A lovely young woman from my home town died recently. Another suicide. Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in. My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.
I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind. That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.
Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken. Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles. Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about! This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives. There is “positive selection bias.” People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem. Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies! And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.
In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way. It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive. Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same. And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.
If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up. This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. And I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old. Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase. He didn’t need to stop the rain. He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.
Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King. I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.
Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression. The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena. There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.
The risk isn’t distributed equally. Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest. It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking. We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them. I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.
I found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.” Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later. Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.
The lines about suicide come early in the poem. Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:
I sit behind the driver, admiring
his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,
his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.
Why did it take all that?
I mean, why did She have to jump
into the celestial fire
to prove her purity?
Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,
a shimmering galaxy —
but when it came to His Old Lady,
man, He fucked up!
Why couldn’t He just believe Her?
I joke with the driver. We laugh.
This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife. In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.
To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians. Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living. In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.
According to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide. Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them. He lived like a dirty hippie! They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting. And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband. Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.
This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”
But Sita’s suicide? She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution. Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom. If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.
Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape. Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.
Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:
As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:
“So here you are, my good woman. I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle. Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.
“I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased. For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.
“Today, my manly valor has been witnessed. Today my efforts have borne fruit. Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.
“You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.
“What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?
“The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.
“Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.
“And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”
As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.
But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.
Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.
“In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do. In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.
“Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.
“Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.
“Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.
“Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita]. You have my permission. Here are the ten directions. I have no further use for you, my good woman.
“For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?
“How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?
“I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back. I do not love you anymore. Go hence wherever you like.”
(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.” This isn’t entirely accurate. The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north. But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events. If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)
In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband. That was Sita. The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.
(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart. Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)
I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful. Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed. There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged. Tarnished. Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.
They’re often right. Look what happened to Sita.
It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change. And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.
Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait. Talk to somebody. The world’s not perfect. But it gets better.