On Suicide — Give Me A Reason To Live
Anyone who has been suicidal, talked to a suicidal person, or worked on a suicide hotline or called one, has faced this demand: Give Me A Reason To Live.
Through the years, I have been astonished at the low-level responses given to such demands, not only by suicide hotlines, which are often staffed by well-intentioned underpaid folks, but parents, psychotherapists, and psychologists. Of course, in a case of urgency, nothing could be more welcoming than just someone to talk to, someone who doesn’t demand anything, who does not ask anyone to be right or wrong, etc. But the real work and problem begin beyond this palliative point of contact. How does one effectively address the cause of suicide in speaking to someone? Is there a reason to live?
Here, then, I attempt to give a more just response by beginning with a question:
Can the ethical tradition of tragedy teach us anything about modern day suicide? ¹
In tragedy, before the question of Why not commit suicide? is responded to, the questions of Why live? and How to die? must first be asked.
For the tragedians, these are questions of ethics. But the use of the word ethics in the tragic and pre-Socratic sense should not be confused with the religious or philosophical use of the word morality as it pertains to values or the good.
On the contrary, in referring to ethics here, I mean more what Heraclitus (Frag.B119) first stated:
Man’s Ethos ( ἦθος ) is his Daimon (δαίµων)
Or in everyday language, ‘A person’s character is their fate.’ Today, it is often said that someone has their ‘internal demons’ in referring to a depression or suicide without recognizing that what underlies such statements is not merely — or primarily — a psychological problem, but an ethical one. What I want to show is that far from being a mere question of books and plays, the lessons of tragedy have another voice in the city.
- First, ask someone to work on a ‘homicide hotline,’ which usually does not exist since this becomes an actual police affair. But imagine such a hotline does exist, then ask this someone to give reasons to justify not killing other people. Though there should be quite a few good reasons, many cannot respond to this coherently. If they flunk this, they need not advise anyone on anything concerning human action.
- Second, if they pass, then go to the next level, the ‘suicide hotline,’ which poses a question infinitely more challenging to respond to: “Why should I not kill myself?”. Now, ask the ‘trainee’ to speak of how s/he would address someone who is suicidal: Why should someone not kill him/herself? If they give a series of moralistic slogans, biblical passages, empathetic understandings, empowerment speeches, or CBT jargon, then they flunk and should change occupations since such slogans often carry the very germs for why one would commit suicide in the first place:
“Oh, you would make your parents sad; you would be bad; your children would miss you; you would go to hell; you’re ok, it is just a surplus of cykotine in your neurons; suicide is not in God’s divine plan; I understand exactly what you must be feeling; you just need a good anti-depressant and then you will get over it; your neuro-plasticity is out of wack, let’s re-wire your brain so you can handle anything; you need to start the good fight against the evil enemy; let’s work on empowering your life ; your reptile brain is blocking your logical and emotional brain ; you should spend some time petting horses, etc., etc.”
I could not make the above suggestions up; they are direct citations of the many suicide experts found in university journals, contemporary books, youtube videos, or articles on Medium. As reasonable or unreasonable as these platitudes and techniques may seem, any one of them can be counter-productive.
For instance, one could assume that a father who wants to commit suicide must really love his children so a friend or therapist should suggest that his children would miss him if he committed suicide. Being ‘reasonable,’ the father would not, therefore, commit suicide. But whose reason is it? In fact, a father may be trying to commit suicide precisely because he loves his children and cannot provide for them economically or in other ways. Or again, many counselors propose to empower their ‘clients’ sense of self, while it is precisely suicide as an ultimate act of empowerment that can attract someone to end their life in the first place. In each case, there is a seemingly nonsensical logic around any suicidal position. To merely assume there is a mutual understanding between people, or ‘client’ and therapist, is not only a mistake but flunks you from the suicide hotline.
3. Now that probably more than ninety-nine percent of the people — many of whom are therapists — who thought a moralist slogan, empathy, a pill, or the jargon of a technician were adequate to address suicide have left the stage, let us begin with a more serious and ethical response:
There are no reasons for why one should not commit suicide.²
4. The tragic tradition of ethics starts with such a premise:
There is no sign or prescription of the individual adequate to express its suffering or direct the decisions upon its own death.
This statement does not amount to encouraging anyone to commit suicide or resigning oneself to apathy, but merely states that an individual has a right to specific modes of detachment and difference not only from the world and the ego but as we will show, any discourse — or system of signs — that aims to determine what and who an individual is³.
If the person who would be responding to the demand ‘Give Me A Reason To Live’ is unable to make room for this detachment, they should not address a suicidal person. So just to be clear, the tragic aspect of suicide is: there are no reasons for why one should not commit suicide.
The following is a summary as to exactly how such a detachment may be introduced ethically.
5. The response above is not apathetic, cynical, or pessimistic, but tragic: it is a question of situating a certain necessary detachment in the face of the horror of the world. It can boil down to something as simple, but difficult, as tolerating not being able to help everyone or having the courage to continue living in the face of the death of a loved one.
6. Or this detachment could be elaborated further as a mode of xenopathy (xenos + pathos = Other + suffering), meaning a way to tolerate a more absolute alienation discovered in the demands and discourse of the Other. Why this ‘other’ is capitalized and what this more absolute alienation is can be explained as follows.
If you speak with someone on their suffering, it is important to maintain, at least ethically, a subjective position with regard to the other that does not identify him/her with an alter-ego — someone who may be the same as me and I can sympathize with. For if you reduce the difference of the other person to a mere relative difference, an alter-ego, then there is the risk of projecting onto them your own fantasies.
In addressing the question of suicide, who is spoken TO is more important than who or what is spoken ABOUT.
Who should be addressed and recognized is a more absolute difference: an Other, a place that I may have no way to comprehend, understand, or signify in his/her difference and suffering. It is this absolute difference of the Other that opens up a notion of care that goes beyond mere empathy to situate a place of ethics and a practice of xenopathy. Schematically, these distinctions are:
Other — absolute difference: xenopathy of a subjective position : Ethics
other — relative difference: empathy/apathy of the self : Pathetics
For example, one can try to convince someone not to commit suicide with all sorts of reasons for why it would not be good; one can even try to empathize with them and say you understand their problems. But this reasonable way of speaking inevitably avoids the fact that someone can have the most nonsensical reason for wanting to kill him/herself that is held onto absolutely, i.e., with a singular indifference to the norms of reason, a person’s health, or the concern for others. It is this absolute difference of the Other, a daimon, that nobody else may understand, but one is willing to die for anyway that must be addressed.
7. How to work ethically, not merely pathetically with suicide? Beyond a palliative effort, to empathize with the Other is counterproductive here since a suicidal person is insisting that there is something real and worth knowing about their suffering but not only can they not articulate it, but nobody else can. As a consequence, the suicidal person is often called emotional and irrational, while his/her speech is labeled unreal and false. Once these pathetic conditions are in place, one is left with a therapeutic treatment consisting in the prescription of pills or an empathetic speech that attempts to redirect any misguided thoughts back to reality in an identification with a mentor or doctor. Unlike the lessons of the tragedians, for whom the suffering and ignorance of a suicidal position has its own truth, all one need do therapeutically is, “Calm yourself !” with a pill and an empathetic understanding with another.
8. Yet, the ‘Other side’ is not merely pathetic: it is not merely false, unreal, emotional, irrational, dumb, mentally ill, or crazy. It does not merely need to be calmed or empathized with to be understood. For with a bit of effort, if one actually tries to listen for the truth of suicide, one may well discover that if suicidal speech is often false and unreal, it is so systematically: there is a truth and reason to it, it is not all emotional, irrational, mentally ill, etc. On the contrary, it becomes evident that a suicidal person is asking questions of life and death that are worthy of some of the best works of ancient and modern tragedy, not to mention philosophy and psychoanalysis⁴. The problem with such questions of suicide today is whether there is anyone there to hear them. Without denying the good intentions of any therapeutic intervention, to address the singular question of suicide in a more just way, ethically speaking, is to xenopathize:
How to tolerate the ignorance of the Other without falling into apathy and empathy?
The question begins to ask why someone who would pose questions with regard to the truth of their suffering, needs to fall ill, become suicidal, or be treated like a mental patient who has a chemical deficiency or an emotional problem. And if there is no necessity to this ‘standard treatment,’ how to proceed differently.
One historical response is worth mentioning here. In 1912, Freud introduced a xenopathic position into modern medicine when he recommended the analyst not to empathize and the patient not to focus on motivations, critiques, and intentions, but to pay attention to “whatever came into the mind.” This rule of free association, according to Freud, allowed the analyst and patient to discover an unconscious that was dissimulated in conscious speech in forms of ignorance and symptoms⁵.
9. One of the fundamental lessons of tragic ethics is to show that if there is no reason not to kill oneself, this does not mean there is no truth or reason for the suicidal act.
Another way to say the same thing: if someone proposes they are going to kill themselves, the only ethical response is to say something like:
Well, o.k….. but if you do, then you will never know the real reasons for why you did so. You might as well already be dead.
In this respect, suicide is not merely an emotional response or an error but has the structure of something like tragic deception.
Reading Shakespeare’s Othello, for instance, one must ask whether the act of Othello’s suicide is just a secondary effect of a more primary misrecognition of the Other. Othello’s failure to detach from his ego and the paranoiac jealousy over his wife results in not only Othello killing Desdemona, but himself. His suicide is an attempt at a detachment from both his self and its deception. But the suicidal mistake is to remain with this relative detachment from the ego and others; and as a consequence, to bypass a more absolute detachment from the Other. In short, Othello’s mistake was not to learn one of the major lessons of tragic ethics: that there is no sign for a subjective position, thus, no cause to have killed Desdemona over a signature on a handkerchief, since not only was she not where he thought she was, but he was deceived about himself. Othello did not recognize a more absolute deception, not that Desdemona deceived him, but love did. The lessons of the tragedians are not a story about the relative deceptions between others, but this more absolute deception of the Other. Ethically speaking, Othello’s tragic identification confounded the empathy-antipathy of his own ego and others with the xenopathy of the Other.
10. Paradoxically, the very ethical position of not giving someone a reason not to kill him/herself also makes room for the recognition that what the suicidal act aims at — the self as other — is not itself the reason for its deception or alienation.
Suicide is a failed form of detachment, it is a refusal to read alienation, since it confuses symbolization of the absolute difference of the Other with living it in the relative difference of the other, i.e., the self and others.
Such a confusion can be seen, for example, if one were to confound the writing act of suicide in the hands of a tragedian with the representations of suicide in the masks of the actors on the stage. To kill the actor is undoubtedly a way to detach from a mask and a stage, but inevitably it mistakes the subject position of the author with the ‘lived’ relations between the self and a world. An introduction to a different mode of separation from the ego and the world, not just detaching physically, but symbolically is another name for tragedy.
11. To conclude, the question is posed:
How to separate from an alienation without going anywhere?
Some use travel as a way to escape the alienation and the conventions they lead their lives by. For others, no trip goes far enough to introduce a form of detachment, and they may join a religion or sect in the attempt at a vertical movement to ‘higher ground.’ Still again, some require a more substantial separation and begin to take drugs, either prescribed or unprescribed, in the attempt to chemically induce a detachment. Others, perhaps more sensitive to the inadequacy of the previous three types of detachment, try to leave the planet in killing themselves.
12. The question that should be responded to in each case, however, is how to introduce a different separation? One that would not focus on the body, its movement of the self, the consumption of a substance, or a relation to a world, but a separation in language. Many are familiar with how reading and writing can take them ‘somewhere else’ in a story or novel. Though today more are choosing to watch a film. In Part II, I will begin to address this other reading and writing of separation, not merely as problems of literature and fiction, but in a theory of xenopathy: as a way to detach and tolerate the language of the Other.
13. Inevitably in today’s world of ‘safe spaces,’ it sounds terrible and unsympathetic to say there are no reasons to give someone for not killing themselves. But as I have attempted to show above, the position is neither cynical nor antipathetic, but tragic and xenopathic: the negative reason of tragedy makes room for the suicidal person to discover that the alienation they are seeking to detach from, is not the otherness of the ego/mask, but a more absolute difference of the Other.
Anyone who can not address this Other, can neither write a tragedy nor address suicide, whether it be of him/herself or others. Anyone seeking to respond to the title of this short article should immerse themselves in the lessons of detachment posed in the tragedians, especially if they are on the ‘hotline.’
 By the ethical tradition of tragedy, I am referring in a first instance to the pre-philosophical Greek works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In a second time, I refer to the more modern period of Shakespeare, Racine, and Corneille.
 The sources for this statement are the thirty-one complete Attic tragedies where suicide is: not considered a crime, unregulated, and the victims are fully buried most often with full honors, unlike what is advised by the later Platonic and Christian doctrines.
 Admittedly, such a tragic thesis is directly opposed to a sociological definition of suicide, such as that found in E. Durkheim’s celebrated, Le Suicide (1897). In Durkheim’s treatment, the uniqueness of the individual is inconsequential, while for tragedy, it is what is the most important.
With more time than I have here, it will be necessary to show how disasters are not merely dramas of emotion devoid of reason, but determine an admixture of reason and passion called desire. See the forthcoming Part III — Why Desire Is Not an Emotion.
 S. Freud, Counsels to Doctors for Analytic Treatment, S.E. XII,p.115; 1912.