For thousands of years, suicide has been a way many men and women have chosen to die. Though not easily defined, suicide in the Western culture is thought to be “a conscious act of self-induced annihilation, best understood as a multidimensional malaise in a needful individual who defines an issue for which suicide is the best solution” (Leenaars, p 349). Defined by Webster’s dictionary, “selfish” describes an act performed out of disregard for, or at the expense of another, and the selfish person is concerned chiefly or solely for his or herself.
Whether or not suicide is a selfish act is an individual decision, dependent on the reason for suicide and the impact it has on other individuals. By listening to those who have failed to complete suicide, as well as loved ones of suicide victims, one can only begin to understand the feelings associated with ending one’s life, as well as the repercussions of the act on others. In this way, the selfishness or selflessness of suicide can be determined on an individual basis.
Suicide is often a choice of individuals whose only desire is to escape emotional or physical pain, or to avoid some huge dilemma in their lives. They do not seek death per se, but an end to life as they know it. Such a feeling is so intense that it consumes a person, and they can think of nothing or no one else, as they are drowning in their inescapable pain. At first, a suicidal person may actually feel guilt, as they know that their death will negatively impact others’ lives. In order to accomplish their goal, however, they must detach themselves from the guilt and rationalize their way of ending the pain.
They begin to tell themselves that others may be better off without them, or that nobody would care if they died. It is a common thought among suicidal people that their death may bring some pain, but that loved ones will recover and forget it after time. The truth is, those left behind, the so-called “suicide survivors” are often unable to grieve in the same way as they would if their loved one had died for another reason. Suicide is generally viewed as negative in our society, and survivors must cope with feelings of shame for their lost love one’s decision.
Grief work is also made difficult by lingering thoughts of the idea that such a death should have been entirely preventable. Parents wonder what they did wrong -did they not show enough love? Where they responsible for making their child feel such pain? Other loved ones wonder how they could have missed the “suicidal signs”. They remember every argument, every negative comment they made, and feel almost certain that they alone are to blame for this person’s death. In fact, the most selfish aspect of suicide is leaving loved ones with so much guilt that they may never recover.
In effect, people who commit suicide for the reason of ending their pain displace their guilt and sorrow onto those that love them the most. Many suicide survivors feel that the suicide victim took their love to be “cheap”, and do not understand how the victim could have chosen death over them. Says suicide survivor Moira Farr to her late boyfriend, “You were loved! How could you do this when so many people cared about you? How selfish of you to just throw your life away and leave the rest of us to clean up after it!
How dare you show such contempt for the love freely offered to you”(Farr, pp. 111-112). From a different point of view, that of the suicidal person, it is easy to see how they think that they were being anything but selfish when they were considering ending their lives. When faced with the decision of ceasing their existence, suicidal people are often already so deeply wounded that they feel guilty about their waste of life. They think it is selfish to be able to remain among the living, simply taking up space.
They no longer feel deserving of the love that is being offered to them, nor the pain they are causing their loved ones as they remain alive. Thus, these individuals may kill themselves to not only end their pain, but also that of their loved ones. They may not have acted in order to be selfish, but surviving loved ones cannot possibly understand this, and are forever deeply affected. Though their intentions were not entirely selfish, there are other options that could have been explored had the suicidal person been able to further consider the consequences of such an action.
Therefore, regardless of intentions, suicide in this manner is committed at the expense of others and remains selfish by definition. The legacy left behind by one who commits suicide sends a message to others that ending one’s life is a way to escape problems. The suicide victim is unable to communicate their reason after the fact, and others may misunderstand it to be glorified or appropriate. Thus, the suicide victim, instead of seeking further help for problems, ends the pain, forgetting the message they are sending to those left behind. This disregard for others can also be considered selfish.
Most people consider suicide of a terminally ill individual to be more acceptable than that of a physically, though arguably not emotionally healthy person. Is this type of suicide still selfish? The suicide victim understands that the family will grieve if they die now, but they know that they will die soon and wonder why it is necessary to prolong this time of pain. What they don’t realize is that they force their families to live with the knowledge that their loved one died not as a direct result of disease, but rather by their own hand.
Perhaps it is selfish for them to stop their pain and end their lives now instead of waiting for “their time”, but it is just as selfish for surviving families to force a terminally ill loved one to remain living with such pain because they will be missed. Thus, the selfishness concerning this type of suicide can be considered dual-sided. There are cases that must not be overlooked in which suicide is actually beneficial to other people, making it a genuinely selfless act.
Such an example is a prisoner of war who must choose to die by his or her own sword, rather than leak information to the enemies that would compromise the safety of fellow solders. Another example would be a pilot whose plane is about to crash over a populated area. If he steers the plane away from the city, he will not have the opportunity to escape alive, but if he ejects now to save himself many innocent people will die. Though the pilot is not actively harming himself in this manner, he sees his death as the best solution to his problem, and thus fits the definition of a selfless suicide.
The concept of selfless suicide also has its flaws- while some are helped by the act, others may be hurt. When the soldier takes his or her own life for the sake of the country, the act is committed for the benefit of others. At the same time, the family of the soldier is stricken with grief over losing their loved one. Can there be suicide that does not harm anyone? Not unless there can be death without pain. A completely unselfish suicide still has the ability to negatively impact others. Suicide has so many facets that it seems erroneous to classify the act as wholly selfish or unselfish.
Selfishness does not necessarily have to be a negative thing-it is in our innate nature to take care of our own needs, and we are thus all guilty. On the other hand, selfishness can seriously harm others, and is a quality most people tend to avoid. Having experienced the loss of two good friends to suicide, I have felt the emotions experienced by many suicide survivors: Anger that my friends didn’t try to get help, shame that they decided to commit such a deed, and guilt that I may have been able to somehow prevent their deaths. Perhaps the means for classification of selfishness of suicide lies within the individual.
Many claim that suicide is a right, and it is impossible for it to be wrong or selfish. On the other hand, if we believe that our life was given to us as gift, it should not be our decision when and how we should die. The act of deciding that we should have this ultimate control may be selfish in itself, regardless of our reasoning.
Farr, Moira. 1999 After Daniel a suicide survivor’s tale. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. Leenaars, Antoon A. 1995 “Suicide” in Hannelore Wass and Robert A. Neimeyer (eds. ) Dying: Facing the Facts. Third edition. Washington D. C. : Taylor & Francis.