Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No, Matt Walsh was Not Wrong about Suicide

Incomplete, maybe, but not wrong.

Matt Walsh is a prominent Christian blogger whose posts have become fairly ubiquitous as of late.  Virtually everything he writes garners countless shares and likes and otherwise approving internet gestures - that is, until he made a post in the wake of Robin Williams' apparent suicide.  This time, his thoughts were met with a great deal of backlash criticizing him for insensitivity, being dismissive of the reality of mental illness, failing to show compassion, and countless other things.

What did Walsh say?  You can read the link for yourself if you like, but I will give a quick summary here.  Walsh makes 3 main points:

  1. We should be careful about downplaying the negative and speaking so positively about prominent suicides, using words like "freedom" and "peace" because it could encourage others contemplating suicide to see it as a positive choice.
  2. When we talk about depression and mental illness, we should not make it strictly medicinal and clinical but should also address its spiritual components
  3. We need to remember that ultimately, suicide is an action that occurs by choice; someone has to make a decision to take an action to end his or her life.  We need to remember that there is a choice involved.
His first point is, I think, a fairly profound one which had not even occurred to me.  I don't think most people really have a problem with it, but I also don't think they are giving it as much attention as it deserves, because it may be his most important practical bit of thinking on the entire subject.

His second point is also fairly innocuous.  A few people objected to a caricature of this point, as though Walsh was suggesting that a trip to church or 5 minutes with a Bible would cure clinical depression, but most folks are reasonable enough to see that that is not what he meant.

It's really that third point that has stirred up so much dust.  Depression and mental illness are incredibly tragic afflictions which can cause tremendous suffering in a person's life.  Over the centuries, they were very misunderstood - especially depression - and only in the past several decades have we as a society really begun to understand them.  It is a very sensitive subject, because even today it is not uncommon for a person's depression to be dismissed or for a person with depression to live an isolated life, suffering alone in a world that seems not to understand or even care.  

Most importantly, depression is not something which comes via choice.  Nobody decides that they want to be depressed, and overcoming depression is not as simple as deciding that "life is what you make of it."  Clinical depression is an affliction like a virus or cancer - it comes upon a person uninvited and begins to destroy them from the inside.  It has therefore struck many people as ignorant, uncompassionate, and coldly dismissive for Walsh to say that suicide is a choice.  He even goes so far as to call it a selfish choice - which sounds to many people like a judgment on these people who are struggling with such profound and inescapable pain.

The thing is, Walsh doesn't call depression a choice.  He doesn't call depression selfish.  He says that suicide is ultimately a choice.  If you happen to be a person who took umbrage at Walsh's comments, this may not sound much better.  After all, suicide is something which is an end result of depression.  They're tied so closely that declaring the former a choice might seem to dismiss the impact and debilitating nature of the latter.  Indeed, there is a certain truth to this.  It's one of the reasons that, as mental illness has come to be better understood, the Catholic Church - which still considers suicide to be a grave sin - has taken a significantly softer approach to suicides, declaring that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

At the same time, Walsh's point is an important one.  The truth is that suicide ultimately does involve a choice.  The degree to which someone making that choice is actually himself, actually has full control over his faculties, or actually has full control over his own will is certainly in question in the case of any suicide.  With only a few exceptions, a person has to be very "far gone" to take the incredible step of taking his own life.  Those criticizing Walsh are pointing out that in a sense depression really is like cancer - its a disease which comes in and afflicts a person in a way in which they have no control.  On the other hand, Walsh points out that in another sense, it is unlike cancer: a person with depression ultimately needs to move his arms and hands and legs to take make a noose or take the pills or pull the trigger to end his life.  Cancer kills passively, while ultimately suicide requires some personal action.

The truth is, both sides of the issue are radically incomplete without the other.  Walsh's blog post certainly does not emphasize that aspect of suicide by which it stems from a clinical disease that causes great and incredible suffering.  On the other hand, his critics certainly don't emphasize that ultimate moment of suicide in which a person physically uses some instrument to end his or her life.  They are both inextricably connected, and any view of the issue which does not see both sides of it does a great disservice to those suffering from depression.  

As I come to the end of my own thoughts on this issue, I would ask you to consider the countless suffering souls who have not taken their lives but have considered it.  To them, staying alive is still a choice.  They are choosing every day to fight through their depression and to remain here.  They know that at any moment they could pick up a bottle of pills or find a bridge and end their lives, but - as much as they may at times want to - they have not. For some, this is a choice made out of faith.  They believe that suicide is wrong.  Perhaps they believe in redemptive suffering, and that by persevering their pain has value, like Christ's suffering had value.  They know that they still have a choice to remain alive, and that belief may be the only reason they are still here.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.  

For others, they may not be people of faith.  They may simply believe that suicide would leave their families and friends suffering, or guilty, or both.  It may be for only that reason that each day they decide to stay alive.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

Yes, depression is an incredibly terrible thing.  The pain and suffering that someone who ends their life is going through must be overwhelming and unimaginable.  We should be doing everything we can to reach out to and to help people going through this kind of thing.  Yet without any prejudice to those whose depression has led to their death, we also need to remember that point at which there is ultimately a choice, and in that support those who are making that choice day in and day out.  

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

It seems to me that in their effort to stand up for those suffering from the horror of depression, that choice is being downplayed.  Don't.  It's the only thing that countless people still have left.

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