June 23, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

To be or not to be: Is that a valid question?

In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of the same name, Hamlet mused, “To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

Hamlet contemplated suicide because he despaired of coping with recent events in his life: His uncle murdered his beloved father, the king of Denmark, and then married his mother, the queen, to become king. Should Hamlet betray his father by accepting his uncle as king, and his mother as his uncle’s wife? Or, should he mount a rebellion against them and go into exile?

His dilemma seemed unsolvable. Still, Hamlet hesitated to commit the terrible sin of suicide because he feared “what dreams may come,” and the inevitable wrath of God. At the time, Danes were Catholic Christians who understood the gravity of defying God’s will in taking their own lives, as did Shakespeare.

We’ve come a long way since then. Now, suicide is considered more of a medical problem than a moral one, as Thomas Meaney pointed out in a recent “Books” section of The Wall Street Journal. People are now portrayed as “victims” of suicide, not as those who “commit” suicide.

Meaney wrote a column titled “Exiting Early,” in which he reviewed three current books on the subject of suicide. He described Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas Joiner as a kind of scientific treatise on “suicidology,” and its origins in human psychology.

Cliffs of Despair by Tom Hunt is a memoir of the author’s personal dealing with a relative’s suicide. Meaney found the book respectful, if not quite approving, of the heinous act. And he explained George Colt’s November of the Soul as a social history of suicide and the people who commit it. He said all three authors “refrain from addressing the question of suicide’s moral status.”

He also discussed the writings of David Hume, the 18th century humanist who said that suicide is our natural right as a human. This view was in direct opposition to St. Thomas Aquinas’ belief that our natural right is to live as a child of God. Meaney believed that both ideas reflect moral values because “both ways of thinking about suicide stress the importance of a meaningful life.”

Whether we agree with this assessment or not, as Christians we should reflect on the deeper significance of suicide. Pope John Paul II called ours a “culture of death,” not only because of practices like abortion, but also because of other signs, such as the alarming increase in suicides by people of all ages.

It seems to me that—aside from the fact that suicide is a human effort to usurp the will of God and therefore wrong—the saddest thing about it is its complete denial of hope. How can any life be meaningful without hope?

Perhaps we need to fight the “culture of death” by keeping hope alive in everyone, including ourselves. As people who care about friends and loved ones struggling with life’s innumerable challenges, we need to make sure they have access to proper medical and mental health care. We also need to understand that a meaningful life has God at its center, allowing no occasion for despair.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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