The Most Aggressive Act

The man who kills a man kills a man
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.

--G. K. Chesterton

I often think that the contemplation of suicide is like the loss of virginity. Before one has experienced the phenomenon, it seems remote and fantastic; but sooner or later it happens, and after a brief period when it seems one is alone in a transformed world, it becomes accustomed; one begins to assume that others have been here as well. As did conjugal pleasures, the possibility of self-destruction becomes an unassuming reality, mapped and inhabited, and remains silently present on one's list of options.

For ages I assumed I was too naturally buoyant, too rational, too tenacious, whatever, to seriously entertain the thought of suicide. Only when people were generally gloomy would they be susceptible to such urges. I remember quite clearly the first time I found myself face to face with that particular demon; here is an account of it I wrote only a day or two later.

So I left, and as I closed her door I heard a train running along the tracks. I looked down as I walked toward the street and saw it moving, sluggish, out of sight either way from where I stood. And I kind of chuckled to myself and started running.

The train was heading east, and I don't know really what's out there very far, but I'd always wanted to hop aboard one, and as many times as I'd stood and looked I'd never done it. It's a little ways from C's place down to the tracks, by the SRSC, right where I saw that possum, and I was good and out of breath by then, lungs hurting quite a bit from the cold, but there was still a lot of train coming. It was moving fast, faster than I had thought, probably about as fast as I could run, fresh. I watched the boxcars go by, tracked the little ladders, but I wasn't thinking too hard about trying, at that point.

After the boxcars came a long succession of tanker cars, with great huge wheels at either end and a lot of open space underneath. There were no ladders to speak of on these cars, but I found myself looking under the train, at how clearly I could see the other side of the tracks, interrupted only briefly by the wheels. Measured so sparsely their pace seemed almost leisurely, and I began to imagine I could easily scuttle under and across between them.

And then I imagined: what if I missed. If the space under there was lower than it looked, and I couldn't move as fast as I thought. And then: what if I faltered, lost my nerve halfway and reconsidered. I could see it so sharply, the way I can imagine dying in wrecks ever since I flipped my parents' Honda; I start across on impulse, on a whim, and I get one foot down, with weight on it, between the tracks. And then I realize it's too low, I'm not going to make it, and then I realize I don't really have the time to reverse the momentum and get back out.

And then there I am with those wheels bearing down on me, with just enough time to imagine how they're going to feel, to realize that, unbelieveably, I've just spent the rest of my life on such a stupid, irrelevant frivolity. Enough time to realize that nobody will ever know I honestly wasn't that sad, I just wanted to play with a train, it was just a little misjudgement anybody could have made. Enough time to scream something, I'm not sure what, probably some wild plea to not have done what I know I've just done, to not let it be the real story.

So I was standing there by the train tracks, imagining all this, and at the same time still trying to decide whether I could make it safely under, and I slowly realized that I was leaning forward and getting a little tense with every car that passed. My body was getting ready to try it. It gave me a good scare; I put my hands in my pockets, I stood straighter and stepped back a pace, and I wasn't smiling any more, just staring at the train and keeping my mouth shut.

And the thing is the train kept coming, and I kept watching, and even after having this bout of sobering thoughts I kept thinking about it, now imagining simply flinging myself under a car and waiting, knowing I'd go through the whole sequence of last-second thoughts the same way, knowing once I'd made the dive there was no chance I could ever be fast enough to reverse it. And even then--even a second time--I found myself tensing, getting ready to try. My cerebellum overhearing the chitchat of my philosophical centers, I suppose, and eager to please as always. Mind you, I wasn't in a stance to jump or anything, I was just a little tenser than I had any practical need to be, but it was enough to give me the willies in a big way.

In the end I had to turn and walk down through the bushes away from the track, and look back at it from a safe distance, just to stop feeling uncomfortable about it all. And just as I did that the last car came along, and at once I started laughing again and scrambled up to run after it. I guess I figured it was my last chance to hop aboard this one, that broad easy shelf at the end of the car, and in any event it's just not very scary to be behind a train, out of the line of those inexorable steel wheels and their destiny.

Anyway the train was still moving as fast as I was, and I was quickly winded, so I quit it and walked home. That was a day ago, plus a few hours.

For some time after this harrowing transition, I nursed my newly-discovered potential for nihilism as though it were precious. Perhaps I thought myself to have a greater depth of understanding now, and that was true, but for some time I couldn't bear to think that it was a common understanding; I heard of others' suicide attempts and sometimes sneered at them, dismissed them as insincere appeals for attention. More than once I revealed my own recent exposure to the suicidal urge only to be answered with a similar tale from the listener, and it always angered me; I wanted my story to be just as unprecedented for everyone around me as it was for me.

But it couldn't be. The secret desire to escape all things simply is common property; by now I believe most people probably get a good square look at it at one point in time or another.

In retrospect, I think I learned less about the nature of suicide in that moment of contemplating it myself than I did several years later, in a darker period of depression, during which I never did quite consider killing myself. This time, instead of doing myself in, I invented a less absolute form of escape: I would go abroad, alone, to a remote and reputedly dreary part of the world, and I would stay there for a very long time, years at the least.

To myself, at least, I thought of this plan quite explicitly as a "pantomime suicide." I wasn't motived by any urge to adventure, really. I do long for such things, and would surely have had fun faring off into Siberia, but I wasn't driven by that; I never had much of a picture in my head of what my life abroad would be like. The real spur was the desire to erase myself from my life here. I was depressed, however severly, in a stereotypical way: disappointed in love, feeling both hopeless and, frankly, embarrassed. And in my vague thoughts of heading far off, I too often imagined how everyone would come to understand and regret the isolation I'd felt before, not least the woman I was pining for, with whom perhaps there could be a bittersweet reunion after a long, unnecessary time apart, and all of that.

In short, my less-than-desirable departure would serve--some part of my mind hoped--as a rebuke, and an alert, to everyone by whom I felt neglected. And, since it was not to be a suicide just exactly, I might hope to do what I suspect many suicides secretly wish for--come back again, and claim the fruits of the newly won attention.

As time goes on, I'm drawn ever closer and closer to the conclusion that suicide is pretty much always an ugly deed, done in an ugly mood, not the darkly grand and meaningful thing it seems when one is near to it. I'm not talking about a suicide driven by terminal illness or impending capture by barbaric enemies, or any such thing--those are obviously special sorts of circumstances. But the suicide that serves merely to put a stop to a life that seems unsatisfactory... increasingly, I believe that it's precisely when we're at our most venomous, our most spiteful and weaselly, that we are most vulnerable to the urge. Suicide is the murder of the world.

Lately this has been brought to mind by a real example, which I have hesitated to point out. We live now in the day of the public diary, and it was only a matter of time before people began to openly chronicle their own ill-starred ends. I've read through one of these, and judging by this example, it seems plain as day that suicide isn't the slightest bit handsome or noble.

I bring this up, not to malign the dead, but to note a difficult problem of suicidality. Just this weekend, visiting a friend who works as a school psychiatrist, I was told something both chilling and immediately plausible: when you meet a person who is genuinely suicidal, you'll probably dislike him intensely.

So there's a troublesome barometer; the people in the most immediate need of help may be the ones you're least disposed to deal with. I don't have any solution to that, and I don't mean to suggest that we must all rush to prevent other people's private disasters. But this much I can vouch for: the insufferable person whose company you can't stomach is quite likely at a low point; on some later day, when he himself is further from the brink, you might find him well worth knowing.