Archives For Suicide

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

Death by Crocodile

September 26, 2014 — 8 Comments

200350761-001Suicide is always a tragedy. Many families have been touched by its pain.

The moral implications of this are vast, of course, and not the topic of this column. Today I am more intrigued by the modes that people select as they act on their suicidal impulses (or long-deliberated decisions).

As a pastor and military chaplain, I have worked with families in the aftermath of suicide. As a volunteer law enforcement chaplain, I have responded to the actual event.

Life is precious. It should never be squandered. Contrary to the notions of reincarnationists, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That judgment need not be feared, for those sheltered in the mercy of God. Still, I doubt the Lord desires to see us ushered into his presence for that judgment by our own hand.

Even the darkest of lives can be rescued and recreated with new hope. That’s the testimony of many people, like Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at only seventeen.

There are diverse ways people choose to end their days on earth.

Some European countries have made the passing a gentle, numbing for the most part, painless transition. In their euthanasia clinics, powerful drugs can be used to simply suppress one’s breathing until they “fall asleep” permanently.

Others make drug concoctions of their own, and some die in agony because of miscalculation, or are “rescued” to live debilitated by their failed attempt.

Some, for twisted macho reasons perhaps, decide to go out with a literal bang. Here too the attempt can fail and leave the individual in a horrific condition. And, even when it is “successful,” it leaves a sickening aftermath.

Perhaps the worst of all are those who desire to leave a “mark” on this “cruel world” as they depart. They may lash out at people they know—or even strangers—seeking to leave a lasting scar as a memory. Most of these people are likely insane. Not so the fanatic “suicide bombers.” Those disciples of evil comprehend what they are doing. The magnitude of their vile acts do not escape them.

Not the Why, but the How

As I said above, I’m not thinking today about the reasons a person would end their life. I am wondering about the means they choose to do so.

I was shocked by the recent suicide by a sixty-five year old Thai woman who calmly removed her shoes and then leapt into a ten-foot-deep pond which is home to more than a thousand crocodiles. A dozen were on her immediately.

I cannot stand to watch nature shows that portray crocodiles viciously dragging antelopes or zebras to their grim deaths. Just thinking of this woman’s final moments leaves me in emotional disbelief.

C.S. Lewis hinted at humanity’s archetypal antipathy to crocodiles. In a 1949 letter he wrote:

I don’t think the idea that evil is an illusion helps. Because surely it is a (real) evil that the illusion of evil should exist. When I am pursued in a nightmare by a crocodile the pursuit and the crocodile are illusions: but it is a real nightmare, and that seems a real evil.

Just as shocking as this poor woman’s death itself, is the fact that a decade ago another woman committed suicide at the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo in the same way.

The only reason I can conceive of for a person choosing such a terrible manner of death, is that they believed they deserved to suffer. Aside from that, only insanity can provide an answer.

For those who believe their guilt for real or imagined sins demands such a path, I have a life-saving alternative. There is One who can forgive those crimes and failings, and offer us a new beginning.

In the same passage from Hebrews cited above, we read the following good news.

[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Share this hope with your friends and family—especially with those you know who may be contemplating the untimely end of their lives.

_____

I have written on the subject of suicide in the past. If you are interested in considering the subject from a different perspective, please read “The Anguish of Suicide.”

Lemming Legends

July 8, 2014 — 16 Comments

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.

overtounDo not take your dog to Scotland. And, if perchance you do, by all means avoid the Overtoun Estate.

Its relatively short span masks its danger. The waters flow fifty feet below it’s arch, and they carry echoes of a terrible mystery.

What is it about the Overtoun Bridge that causes dogs to leap over its parapet to their deaths on the rocks below?

Before considering that question, it is worth noting how dearly dogs love to go for walks with their people. This comes as no surprise to those who have had dogs as members of their families.

Some people who have never lived with dogs, however, are unaware of just how powerful this drive is. There is but one thing a dog loves more than a good walk—and that is a good meal. (For a dog, a “good” meal is any and all meals.) In fact, some canines love walking so very much that they would willingly delay their repast if able to precede it with a vigorous hike.

C.S. Lewis was an avid walker. He often undertook long sight-seeing hikes with friends. And, during different periods of his life, he enjoyed the company of a canine companion.

In January of 1940 Lewis describes one such trek to his brother. Warnie, a “regular” officer in the British military had been recalled to active duty and dispatched to France. He describes an inter-species encounter his dog Bruce had recently experienced during an Oxford walk.

It seems almost brutal to describe a January walk taken without you in a letter to you, but I suppose “concealment is in vain. . . .” I was coming home from a walk and had just reached the Bourdillon’s hedge when I saw Bruce standing across the path with his head erect and his tail wagging furiously.

There is a very slight bend to the right in that path just after the Bourdillon’s, so that I could not see what he was looking at. Presently a cloud of steam in the frosty air appeared to descend towards him-to be followed by the long grave face of the mushroom-white horse who lives in that field.

Dog continued looking up and horse’s head leaned down till their noses almost touched: then they withdrew with every mark of mutual esteem. Now that I have at last written it down it hardly seems worth much: but it was an odd sight at the time.

Curiously, two months earlier (writing to Warnie) he had alluded in passing to the fact he was frequently accompanied by a pet on his walks.

Wednesday I lunched in College and attended a College Meeting, which was over by about 3.30-after that the rare pleasure of a dogless stroll & tea in our own rooms, glancing through Mammy’s old copy of the Water Babies, and after dinner the unusual pleasure of an evening to myself.

There is something about having a dog accompany one on a walk that makes it an even richer experience. Observing their frenetic joy at discovering some new scent is vicariously exhilarating.

When walking in certain locales, leashes may be required. Certain impetuous dogs demand their use even when not mandated. However, most people who accompany dogs on their explorations would prefer to leave them free to range a bit, if given a choice.

And it precisely this freedom that poses such a danger to those who enjoy the Scottish countryside and dare to cross the Overtoun Bridge.

Apparently, since the 1950s, more than fifty dogs have lunged to their deaths over the edge of the bridge. A 2006 article in the Daily Mail reports that during a six month period the previous year “Five dogs jumped to their deaths. All of the deaths have occurred at virtually the same spot, between the final two parapets on the right-hand side of the bridge, and almost all have been on clear, sunny days.”

Strangely, there are even several cases where dogs who had survived the terrible fall proceeded to dive from the same location during a subsequent crossing. Lacking nine lives, it is assumed their luck did not hold on the second occasion.

Due to the frequency of these “suicides,” the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent a scientist to investigate the cause of the heartbreaking phenomenon. He determined it was nothing that the dogs could see or hear that would account for their fatal actions.

Various theories have been posed. Some attribute it to ghosts or the fact that “In Celtic mythology, Overtoun is known as ‘the thin place’—an area in which heaven and earth are reputed to be close.”

Psychic Mary Armour took her own [psychic?] labrador for a walk along the bridge to test the theory. However, she reported no unusual sensations. “Animals are hyper-sensitive to the spirit world, but I didn’t feel any adverse energy.” In fact, Mary said she experienced a feeling of “pure calmness and serenity” but admitted that her dog did pull her towards the right-hand side of the structure. (Daily Mail, 17 October 2006).

The SPCA investigator eventually concluded the most likely cause for the suicidal impulses of the canines was the scent of mink musk from the valley below. Apparently to some dogs the lure is irresistible, and they cast aside their normal wariness to leap into the unknown.

Whether or not this is the true cause of the mishaps or not remains debated. Some, for example, attribute the suicidal impulses to “picking up on suicidal or depressed feelings of their owners.”

Whatever the cause, it is probably wise to avoid the risk and steer very clear of Overtoun Bridge if you value the life of your dog. Still, when traveling to Scotland it may well be wise to leave your dog in the care of a family member or an approved kennel.

The Anguish of Suicide

September 2, 2013 — 20 Comments

suicideI was present at the scene of a suicide last night.

In my capacity as a volunteer chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, I was riding with a police officer. We were the initial first responders to arrive.

At the end of a rather uneventful shift, we received an urgent call to respond to a shooting. Naturally, I can’t reveal any details about the event beyond mentioning it involved a firearm. It was probably terribly similar to how you would imagine it to be.

To see a life so sadly cast aside is too sad for words. Contemplating the days ahead for those who loved the deceased is sobering. Their lives will never be the same, and that is the universal legacy bequeathed to family and friends by those who end their own lives. God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis understood how despair could drive a person to contemplate this irreversible choice. In a letter to a deeply grieving husband who had lost his wife, Lewis relates how suicide would never provide a genuine resolution to the pain caused by the loss.

One way or another the thing [romantic love] had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died though both the parties went on living.

You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from us you have been led back to us and God; it remains to go on to God and us.

She was further on than you [in Christian faith], and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.*

You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things. (A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken)

Vanauken, the recipient of the letter, had this response to Lewis’ challenging words: “After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.”

He continued by explaining how the letter had dispelled any consideration of suicide. “If I had been tempted at all to break my promise to Davy [his wife] about following her by [his] own act, the temptation vanished after one horrified look at Lewis’s ‘eternally unbridgeable chasm.’”

It will take some time for me to “process” my experience last evening. But, having seen death in the past, I found it less traumatic than many others would have.

And, of course, I never knew the person who chose to no longer breathe . . . or smile . . . or dream. I only became “acquainted” with them as I spoke to their spouse in the hours that followed. Sadly, because of a tragic choice, in this world they are merely a memory now.

Naturally, to those who knew and loved them, the vacuum created by their passing cannot be completely filled. Moreover, the wounds caused by the grim nature of their death by choice, will leave permanent scars.

The fact is that during the course of their lives, many people—quite possibly the majority of human beings—consider the possibility that suicide could end the pain they feel. But we must tirelessly remind them, and ourselves, that suicide is a permanent “solution” to temporary circumstances.**

_____

* Lewis is referring to the concept that the saints (i.e. all believers) currently in the presence of the Lord may have the ability to intercede on behalf of those of us who are still “living.” The best way for Protestants to understand this may be by considering this line of thought: (1) we don’t hesitate to ask our sisters and brothers in Christ to pray for us, (2) we believe that God has already given eternal life to his disciples (meaning that even the departed remain alive), thus (3) it is not illogical that children of God now in his presence would be able to intercede for us in heaven.

Traditional Protestant reticence with this understanding is based in the concept most clearly espoused in I Timothy 2:5. Lewis, of course, was a Protestant himself, but Anglicans are among the minority of Protestants who affirm this practice.

** This is not to belittle the intense agony caused by chronic emotional suffering, but I believe there is a path that leads not to death, but to healing and life. If you have suicidal feelings, I strongly encourage you to seek out a skilled Christian counselor. (Not all clergy possess the necessary training, or the faith itself, to provide an adequate lifeline in these situations.)

If you’re unable to find a pastor in your local area, you can contact me at chaplainstroud at mereinkling dot com and I will attempt to get you in touch with a compassionate minister in your local community.