Just to be clear, I in no way advocate suicide. 90% of the time, there’s a better option. That’s why this story is so interesting. In case you didn’t read the story, here it is: China. A bridge on an overpass. Traffic is at a standstill because a crowd is gathered. Why? A man in debt is threatening to commit suicide by throwing himself off the bridge. One commuter, fed up with it–this is the twelfth time in two months–pushes through the police cordon and shoves the suicidal man off the bridge and onto the inflated emergency cushion waiting below.
The suicidal is hospitalized with minor injuries and the pusher is arrested.
The question is not whether the shover did the right or wrong thing. Hell, if he hadn’t shoved the dude, we would never have heard that this was the twelfth time since April that someone had threatened to jump off that very bridge. We never would have heard the story. I would never have written this post. You, dear reader, would never have read it.
See how one small act has given you some amazing water-cooler conversation? Every single person who reads this post will tell their friends this story. Without fail. Why is that? It’s partly because we have a morbid fascination with suicide and death. It’s also because it’s such an unexpected story. Ask yourself, how do people normally deal with suicidal people?
We mollycoddle them. We try to reassure them: “Your life is worth living for.” We try to talk them down: “Why don’t you just step away from the edge.” This is, in essence, what’s been ingrained in us since we first started reading and watching TV: If you threaten to kill yourself, people will listen to you.
Have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend who threatened suicide if you dumped them? Have you, yourself threatened suicide if your significant other dumped you? You’re doing it because whether you want to kill yourself or not, you know that it gets people’s attention. The thought of death makes people act differently toward you. It would be a lot easier to break up with someone if you knew that they would get along just fine without you. A threat of suicide throws all sorts of other thoughts and emotions into the mix.
So what, in essence, did the pusher in the story do? He broke the jumper’s spell on the crowd. He had their attention. He fed off of their energy. It’s an incredibly selfish act because real suicidals, that is, people who actually commit suicide, are far more likely to do it in secret so they won’t be stopped, either by themselves or others.
Consider that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in a way that might actually be considered courageous. He was not insane at the time. It was likely that he had been planning it for weeks. He was on the phone with his wife when he shot himself. He did it because he was ill and didn’t want to drag it out any longer. He wasn’t happy anymore. He wasn’t having fun. Since he couldn’t enjoy life and because it would be worse if, for some reason, suicide was no longer an option, he decided to do himself in.
Consider that Kurt Vonnegut smoked Pall Mall straights every day of his life because he said it was a “classy way to commit suicide.” Strange then, that it wasn’t the cigarettes that killed him.
The question here is whether or not we are the sort of culture who values the right to choose the time and place of one’s own end. If we did, then no crowd would have gathered for the jumper. He would not have been able to gain the attention of the crowd. No one would have had to push him to make a very poignant point. If the guy were really going to kill himself he would have done it already. The only reason he was able to draw a crowd is the fact that we have made suicidal threats a viable method of gathering a crowd. We treat suicidals like children (granted, they probably have some sort of psychological need to be treated like children, to no longer be responsible for their actions) and this feeds into their pathos. Why don’t we just push them? Why don’t we just tell them to grow up? Where do you draw the line when it comes to something like this? Normal, sane people don’t have the emotional energy to deal with suicidal friends, so why do they hurt us in an attempt to aggrandize their own psychological problems?
And how do we mistake the attention seekers for the people who actually need and deserve real help? These people do exist.
I’m not trying to be crass or insensitive here. And so before you judge me harshly for saying these things, bear in mind that I am only asking questions. Carefully consider what I’m saying and then decide whether or not this is worth thinking about. I am merely trying to point out an interesting disconnect in which some people are exploiting a society’s tendency to indulge people who actually have problems. It’s interesting from a distant, intellectual perspective. It’s deeply troubling from a human one. And I don’t have any specific answers.