Today’s society has developed a disturbing ambivalence towards suicide – on the one hand, loathing it as a tragedy and calling for preventive measures; on the other hand, to promote it by legalizing euthanasia. Gary Furnell, whose work for a funeral director has exposed him to the frequency of suicides, especially among young men, turns to the wisdom of GK Chesterton as he battles the philosophical and religious changes that led to these ambivalent attitudes.
One of the sad surprises I have faced as a funeral director – working with the police early in the crown process – has been the frequency of suicides, especially male suicides.
Men generally use safer methods of suicide: hanging, shooting, jumping from buildings and cliffs, and exsanguating by severing several blood vessels deeply. Women more often choose to overdose on drugs; some will hang themselves.
Whichever method is used, the tragic truth is that suicide is perhaps much more common than you think. Mental health experts expected this to increase due to social isolation from Covid-19 lockdowns.
Without a doubt, attitudes towards suicide reflect the often bipolar nature of our society. In our state parliaments, supporters of assisted suicide are pushing for euthanasia to be legalized or, if it is already legal, made more widely available, while the same parliaments, sometimes the same politicians, bemoan the frequency of suicides and demand more action (ie spend more taxpayers’ money, never theirs) to fight against the sad scourge.
The mixed message seems to be the following: committing suicide with the help of a professional in a dedicated establishment is a liberal and courageous choice; suicide alone at home (or elsewhere) is a desperate and despicable tragedy.
This inconsistency results from the absence of a commonly accepted philosophy or religion. If GK Chesterton, in the early years of the twentieth century, correctly identified modernity, not as a new idea or the development of an idea, but as the abandonment of an idea – the idea of Western Christendom, and with it the meaning and hope it gave to human life and death – then we are witnessing, in postmodern times, the acceleration of this abandonment, and the dissolution of the sense and hope which had permeated the idea of Western Christendom.
Chesterton also noted that Christianity’s supernatural explanation of everything had been rejected by many, but no natural explanation had arisen to take its place.
He understood that we live in confused and confused times, and that it is confusing to promote and lament suicide at the same time, as do many potential leaders in our society. Logic and consistency are overlooked in many debates on end-of-life issues. As Chesterton put it:
“The best reason for the revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy, some horrible things will happen to him. It will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust evolution; it will do the closest job; he will devote himself to actions, not words. Thus struck down in quick succession by blind stupidity and the chance of fate, he is going to stagger towards a miserable death without any comfort but a series of slogans; such as the ones I cataloged above.
“These things are just substitutes for thoughts. In some cases, these are the markers and ends of someone else’s thought. This means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and will be left to his own instincts. He will only have the worn shreds of someone else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men always have one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy, or the unconscious acceptance of the broken pieces of an incomplete, broken and often discredited philosophy. (“The Renewal of Philosophy – Why?” The Common Man, 1950)
The dilemma: embracing both justice and mercy
Last year, at a funeral service I was in charge of, the new age celebrant and funeral director lamented – pending the arrival of the family – the old-fashioned Catholic policy of banning suicides in ‘to be buried in consecrated ground.
How heartless it seemed! And yet Catholicism has the virtue of being at least unambiguous about suicide, considering it objectively as a mortal sin; a rejection of the goodness, hope and sovereignty of God. Moreover, he ignores the command to love oneself. This denies the possibility for the person to reach spiritual maturity and to fulfill his vocation throughout his life.
Obviously, pastoral sensitivity is required and the Scriptures remind us “not to judge anything before its time”, and that “the Lord knows those who are his”. It is God who carries the ultimate judgment on our lives; we can be wiser in our judgments to give the suffering person – now deceased – the benefit of any doubt, while giving the necessary attention and attention to those hurt, angry or confused by the suicide of a friend or a family member.
Nevertheless, a difficult question remains. When the Christianized culture presented an unambiguous belief about suicide, that it was a terrible denial of life, would those considering such a move have been deterred in some cases – and encouraged to seek others? ways to cope with their extreme distress?
In his novel The Karamazov brothers, Dostoyevsky defined Christian love in a way that appealed to people as different as Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor: “Love in action is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams.
Love is not only compassionate and helpful – and this conviction of “hard and dreadful love” ratified and reinforced the taboo by denying those who had committed suicide the right to be buried in consecrated cemeteries, in the hope that whoever would be tempted, in the midst of despair, could fight their moment of weakness and constrain their harmful emotions.
Chesterton wrote that most suicides occur when people lose sight of all the goodness, beauty, and wonders of the world and instead focus on their own current bad feelings.
The Chesterton judgment was certainly pronounced at a different time than ours. The euthanasia movement has introduced a new positive attitude to suicide, which most profoundly and poignantly challenges our judgment on the value of life – and death.
And yet, Chesterton is right, especially when it comes to the suicides of many young people. If only they had waited until the heartache caused by a cheating boyfriend or girlfriend was over; if only they had given time to give their take on the shame of an embarrassing episode in high school; if only they had arranged the visitation arrangements so that they could see their children.
The tribulations will pass, as difficult as it may be to achieve at that time. A concert of voices and a consistent teaching that suicide was a mistake would have saved many lives. They will not get this unequivocal teaching from society. The Church must at least maintain its historic teaching on suicide if it is to save lives.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a respectful man with acuity, observed a connection between a person’s mind and their emotions. He said if a person neglects their mind, they keep asking for attention, but their demands are negatively expressed in anger, depression or generalized anxiety.
Obviously, when Darwin, Freud, Marx, and contemporary scientism declared human spirituality to be an illusion, or proclaimed its uselessness, and many people accepted this prospect, then the resulting anxiety, anger, and depression of the repressed and denied spirit of man will dominate many of these same people. Lives.
Chesterton, speaking again about the need for a logical and cohesive philosophy that would guide us in the right direction that is life-enriching, also said:
“Religion could be roughly defined as the power that makes us happy about the things that matter. Fashionable frivolity could, with a parallel property, be defined as the power that makes us sad for things that don’t matter. “(” The frivolous man “, The ordinary man, 1950).
This article appeared in the quarterly newsletter of the Australian Chesterton Society, The defendant (Fall 2021). It has been republished with permission.