Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
"It's not death I'm afraid of, it's dying..."
8/20/2014 3:31:34 PM
Robin Williams always left us laughing previously, but in his last act caused all of us who loved his zany style so much feeling acute loss, and once again dealing with the matter of suicide and its place in a truly humane human society.
A few days ago, most of us were shocked and saddened to hear that Robin Williams, an iconic comedian, actor, and all-round mensch, whose outrageously funny routines had often brought great pleasure to many of us, had been found dead in his Marin County home (in the upscale community of Tiburon, California). Only later did it emerge that Williams had taken his own life in an apparent asphyxiation attempt, using a belt to strangulate himself, gallows style.
As the investigation progressed, details of Robin’s life-long battles with chronic depression and substance abuse came to light, along with, most recently, the fact that he had just been diagnosed in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive degenerative neurological disorder that eventually severely debilitates the host organism. It comes as a shock to many that Parkinson’s Disease afflictees are also prone to depression, the stimuli for that being linked to the effects of the disease on the brain and nervous system.
Almost predictably, as the public discussion over his death gathered widespread momentum, a number of so-called ‘experts’ began to hold forth upon the circumstances of his death, given the fact that he was a very prominent public personality whom few did not know or were not aware of. Among these groups have been a number of health care professionals who are strong proponents of suicide prevention efforts. Almost to a single individual the message is the same: suicides need to be prevented.
This is, in my opinion, a wrong-headed, highly contentious PC argument that requires rebuttal at the very least and demands a reasoned, thoughtful counterargument to clear away some of the addled sentiment that underpins it.
The central theme underlying ‘suicide prevention’ efforts is that suicide is morally wrong, that the taking of one’s own life is unacceptable, if not an outright and impermissible violation of Christian dogma that makes suicide a mortal sin in the eyes of many Christian denominations and sects. From that rather shaky premise arises most of the sentiment that forms the doctrinal foundation of organizational efforts dedicated to prevent suicide. Of course, the rightness or wrongness of that feeling is so amorphous (not to mention based almost entirely on strongly seated emotion) as to be laughable in the eyes of anyone with a strong grasp of classical philosophy, let along psychology and the traditional disciplines of rational inquiry.
Since I am most emphatically NOT a Christian (nor even a conventionally religious) individual, the contention that suicide is a sin is for me completely non-operative. Further, as someone who regards belief in a personalized, caring and directly involved supreme deity as both grossly naïve and an abnegation of responsible, logical imperative, I have myself been a lifelong supporter of the so-called ‘right to death’ movement.
In fact, throughout my adolescence I maintained a recurrent desire to end my own life, given the fact that I’ve always been an exceptionally sensitive, caring and gentle person who has been continually devastated by humanity’s violent capacity for cruelty and hurtfulness. Perhaps fortunately, although I had even devised a painless technique for ending my life (involving a closed pulmonary breathing circuit that removes carbon dioxide from the system as the oxygen is depleted…resulting in first unconsciousness, followed by death from cellular hypoxemia and cardiac arrest), I was enough of a physical coward to hold off on any such attempts, despite recurrent moments of chronic mild depression. Furthermore, despite my frequent personal torment as an adolescent, parts of me perversely wanted to stick around a while and see if my initial opinions on the hopelessness of the human species were perhaps a bit hasty and imperfectly formed. In other words, despite early on maintaining a basic attitude that human beings were imperfectly flawed enough to endlessly perpetuate a cycle of self-defeating behavior (that history has underscored since the dawn of human consciousness), I thought perhaps it might be well advised to wait a bit and continue compiling my observations in the pathetic hope that I was somehow wrong…that there were redeeming qualities in humanity that justified its existence and argued for its perpetuation.
Thus it is that I became a historian, someone fascinated by the endless cyclical chronicles of human history (although more recently of military history and that of aerial warfare), and continue today to take notes on all these affairs at the age of 60+. Regrettably, nothing I’ve learned in my entire life to date has provided even the slightest evidence that my initial impressions were wrong. Humanity is, always has been and always will be FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all repair, as we used to say in the military). The human race has a near equal and balanced capacity for utter, violent brutality and sublime spiritual nobility of the highest, most worthy sort. Think of it as the frustrating Tao te Ching that characterises our sentient, clever but frustrating and ever-unwise role as the highest evolved form of life on the planet. Alternately, think of us as dogs that s**t in their own kennels by preference, seemingly taking pleasure in strewing our immediate environment with physical filth and toxic socioeconomic effluent. Sad, eh?
At any rate, when I heard of Robin Williams’ death by his own hand, a number of thoughts clicked dutifully into orderly queues in my mind as I sorted out the circumstances of his demise. First of all and heading off the list, is the fact that collective naivety is so rampant among the majority of American’s population that most regard comedy and humor as constituting a completely discrete and insular state of being that has no extenuate considerations whatsoever. Most think of ‘those funny guys’ (like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Jonathan Winters and a host of others) as little more than individuals who make a career out of prompting us to laugh. They are, of course, far more than that, since laughter is one of the best antidotes to intense tragedy and sadness known to man, and humorists and/or comedians have long held an honored place in world civilisation as physicians of the soul.
What most do not know, being unmindful of the history of drama, comedy and humor, is that comedy and humor are only halves of a whole, a ‘Tao’ comprised of half tragedy and half comedy: the traditional Janus-faced mask of classical theatric drama, one half joyful and the half sorrowful. Comedians and humorists could never be even half successful as ‘funny’ men if they weren’t fully aware of the counterbalancing component: tragedy. In other words, in order to appreciate humor, one must also be mindful of (if not intimately familiar with) profound tragedy. Thus humorists have in almost every case, an equally powerful sense of that which causes bitter sorrow. In the case of some comedians (such as Williams and many more with powerful manic personalities), there may well be an underlying strata strongly redolent with this ‘dark’ side dynamic. Certainly in a case involving a comedian afflicted with a pseudo bipolar personality (intense humor contrasted with stark depression), there may well be a component that is DSM diagnosable, such as bipolarism or a patent medical condition like Parkinson’s.
Professional clowns, such as those found in circus acts, are often an excellent example of this duality of nature at work and this theme was even once bizarrely echoed in a Hollywood movie titled ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’. In classical theatre, the clown character ‘Canio’ in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s famed opera PAGLIACCI perfectly echoes that dual natured aspect of comedy and tragedy. In short, there is always a dark side to humor’s blinding sun, a total eclipse always on the verge.
Jonathan Winters was another excellent example of this dark component lurking in the background of humorists and he was, in fact, one of Robin Williams’ principal mentors. Winters not only had a strong ‘darkside’ component, he was so affected by it that he repeatedly underwent psychotherapy for this during his life. Who can ever forget the disbelief of reading that Winters had climbed the rigging of the old sailing clipper ‘Balclutha’ (docked permanently in the Aquatic Park Marina in San Francisco), refusing to come down until forcibly retrieved by psychiatric specialists (i.e. the ‘friendly men in the white coats’).
In Williams’ case, and regardless of the relationship that his predisposition towards depression (that may or may not have been associated with a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease), Robin Williams chose to take his own life. If he had been merely another ‘ordinary’, unknown face in the vast crowd, no one would likely have batted an eye or given it much thought beyond reading a brief notice in the paper or watching a short blurb given by a bosomy bimbo on the local news channel. But because Williams was something special to many of us, we are now again confronted by the uncomfortable fact that he voluntarily chose to end his own life…and went ahead with it.
I am covering all the above details as requisite backstory to the subject of suicide, since the public contention over whether or not to legalise euthanasia in the United States has raged on fruitlessly for decades, frequently dropping off the radar until some prominent public personality forces us to again renew the question of its validity in a society strongly influenced by a (Christian) religious heritage that proscribes suicide as a ‘crime against God’. Suicide has in fact increased disproportionately to the growth of our population rate, and although it is statistically demonstrated that middle-aged men are most likely to take their own lives (in any male/female population group studied), a markedly dramatic and somewhat disturbing rise in the rate of adolescent suicides has also been noted in recent years.
Suicide in the United States has a long and colorful history, to be sure, but so do some proponents of legalized euthanasia (the most noted being pathologist and renaissance man Dr. Jacob Kevorkian, unfortunately nick-named ‘Dr. Death’ by his Christian opponents and the equally outspoken ‘Pro-Life’ advocates who oppose abortion). For decades, proponents of the basic right to exercise positive personal control over that last aspect of life (that is death) have fought a spirited battle, many being members of the ‘Hemlock Society’, an international group that advocates the legalization of assisted suicide. Of course, whether ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, people continue to take their own lives every day and it becomes important to examine the broader issues that may act as motivations and/or contributing factors in this phenomenon.
Since it is absolutely impossible to keep people from taking their own lives, should they determine (for whatever reason, and in assuming that suicide is NOT a ‘crime against God’) that they wish to end life by unnatural means, the subject that begs to be addressed is how to establish the qualifying circumstances within which such a determination may be fairly and wisely made to qualify such a wish. Certainly, the majority of people who are suicidal are not so inclined due to intensely balanced and rational analysis of the benefits (or liabilities) of the act upon them and/or their close family members, but merely individuals who, having been pushed in extremis to desperation by life events, have become temporarily emotionally unhinged. People of this type are not absolutely committed to ending their lives due to having undertaken a rational analysis of personal events & circumstances. Rather, for the most part they want to live, but feel they have nowhere to turn for help, support or counsel. In situations such as this, and especially when the lives and welfare of others (such as dependent or close family members) are involved, an effort SHOULD be made to dissuade these individuals from committing an act of suicide.
On the other hand, if, after much rational consideration and a balancing of the pluses and minuses of life under perhaps extremely adverse circumstances (such as being faced by pending unpleasant or painful death from a terminal disease or health problem) have been carried out and the decision is made that death is preferable to life, the right to die by one’s own hand should not only be honored, but a formal procedure developed wherein to assist and support that decision. The ideal outcome would therefore be to help the individual achieve death as effortlessly, as painlessly and efficiently as possible.
Where this entire concept grinds to a juddering, frustrating halt is in the courts. In a litigious nation such as ours, where individuals are literally forced to conform to (a perhaps inadequate or inappropriate) legal consensus due to the threat of possible legal action (or consequences), it is virtually impossible to shake up the prevailing (Christian moral) anti-suicide ethic that has become codified into law. This is partly due to the fact that politicians (who in America’s consumer capitalist Christian ‘democracy’) are by nature spineless, abject cowards when it comes to the prospect of taking a stand on some issue that might unleash all the right-wing conservative wrath of America’s God-fearing faithful upon them (thus jeopardizing their constituencies and reelection chances).
Sadly enough, due to the fact that elections are won through the application of obscene amounts of money (wielded by lobbies paid for by shadow partisan interest groups, but also by incredibly expensive commercial advertising campaigns again paid for by wealthy candidates) and NOT through public and unbiased open debate of actual issues, we can’t reply upon due political process to resolve the inequities of the present strong proscription that exists in America against such things as ‘assisted suicide’ and women’s rights to control their own bodily & health functions (i.e. abortion rights). Where, then, does this leave Americans who are able to rise above all the PC histrionics and religious bigotry that prevail today with regard to these important issues and examine intelligently the functional appropriateness of suicide?
Certainly, one of the most complex obstacles to prevent rational understanding and open discussion (sans emotional histrionics) of the need for allowing personal control of one’s exit from human experience remains the American system of justice (or injustice, if you will) that, aside from being laboriously hide bound in legal traditions, is influenced to a substantial degree by the same insidious ‘Political Correctness’ sentiment originating from the left side of the political center that so many of us love to hate.
An interesting analogy may be found in the attempt to discuss rationally and logically the nature of the German nation’s collective experience under Hitler in the NSDAP regime, in that any effort to broach that subject in public discourse immediately draws vehemently outspoken fire from pro-Israel and Zionist lobbies, thus instantly ending all possibility of rational debate and balanced analysis. The same is true of the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement in fending off the sort of highly emotional and reactively heated contention that ‘right-to-die’ groups (such as the Hemlock Society) have been plagued by since the concept of ‘legal suicide’ first came out of the closet.
To the greater credit our species, certain areas of the world have been able to get beyond all the conservative (often religiously fueled) backlash against euthanasia proponents and collectively vote for and adopt legal policies wherein a citizen is assured of the right to terminate his or her life as each sees fit. Switzerland is one such country in which suicide is a codified civil right. The Netherlands is another, and there are others. In the United States a few states have also adopted liberal policies that allow assisted suicide (Oregon comes to mind), but far too often vigorously outspoken ‘Christian’ groups (the same groups that protest a woman’s right to govern her own health…specifically her right to terminate a pregnancy, should she choose to) predictably act to prevent (or at least confuse) any such open public discussion of the matter.
The basis for this knee-jerk reactivity is invariably the argument that taking one’s own life is a crime against God, but if one doesn’t believe in that Christian God (or in any highly anthropormorphised ‘personal’ deity), this objection is not only removed, it doesn’t even exist. In promoting that (Christian) argument that suicide is a religious crime, Christians are actually infringing the rights of those who do NOT believe in gods (individuals usually lumped in one category collectively labeled ‘Atheist’). My own feeling is that if one is a Christian (and therefore entitled to subscribe to whatever beliefs their religious dogma & doctrines subscribe to), suicide may be justifiably considered an esoteric illegality; but for those for whom ending one’s life is no more significant an act than buying car insurance, the voluntary ending of one’s personal life SHOULD be perfectly legal (an even encouraged).
Looking at this problem from a far larger perspective (adjusting the microscope of civic introspection to encompass a broader field of view), it is impossible to argue the fact that some tenets of human religion (that demands human beings propagate and pop out children like buns in a bakery oven for the ‘glory of God’…a common doctrinal theme for both Christianity and Islam, by the way) are pushing the world towards the same sort of ultimate, world-wide demographic crisis that Thomas Malthus (and Darwin) much earlier wrote about. Clearly, human beings are gradually destroying the world they live in (a trend promoted to a great degree by American style consumer capitalism, with its insatiable materialistic wastefulness and consumption of natural resources to produce profits for a narrow spectrum of the population…ironically at the expense of those it exploits to achieve this end) and part of that destructiveness stems directly from unregulated human procreation (the basic, irresistible biological urge to mate and produce offspring); another part of it derives from a rejection of concepts like eugenic genetic refinement, efforts to tailor out bad genetic material and promote the existence of superior genetic material. This latter aspect assures that, with no effort made to regulate the quality of genetic material accumulating in any given human population’s gene cesspool, a monumental percentage of individuals today are of below-average intelligence. Many of these ‘marginal’ individuals may also harbor detectable genetic traits towards criminality, lawlessness, and other grossly antisocial behavioral forms. These individuals, lacking wisdom, intelligent reflective ability, and even common sense, are far more injurious in terms of both their personal impact on an increasingly more densely populated world and in terms of their being easily exploited by subtle economic powers that would seek to deceive them (with exploitative commercial marketing tools devised to further the mindless materialism that American style consumer capitalism encourages and promotes).
The scientific field of eugenics attempted, early on, to delve into this boiling cauldron of behavioral socioeconomic toxins by formulating efforts to modify the human genome extrinsically, that is, in one instance by acting to curtail some individuals’ effort to thrive, and in another by actively regulating the ability of marginal individuals to mate and procreate. These theories gained tremendous inertia here in our own nation back at the turn of the century, after being formulated by a diverse group of intellectuals, but they were subsequently seized upon by the Third Reich, under Hitler, and refined to a merciless perverse level of efficiency during the late 30s and early 40s. We all know what the result of that effort was, of course, and thanks to the activities of Jewish lobbyists and pro-Zionists we shall never quite hear the end of it.
Offsetting this last dynamic, genetic research has fairly recently offered humanity the ability to actively influence the human genome (this is the so-called ‘intrinsic’ approach now made possible by the advance of science and technological researches into genetics). Regrettably, this has only further opened the Pandora’s Box of religious contentiousness, as conservative Christians decry genetic interventions the same way Jewish Zionists decried Hitler’s application of largely American concepts of eugenic modifications. Thus, here we are, still facing a monumental wall of outcry against anything that these delusional religious fanatics feel is a moral crime against the dictates of their (imaginary) ‘God.’
Again, all of the above has been incorporated into this thesis merely as necessary backstory, since suicide is not without its substantial complexities. Further, if one argues (and I certainly believe this myself) that humanity will ultimately eat itself into extinction on a planet that has, after all, rather finite abilities to repair the damage done by festering little proto-simian life-forms (with just enough intelligence to get themselves into a great deal of trouble…and typically due to an insatiable desire for personal wealth & power), then anything we can do to offset the exponential effects of mindless human procreation (such as humanely promote elective suicide) is to the race’s ultimate advantage. Ironically, all that would really be needed would be the sudden arrival of some vastly superior life-form from another galaxy or cosmos on Earth to put the lie to humanity’s unfathomably ignorant belief that some UOD (Ultimate Omnipotent Deity) is in actual charge of our lives (read: a personalized, caring, and manipulative or interventional ‘god’). Once that viciously anti-intellectual concept (i.e. gods & religious ‘moral mandates’) has been safely disposed of, the path would seemingly be open to humanity dealing more matter-of-factly with the many cyclical, repetitious deficits in human nature that cause us so much needless pain & suffering (chiefly, the urge to war endlessly, gain disproportionate material wealth, seek extraordinary personal power, violently quarrel over religious beliefs, etc.).
In this ongoing effort to confront the issue of elective suicide freely, openly and devoid of unhelpful partisan religious biases, we need to start embracing the benefits of rational thoughtfulness, applied reflective intelligence and unemotional public discourse. Sadly, the very fact that so many among us are the products of uncontrolled human interbreeding of deficit gene pools means that such ambitious aims are likely to be forever forestalled.
Further, given that gross human ignorance at all levels of socioeconomic interaction dominates any such attempt to address these issues (of genetic selection, refinement of the collective human genome, and the neutral consideration of elective suicide), it would probably be better to simply do as I have so often suggested: end the human experiment on Earth and let mother nature try all over again to cobble together a more satisfactory, more adequate ‘higher sentient life form’ than Homo sapiens.
One interim step that would help tremendously, given the impossibility of both of the above resolutions, would be to not just ‘allow’ elective suicide, but to assist those choosing it in a humane manner. That is, helping to provide those intent on suicide with the means to end their lives as painlessly as possible, since, as Woody Allen once famously observed, “It’s not death I’m afraid of, but dying…”
At present, those who take their own lives must do so in the best manner they are able, which is usually extraordinarily painful, messy or overtly traumatic. Although the human brain is not neurologically ‘wired’ with pain sensors (who could ever forget that horrific scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ wherein Hannibal Lecter slices up his victim’s brain and eats it, slice by slice, while the victim is fully conscious and alert), the emotional uncertainty, trauma and stress required to self-inflict a gunshot to the head is excruciating. Other attempts at suicide, such as leaping to one’s death from a high place, drowning, hanging one’s self (as did Robin Williams), or any one of many, are equally devastating to contemplate and carry out, given the twin human prime directives of avoiding pain and preserving one’s life.
If humane means were made available to assist those intent on ending life that would help reduce pain, anxiety and uncertainties (let alone mess and possible psychological damage done to others who witness the event or its aftermath), this would mark a rather significant step forward to allowing individuals to choose suicide as a legitimate alternative to living a pain-filled life.
At present, the overall paradigm that predominates in America is that (the desire to commit) suicide is a symptom of reversible mental illness. That philosophy presupposes that a person is ‘curable’ of this form of abnormal mentality and heroic efforts are consequently maintained throughout the nation to prevent suicide (through so-called ‘suicide prevention’ teams, counselors, therapeutic agencies, et al). Rather than view the desire to end one’s life as a form of aberrant mental health, the opposite view should gain ascendance: that suicide should be an immediately accessible option for anyone to avail. Institution of an adjudicative review process wherein all aspects of the individual’s circumstances are carefully and dispassionately considered, followed by a determination that the desired suicide is justified on several commonly agreed parameters, would open the path towards helping eliminate the pain that the suicidal person might be experiencing…either through therapy, if the desire to end life is a ‘cry for help’ rather than a firmly considered resolution that ending life is in one’s best interests, or through providing the humane means to painlessly and quickly accommodate that need.
Robin Williams did not need to use a belt to hang himself (committing suicide through asphyxiation, a very common means of ending life) if our society would just recognize that all individuals in a supposedly ‘free’ society (perhaps our greatest self-deceiving naivety as Americans whose lives are nevertheless rigidly controlled by viciously subtle means that operate freely in our system of consumer capitalistic materialism) should be allowed to end their lives, should they make that determination after due consideration. He could have flown to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal for anyone (citizens or visitors) to avail, or he could have traveled to Amsterdam. It’s sad that in our ferociously trivialized and celebrity obsessed pop-culture society, many feel they must act in this manner, despite the fact that such an incident will immediately be seized upon by all the intellectual morons in our nation (read: those who are victims of pop culture and its social media obsession). Similarly, had Dr. Jack Kevorkian still been among us, ‘Dr. Death’ might have agreed once again to courageously make a public statement on the need to allow suicide openly by helping Robin Williams achieve the eternal peacefulness (read: oblivion) that he so obviously felt he needed.
Williams’ death at his own hand, while tragic in itself, once again forces us to reconsider the act of suicide and to reopen the endless debate on its legitimacy. Not because it isn’t something anyone should not be able to opt for, but because we simply need to end the tyranny of religious doctrinal dogma that has both blessed and cursed our race since the dawn of recorded history.
In summary, it is well past time to finally acknowledge that our lives belong to no one but ourselves. Period.
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