On Suicide

Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
— Chorus from the theme song for the movie and TV series M*A*S*H

Contemplating taking one’s own life appears somewhat common, at least in my experience. I had an uncle and a coworker who went beyond the contemplation phase, both hanging themselves. I also had three associates who ended their days with self-inflicted gunshots.  I think, however, that the occasional  contemplation of suicide is widespread and not merely confined to those few who actually carry it out. 

The Stoics believed that depending on the situation, choosing the time and place of one’s death was ethically acceptable, and in some cases, prudent.

Always remember – the door is open. – Epictetus (Discourses I.25.18)

The Stoics dealt with this subject in depth, yet they remained primarily focused on living with resilience and tranquility. Life should never be thoughtlessly thrown away during difficult circumstances, but there are situations when choosing to die makes sense. The pages of history are overflowing with stories of heroes who when put to the test chose certain death over surrendering the lives, rights or freedoms of themselves or others. 

I have often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live. – Seneca, (Moral Letters to Lucilius LXXVIII)

If anyone is dependent on me for emotional or material support, and there is no urgent call for heroic self-sacrifice, then perseverance is my mandate. If, however, my dependents are firmly established in their lives and due to age, disease or accident the quality of my life deteriorates beyond endurance, then I am not imprisoned. Like attending a performance at a public theater, an exit is readily available; the freedom to depart early is mine. But, if I decide to stay until the end, I accept the responsibility of doing my best to maintain a meaningful life.  


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