‘To be or not to be?...’
“That is the question.” — Shakespeare, “Hamlet”
On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale, PA: an open mic benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative (www.northeastsuicidepreventio ninitiative.org). Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.
The evening also included a skit performed by high-school students from the Wallenpaupack Players, illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the U.S.: the 10th leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.
And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.
But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.
I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era—the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences—re-emerged as a very real possibility.
The thought occurred to me: can a society—or a nation—or an entire sentient species—itself become suicidal?
And if so, who could possibly intervene?
“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets,” “only we are doing ourselves in/much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles—I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once—but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”
After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.
There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t—”Everybody Hurts,” by R.E.M., so let me close by quoting it:
“When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on
“Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes”
(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)