental decline, disease and maladies of all sorts, immobility, depression, loneliness, and social isolation. All this without the money or privileges that come with being a Robin Williams or a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain ~ the Oscars, the apartments in Manhattan, the young Italian actress girlfriends, the millions of Twitter followers, or any of the glitter and fame. Most of us who are staring down the business end of the shotgun we call old age will do so alone, depressed, and penniless, with almost nothing to show for our little lives of quiet desperation. No Harley. No beach. No Twitter followers.
So why not just kill yourself?
There are, of course, lots of good answers to that question, but you can get those from the 1-800 Suicide hotline that appears on virtually every news article about our famous friends’ demise. My rambling scrawl is to explore the alternative ~ Why not suicide?
I have long supported the “death with dignity“ movement that is slowly gaining ground throughout the world, whereby people with a terminal physical condition have the right, after going through substantial mental and physical examinations, to commit suicide. But advocates draw the line at mental conditions, which are a no fly zone for the death with dignity movement.
Could this be a reflection of our relatively primitive understanding of mental illness? Do we really believe that 100% of “mentally ill” people can be restored to vibrant life 100% of the time if we just quickly get them into therapy upon seeing the “warning signs?”
What then of Tony Bourdain? His most intimate friends, even his own mother, are in shock, stupefied with disbelief. What warning signs were there?
And what of Kate Spade? Was she not getting treated for her long-standing struggle with depression, most likely with the best therapy money can buy?
What does this mean to the other 45,000 Americans who kill themselves every year? That they just didn’t try hard enough? That their friends and families failed them? That if they had just come to Jesus all would have become right in the world?
No. Something else is going on, and the popular response to our celebrity suicides’ is not getting to the bottom of it. In fact, it may be part of the problem.
So now the shocker.
Why not just commit suicide? Seriously.
Why not give people with a terminal mental condition the option of death with dignity? Who are we to decide that any one of those 45,000 people, our celebrities included, made a grave mistake?
My guess is there are another 45,000 who think about suicide but will never breathe a word of it to anyone for fear that the “friend” in whom they confide will take the advice of “experts” and put the poor person on the phone with a stranger, the good deed done all nice and tidy. Fait accompli. I view this as equivalent to how LGBT folks felt in the 1950’s ~ terrified to come out of the closet knowing that there was one cure, and one cure only, for their condition.
So maybe it’s time to rethink the cure.
There was a time when the defeated soldier could die on the battlefield by “falling on his sword.“ It was an honorable death.
There was a time when the captain “went down with the ship.“ It was an honorable death.
There was a time when the patriot swallowed the cyanide rather than betray his country to the enemy. It was an honorable death.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Thelma and Louse. The cliff diving girl in Last of the Mohicans. Somehow, perhaps in a separate and siloed compartment of our brains, we are willing to accept that suicide can be an acceptable option.
But somewhere in the mess of all this, undoubtedly with ample help from the Christian Church, we also villainize suicide, make it evil and worthy of instant condemnation in hell, and judge the writer who has done his best work and then swallows a shotgun shell, or the painter who gifts the world with breathtaking beauty and then does the same, as weak and pathetic failures. “We wanted more from you!” we clamor. “How could you do this to us?”
And therein lies the ultimate travesty of how we think about suicide and death in general ~ the pain of it is really about how it affects us, the living.
As for the dead?
Their sorrows are over.
Rest in peace Tony. I hope you found the place you were looking for, and that you are enjoying the awesomeness.
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Some References Mentioned in the Article
Considering the sensitive nature of the subject, I chose not to interrupt the article with potentially distracting hyperlinks. For further exploration, you may be interested in:
What the Hell is Hell?, my interview with Gary Amirault, a Bible scholar who asserts hell is a scare tactic invented by the Catholic Church
Shades of Grey. Why the “old people are cool” campaign does a disservice to old people. An opinion essay by Brant Huddleston
Disrupt Aging by Jo Anne Jenkins. I confess I have not read this book.