Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, arguably the most widely read novel in West Africa presents a tragic hero in the name Okonkwo. Highly respected in his town and extremely revered at home, Okonkwo was the kind of man who was destined to die a hero. The minutiae details of his life are well laid out by Achebe but the part of most relevance to us is when he killed the colonial officer and proceeded to take his own life. Why would a man who lived an envious life and came across as strong as Okonkwo take his own life?
In this example, we are presented with a good disputation of the many “Suicide is for the weak” arguments. Reality is, suicide is about more than just being physically weak. Yes, those who commit suicide have mental health illness which you can term as being weak but our conception of weakness is not what makes people take their own lives. In as much as Things Fall Apart is a fictitious read, it presents us with a good example of how people struggling with values they cherish so much can resort to suicide as a means to transition away from a world they no longer know or understand.
Take my childhood friend as an example. Tall, light skinned handsome and rich dude who checks all the boxes when it comes to Things a Ghanaian Girl *Probably* Looks Out for in a Guy. One of his many girlfriends broke up with him after a protracted relationship filled with its own share of physical and mental abuse. The assumption was that being the playboy he is, he was going to move on to the next girl. But no. He did not! He gulped down the liquid from a Dove Shampoo bottle in an attempt to end his life. He was a guy who could not comprehend why a girl would break up with him and insist on not making up with him after he had begged her incessantly.
The struggle now is whether or not someone like this deserves our empathy if he actually had died (a friend of his came to his rescue and took him to the hospital before matters got worse). Life definitely is a precious thing and must be guarded jealously. That is why we impose death penalties on people who take the lives of others. So when someone attempts to take his own life or does succeed in taking his or her life, do we view them as not worthy of our compassion? The answer lies in very grey areas of the intersection of medicine, psychology and religion.
On one hand both Christianity and Islam are very stern on suicide. Both see it as sinful and promises people who commit suicide very harsh punishments in the hereafter. But both do have a hate the sin and not the sinner attitude to everything condemned. None of these religions encourages active shunning of sinners or promotion of things that makes sin more pleasing to the sinner. That is where medicine and psychology comes into play. That is where empathy plays a role.
Suicidal people live on the edges of life. They view their existence as a burden on the rest of us. They feel like they are unworthy of our love and do not want to share space with the rest of us. My Google searches and TEDx viewing is woefully inadequate to enumerate the many nuances of suicidal people but what is a repeating thread is that suicidal people are very volatile and what they definitely do not want drummed into their ears are jokes and crude comments about suicide.
People who commit suicide do not do so because they are selfish. They do it because they are under the illusion that death is the solution to all of their sufferings. They end their lives because the help they need is not available and due to the culture of silence surrounding this topic, we almost always sweep any conversation on this under the carpet.
In an interview, Kevin Hines, an American who once jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge said the first thing he asked himself when his hands let go of the railings was “What have I done?” Instant regret hit him. “No one is gonna know that I did not want to die” he continued. The point is, people actually want to live. For you and I, we are lucky and blessed we do not deal with mental health illness to question why we are still alive. But just as someone has malaria and thus does not want to eat waakye like I do, that is the same way somebody with mental health illness would probably not want to continue living. Talking about it would not make suicide chic as some people think. Neither would empathizing with suicidal people make them think taking their lives is a “cool thing”.
If religion is the reason why you refuse to empathize then think about it this way, would worrying about a sinner make that sinner headstrong in his way? Should religion cause you to stop caring for the sinner? Suicidal people do not want to die for the applause. Caring for them is the first step towards leading them away from the dark places they are currently.
featured image credit: www.careerride.com