A Rational Death

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion on and offline on the topic of suicide, its prevalence among spiritual seekers and the general attitude of philosophical indifference many tend to fall into when confronted with the paradoxical nature of its reality. Seekers by nature, in searching for a deeper meaning in life’s occurrences, tend to try and look at things from a variety of philosophical angles.

Was there really a choice in the matter? Is it an act of free will? Is suicide really preventable? Should it be prevented? Is there any real choice in anything that happens? Is this really an end to consciousness at all? So on and so forth. These are important questions to inquire into. Suicide should NOT be a taboo subject by any means.

However, while these questions allow us to contemplate the nature of life, death and willful annihilation more deeply, there is a subliminal tendency to USE these questions as a means of escaping the inevitably painful nature of the subject matter. A stance of ambiguity (“I don’t really know”) is a necessary one in order to maintain an open and investigative frame of mind when introspecting on these things. Yet, that ambiguity needn’t translate into our humanity, our empathy and our basic human reactions to things.

Just because the questions remain open-ended from a philosophical perspective doesn’t mean WE need to be open-ended in our basic human responses to basic human events. Unless, one is psychopathic, it is NATURAL to feel dismay and sorrow upon witnessing the life of another being unceremoniously and prematurely snuffed out based on what could very well be a misunderstanding. There is no “sense” to any of it, nor does any sense need to be made of it. Philosophizing it away with some lofty understanding about the absolute nature of things, is nothing more than a protection mechanism you have developed within you in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that results from confronting the paradoxical and often senselessly painful nature of life.

Responses to tragic events, especially within spiritual communities, are often bizarrely devoid of common sense and basic empathy. It’s almost as if, in emulating a transcended state of detachment from worldly things, we just end up becoming a bunch of pseudo-psychopathic wannabes.

Please don’t pretend as if you understand death. You don’t. Please don’t pretend like you understand the big picture of what this is all about. You don’t.

All you have is a tiny keyhole perspective on what is going on around you.

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Then, there is the philosophical idea that suicide can be a “rational event” chosen of one’s own free will rather than being some desperate reaction to intense suffering.

There were some readers who pointed out, that point #9 in my list of 10 truths was flawed, because one can rationally choose to end one’s life and such a choice is, therefore, not misguided.

It’s a fair point, but needs a certain maturity of perspective to contemplate. This idea can be very easily misconstrued and turned into some sort of glorification of the suicide ideal.

For example, in my own life, I long maintained that, barring some unforeseen accident or illness, I would choose my own time and manner of departure. Not out of a sense of desperation or suffering, but just as a matter of “leaving on my own terms.”

I maintained this position for a very long time and anyone I’d mention it to, was often freaked out by the thought. However, a few people who could go beyond their social programs on the idea of suicide, were able to appreciate the position I was offering. They were willing to consider that, in certain cases, suicide could be a perfectly rational choice.

Now, before I expand on this matter, I want to clarify that I am not talking about ritualistic suicide as was practiced in certain cultures around the world. For example, the practice of “Seppuku” (or hara-kiri as it is more commonly known) in Japan amongst the samurai was considered the ultimate sacrifice in order to regain one’s lost honor. On the flip side, the practice of “Sati” (or self-immolating upon one’s husband’s funeral pyre) by the women of Rajput royalty in India was designed to preserve a woman’s honor. When informed of their husbands’ murders on the battlefield and that the enemy would soon descend upon them to rape, plunder and eventually kill all the women, the Rajput women refusing to sacrifice their honor, would ceremoniously mount the burning pyres of their husbands.

While, in both these cases, the suicides seem rational enough (although the rationale of the culture that propagates the need for these scenarios to even exist can be surely questioned) there is no doubt that, had the circumstances been different, the individuals would have chosen to LIVE. In other words, had there been another means for the samurai to regain his honor he would have chosen it. Or if the Rajput kings had been victorious, their queens would have breathed a sigh of relief. In both cases, it is not “world weariness” that prompts one to kill themselves but rather the “preservation of life” as seen through the eyes of culture and tradition. Therefore, suicide in the case of Seppuku and Sati is really a form of life-affirmation. Not life denial.

However, in the case of what we are considering “rational suicide” we are talking about a purely individual choice. Not dictated by society, one’s culture, one’s traditions and so on. Can suicide be a purely rational choice?

One may talk about assisted-suicide for those severely ailing with incurable diseases. Again, while one’s choice to take this route might be a rational one the CAUSE is circumstantial. In other words, just as in the case of Sati or Seppuku, one isn’t choosing suicide because one doesn’t want to live. One is choosing it, because one has exhausted ALL options for having a life of reasonable quality.

All of the above cases including assisted-suicide, to me, are not suicide. No more than a soldier diving on a grenade for a buddy is suicide. In each case, one acts in such a manner ONLY because there are absolutely no alternatives available to continue living in any sane manner whatsoever. Each of these people would have chosen to live had the circumstances been even slightly different.

When I talk about rational suicide, I’m talking about a case in which someone who is not ailing physically or psychologically chooses to take their own life. As I already mentioned, for a long time I maintained that this is how I would eventually go.

So, suicide can be rational. But does that make it right?

Now, I say no.

The idea of rational suicide is, in my opinion, a grave form of intellectual arrogance. It presumes that reason supersedes life. It is an outcome of our cynical post-modern views of life being a lifeless process, barren of any real intelligence other than what we contribute to it with our own brains.

There are two fundamentally flawed assumptions in this perspective that lead to such a “rational choice” being made.

First, one assumes that BECAUSE one has no further meaningful reason to keep living, death is the rational choice to make. It is the lack of “reasons for living”, that makes death APPEAR rational. It’s something like retiring from a job – if one no longer enjoys it, has no responsibilities and doesn’t need the money, then why keep doing it? If one were to persist in living without any reason, then that would make the process of living “irrational”. And so one chooses death by default. Like retiring from a career, one retires from life.

The second assumption one makes, is that life is about “ME”. What I think about it, what I feel about it, what I want from it, what I detest about it, forms the totality of what this process is about and why I am alive. And when all those things become moot points, then the process feels stale. So, since nothing fresh seems imminent, then that staleness seems like a rational enough reason to end it. After all, if “I” want nothing more from it, then why deal with the hassle of keeping it going?

Both these assumptions are misunderstandings that emerge from a purely self-centric view of life. One that assumes that the intellect is the supreme determinant of meaning and choice: and by extension – life and death.

The first assumption is flawed, because it assumes “no meaningful reason to live” as an absolute truth. Just because one’s own perspective is limited in being able to see a purpose in continuing to live, doesn’t mean such purpose doesn’t exist. For one, the body has plenty of reason to continue living. It doesn’t give a shit about higher meaning, purpose and so on. At the very least, there will be another meal that will need to be cooked, another dish that will need washing. There will always be more wood to chop and more water to carry. This is all the “meaning” the body needs to justify its own prerogative to keep living.

Just because the intellect feels painted into a corner and out of reasons, doesn’t mean that it has run out of options. Rather than kill the body, a less violent choice could simply be to let one’s own intellectual position go and live for nothing else but the sake of living. And while, this may seem like a highly “irrational” choice, life doesn’t manifest to satisfy the intellect nor for solely rational reasons. It just happens.

Second, the presumption that our bodies exist solely to satisfy our whims and can be junked like a used vehicle when we are bored with it, is deeply misguided. The self is an anomaly that has emerged and evolved only over the last few hundred million years. The body is a far more ancient creature than that. A body can function and sustain itself even in the absence of said self. However, the self cannot function without the body. There is no such thing as a disembodied self (none that is evident. Not getting into any metaphysical arguments here).

Rather, the self is a perspective that emerges from the body’s brain as a result of its highly organized function. For the self to believe that it is in a position to choose to annihilate the body, is like humanity creating a form of AI that suddenly decides that it no longer needs (or is bored by) humanity and so decides to annihilate it.

Even the most rational thought has only an ABSTRACT reality. It is a best guess approximate of the truth. But it is NOT the truth.

Having a rational reason to die, is like having a rational reason to live. Good for us, but none of what is happening has anything to do with our rational reasons for anything. The process we appear to emerge from is beyond rational and irrational, as we understand it.

In fact, this is the whole reasoning behind the “ego-death” process that spiritual paths outline. It is meant to address this very mindset of the world-weary self, having lost all sense of meaning, purpose and desire for continuing onward. They offer an alternative where, if you no longer enjoy your stay, you are free to check out. No need to take the body down with you.

In fact, the rationale here is that when the self has really lost all its “oomph” it will subside into a passive state non-violently in and of itself with no real prompting. To kill the body in order to terminate the self, is in fact, a grievous misunderstanding because this is an act of self will. And this very act of will implies that the self still very much wishes to assert itself. In other words, it’s not REALLY done after all.

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In the end, regardless of whether one is compelled by a sense of desperation, one’s cultural mores or even a sense of rationality: suicide is a misguided act. Because it can only be prompted by a mind that claims to understand why one is alive in the first place. Yet, we don’t KNOW why we live. Nobody knows this. Then, how can we KNOW why we must die? We may “think” we know and this confusing of the thought for reality is what makes it a misguided act.

When one is connected to “what is”, rather than what “one thinks”, the reasons to keep living are literally endless. Regardless of the pain, misery, confusion or meaninglessness surrounding one’s circumstances; there will always be another dish that requires washing, another flower that calls to be smelled, another tree that wishes to provide its shade to us, another person whose life may be forever changed by our simply saying “hello”.

The death-wish, as I have come to see it through my own life and evolution, is nothing more than a deep existential desire to live and connect more authentically. And what causes people to truncate their existence prematurely is a fundamental lack of faith that they are indeed DESERVING of such an existence.

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