We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.
In "Les Miserables", Victor Hugo writes a few striking sentences about profound inner pain and our duty to bear and live through it:
"You want to die, I want that too, I who am speaking to you, but I don't want to feel the ghosts of women wringing their hands around me. Die, so be it, but don't make others die. ...Suicide is restricted...as soon as it touches those next to you, the name of suicide is murder."
While people are at their lowest points they are often isolated by shame about their troubles. We need at least to know that inner pain is common and always has been.
Beginning (with excerpts and link)
Strong, fierce, smart, and talented, Ajax is one of the greatest warrior heroes in classical mythology. He wins every campaign and every battle he enters, earning the name Ajax Unconquered. Yet as Ovid tells it in the Metamorphoses, “Unconquered, he was conquered by his sorrow”: he dies when he chooses to fall on his own sword.
His suicide happens after the greatest warrior of them all, Achilles, is killed, and Ajax and Odysseus defy all common sense in retrieving his body from their enemies, the Trojans. Both show extraordinary valor. Ajax does most of the fighting while Odysseus grabs the body and rides away to safety. Afterward, a council decides that both deserve to inherit the magical armor Achilles had worn. Forged on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, this armor is both extremely protective and a symbol that its wearer is the greatest warrior alive. To settle the question of who deserves it, the two heroes battle each other, but the result is a tie. At last, they make their claims in words, and because Odysseus speaks with more eloquence, the council awards him the armor. Ovid tells us that Ajax’s disappointment was what caused him to kill himself. In a play about him, Sophocles writes that Ajax is so miserable that he falls into a stupor in which he imagines a flock of sheep to be warriors, and he slays them all. When he awakes and sees what he has done, he is so ashamed that he cannot bear it, and he dies by his own hand.
The terrible irony is that all of this is about armor, yet Ajax succumbs to the foe from which no piece of armor could have protected him: his own envy, rage, shame, and regret.
Throughout history, artists and writers have depicted “the sorrowful Ajax” because the story is so heartbreaking and so very human. At times, we are all—every one of us—our own worst enemy.
Today’s military faces a tremendous crisis. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Some of this is attributable to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but a recent Pentagon study covering the years 2008 through 2011 showed that some 52 percent of those who committed suicide had never been deployed to a combat zone. Last year, military personnel killed themselves at a rate of about one a day. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of almost one every hour, about 22 a day. Recently the rise in military suicide was so extreme that it made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time magazine. The rate is higher this year than it was at this point last year.
The suicide rate is also escalating in the U.S. population at large: 10 years ago it shocked observers by reaching 30,000 a year. Now it is almost 40,000. Around the world and in the United States there are more suicides than murders. For those under 40 years of age, it is one of the top three killers. For older people it is one of the top 10, though their rate of suicide is the highest (other diseases begin to compete for numbers). Women attempt suicide more, but men succeed more often—probably because they have greater access to guns, which is one of the surest methods.
In the civilian population matching the demographics of the military (considering age, sex, and race), between 2002 and 2009 (the latest year for which we have reliable numbers) the suicide rate increased by 15 percent. According to Pentagon numbers, the military suicide rate in the same period increased by 80 percent. Even this disparity may understate the problem, since the Pentagon counts as active duty people who were active for only a few days in a given year, making the rate far lower than it would be if officials counted people who were active for at least six months, for instance.
The problem is not only very real, but in some ways it is also new. Ever since we started keeping track in the late 19th century, the military has shown higher suicide rates than the rest of society as a whole, but when you compare the same part of the population—considering age and sex, for instance—the military has usually had far fewer suicides than civilians. Commentators have sometimes attributed that to the screening process required to get into the military, but it persists across periods when the military is willing to accept a much broader swath of citizens. A better explanation may be that camaraderie and a sense of purpose insulate soldiers from some of the anguish of life. Across the military and the wider population, suicide usually declines during wartime. People feel united and purposeful when under a terrible outside threat.
Why haven’t our recent wars provided that protection? Some groups analyzing military suicide, such as the National Center for Veterans Studies, have suggested that military life is more isolating than it used to be: more soldiers live off base than in the past, and those on base may have their own rooms and their own televisions, instead of residing in traditional group barracks and communal rooms. It is also worth considering that the kinds of wartime consequences so common today—brain trauma and PTSD—are especially threatening to people who are already prone to depression or volatile mood swings.
But clinically depressed people are not the only ones who kill themselves. Many soldier suicides come in response to a bad situation: a broken marriage, a financial crisis, legal trouble, or some other reversal. A recent Pentagon study showed that about half of military suicides had experienced a failed marriage, frequently just months before the victims killed themselves. Another report showed that most suicides occurred in people under the age of 25. Family and friends who have lost someone to suicide often report that the person had legal or financial troubles, or both; that they were struggling with drugs or alcohol; that they came back from the war deeply changed; or that they were frustrated at not being deployed.
By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.
If someone is besieged by suicidal thoughts, it is important that he get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy can work, bringing real insight. Antidepressants can take the edge off the pain as a person figures out her life. But we can also draw on the inner resolve of the individual, and on the history of ideas.
To save our future selves from suicide, we have to do some work now. Boot camp and additional training get a soldier ready for war. In situations where most people would freeze and give up or run away, soldiers are trained to fight the fight and try to get out alive. People do not often speak of it, but the inner life of soldiers and civilians alike can be so brutal that it too requires training in advance of a crisis. We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.
Characters in literature often tell each other not just that suicide is wrong but also that we must set our minds to struggling against it. The narrator of Herman Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf" says that some people must struggle against suicide the way a kleptomaniac must struggle against theft.
From G. K. Chesterton, the English author of the novel "The Man Who Was Thursday", wrote in "Orthodoxy", a book of Christian apologetics, that he categorically rejected suicide on moral grounds:
"In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life."
(On the Snowball Effect)...Suicide is so prevalent that most people know someone who has done it, and this normalizes the act as a valid way of dealing with pain. One death causes more deaths, and eventually we have a culture of death.
Staying alive is INARGUABLY a kind of heroism. To train for this future heroic act, choose now that you will not let a moment's misery murder you. Spend some time thinking about this oath of loyalty to life. If ever a thought of wanting to die flickers through your mind, do not suppress it in horror, but rather let yourself look right at it and know that it is not an option. Then if suicide is ever dangerously on your mind, you will be used to rejecting the idea. Remember that you owe it to the community to be strong, to wait it out. You also owe it to your future self.