Knowing My Father
My father passed away last year. Let’s imagine that right after my father’s death someone approached our family and said “I really want to know who Stan Vander Klay was. Would you give me permission to examine his medical records and study the body?”
What type of knowledge would that type if investigation yield? Would that type of investigation really help this person know Stan Vander Klay?
I would have likely told this person, “save yourself the trouble and just download his memoir in Kindle from Amazon. You might learn a few things from examining the body, but you will not know Stan Vander Klay as those of us who loved him knew him.”
You are Your Psyche/Soul/Self/Story
If you want to know Stan Vander Klay, or anyone else, you need to know their story. We all know that. You walk into the doctor’s office, take off your clothes and the doctor looks and pokes and draws blood, but someone can learn more about the real you, the you you care about with a good conversation over lunch or a cup of coffee. We all know this. At a deep level you are your story.
The New Testament has a word for “you”, it is your “psyche” in Greek which most translations call a “soul” but the word same word is translated as “self” often too, it is you.
Our communal story here likes to assert that we are an animal, but we are the strangest animal upon the face of the earth. The mountain gorillas aren’t anxious about their extinction, maybe their individual or family survival, but they don’t know extinction. We are worried about them.
We are also the only animal that commits suicide for purely for concerns about our story/psyche/self. What does this say about us?
I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Walker Percy. Both his father and grandfather had committed suicide and he called his mother a victim of suicide. He was raised an agnostic. He struggled with the legacy of suicide in his life and sought therapy for that. While recuperating from TB contracted while performing an autopsy (he was a medical doctor) he began to study the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian Danish philosopher and the Russian novelist Dostoevsky to try to understand the basic mystery of human life.
One of his books, Lost in the Cosmos, talks about the fact that we know more and more about all sorts of things in the physical world but seem to make hardly any progress knowing who or what we are.
One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.
The question is: Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else— or size up Saturn— in a ten-second look? Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking into the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?
Percy, Walker (2011-03-29). Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (pp. 7-8). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
We imagine ourselves growing in knowledge and mastery over everything in the cosmos and we are filled with the optimism that this power will produce for ourselves a better world. Yet almost all of the future movies and stories about this better world are filled with the notion that we are and in fact will destroy our world and our selves because despite all of our master of our world we seem to have achieved almost no mastery of our selves.
The irony of our age is that while we have radically increased our capacity to maintain and preserve the life of our physical bodies and have exponentially grown in our capacity and power to arrange our stories better than any other civilization before us, increasing our amusements and reducing cultural and traditional restrictions on our freedoms our ability to combat despair seems in no way dislodged.
Suicide is the self-directed ending of our story by ending our biological story maker, our bodies.
Again, if you consider us to be only animals, we are strangest animal you could conceive of, so unlike every other animal we know. We are story makers like none other. While we live we create our story, continuing to add to our psyche/self/soul, but always with our bodies, these vehicles that are us, and yet strangely are not totally the sum of us. We know this because we age. I remember when I was in college my grandmother telling me the strangeness of aging. She said, when she looks in the mirror she sees an old woman, but inside she is still that young girl she remembers.
While sometimes we see our life in this bodied story as a miraculous thing, humanity also has the strange thing, unique to “animals” of willfully ending the story by ending our biology sometimes for reasons merely of despair.
Jennifer Hecht begins her book Stay about the history and philosophy of suicide in this way.
It was through my scholarly work that I first grew interested in the subject of what people live for in difficult situations, especially when they have no religion, as was the case with many of the people I wrote about in my book Doubt: A History. It was through my personal life that I became interested in suicide. In 2007 an old friend and successful poet, Sarah Hannah, whom I had known from graduate school at Columbia University, took her own life. Had she not told me about her sadness, I wouldn’t have guessed: she had good friends and a teaching job she loved, she was young and beautiful, and she was writing whip-smart, psychologically rich poetry. At the time I had been going through some frighteningly dark emotional times myself, and so while her death was not incomprehensible to me, it was intensely shocking nonetheless. Our mutual friend from graduate school, Rachel Wetzsteon, another poet, felt that same shock and expressed it in an afterword to Sarah’s posthumous poetry book. Then in 2009, just after becoming the poetry editor at the New Republic and completing another highly praised semester of teaching, Rachel took her own life as well. These events knocked me around, forced me to confront how we today think about our lives and deaths, and drew me to ask questions of history and philosophy, the realms I always turn to seeking understanding. A year or so after Sarah died I was planning a scholarly essay about the conclusions I had reached. Before I could write it, I found myself trying to take in the fact that Rachel was gone too.
Hecht, Jennifer Michael (2013-11-19). Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
The audience for Hecht’s book and her anti-suicide crusade are the elite of our so called human/animal community. . The people she describes have the world’s finest education and job prospects the likes of which most of us will never know. On the scope of human history these people are like Greek gods, having and doing and controlling and commanding like no population has ever had in the history of the world, yet some of them find their amazing stories so filled with meaninglessness, pain and despair that they wish to end their stories by forcing their biological bodies to cease to function.
David Foster Wallace
One great example of this is David Foster Wallace. Born in 1962 his social and academic achievements certainly place him among the elite. Wrote a novel considered by Time Magazine to be one of the best English novels of the century. Finalist for a Pulitzer prize. If you want to get a sense of his perceptive power and talent listen to his hugely popular commencement address entitled “This is Water“.
Note, however, how he describes regular life.
Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism. … The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all— all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. … Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality— there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth— actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested. 9
Hecht, Jennifer Michael (2013-11-19). Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (p. 218). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
What’s interesting about Wallace’s critique of life, even the lives of the elite is that they are devoid of the drama, or the meaning that make life seem worth living. It seems true especially of the elite, who have gone to the best schools, who have had opportunities line up before them from which they can choose. If this is true of he elite, how much more would it be true of all of the rest of us who have so many fewer choices, opportunities or privileges?
We so blithely imagine that “my life would be great” if only money problem X or relational problem Y were solved for me, THEN life would be terrific.
The opposite in fact seems to be the case. For the time that I worked in the Dominican Republic with Haitians who for the most part had terrible lives I never heard of a suicide among them. If the facile equation of good fortune and happiness were true Hecht would have no reason to write a book for people who had time and money to read it or who read the elite papers and blogs that carry information about her book. All these people would be happily enjoying the fruit of their elite lifestyles where suicide would be unthinkable while at the same time the poor of the earth who struggle and strive to survive would be offing themselves, ending their miserable substance existences by the millions. But this is not what we find.
The best one liner I heard this year came from Walker Percy, “show me a man who has all his needs satisfied and I’ll show you a man in serious trouble.”
Suicide and Depression
A medical cause of suicide is certainly depression and Hecht and others rightly note many good and right strategies that can prevent suicide. Suicide should be prevented and those who are temped by it should seek help and be given aid, but the temptation is to imagine that the depressed person is unable to think clearly on all matters. Depression is certainly a distortion of thinking but it is not the only distortion of thought.
Persons subject to depression actually sometimes see the world more clearly than those we say are not depressed.
The prevailing view is . . . that the depressed person tends to distort reality in a negative way. . . . [But recent research has] turned this received wisdom on its head, providing evidence that it is not the depressive who distorts reality but the so-called healthy population. . . . Even if depression does distort reality in a negative way . . . the fact remains that it removes the positive self-biases that are seen in the non-depressed. . . . With recovery [from depression], and with the lifting of the mood, a new kind of truth could emerge.
Keller, Timothy (2013-10-01). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (p. 189). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
In other words, a depressed person may be overly negative, but in another way depression removes the self-bias that we are all subject to, to overly imagine our self-importance and our self-righteousness.
David Foster Wallace did kill himself, but even in his leaning-towards-depression-state he saw some of our contemporary society’s maladies quite clearly, that in fact in our aggressive security/comfort obsessions we have left ourselves with less meaning and therefore less purpose and also less reason to live.
Suicide Resolves Nothing
Hecht quotes from 19th Century German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who was an atheist and still noted suicide’s pointlessness.
The other reason Schopenhauer saw suicide as a mistake is that the attempt to eradicate oneself doesn’t actually work. You stay who you are. Even though you demolished your physical being, your nature is essentially indestructible. Schopenhauer illustrated the problem with a metaphor of trying to remove a rainbow from a waterfall by scooping the water with a bucket. You cannot remove yourself from the world. As Schopenhauer scholar Bryan Magee has put it, for Schopenhauer, the suicide “neither gains what he hopes to gain nor loses what he wants to lose.” He does not lose what he wants to lose because, Schopenhauer points out, the act of ending life freezes life in the situation that inspired the suicide. He does not gain the escape he sought to gain because escape means getting to someplace better. You have to feel this suffering to get to something better; death is no place and no escape.
Hecht, Jennifer Michael (2013-11-19). Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (p. 179). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
The point here again is that your self is more than your body. Killing your body, even for this atheist does not end your “self”. What you actually end your story in this world where you left it.
For the Sake of a Future Self
Hecht who is also an atheist writes her book because most of the arguments against suicide have been religious ones and she’s writing mostly to atheists who don’t accept religious assumptions.
Her main arguments against suicide from a secular perspective is that it harms the suicide victim’s loved ones and it robs the person who self-murders of their future self.
Another main argument that I hope to rescue from history is that the suicidal person owes something to his or her future self; a future self who might feel better and be grateful that the person who he or she once was fought through the terrible times to make it to something better.
We tend to think that as modern people we should be able to live our lives with less delusion than people in the past. Yet by looking at ourselves from a fresh historical perspective, we see that our arguments with the old beliefs of our culture have led us into some ideological dead ends.
Hecht, Jennifer Michael (2013-11-19). Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (p. 5). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
I appreciate Hecht’s argument but I also find it fascinating because she doesn’t finally address the underlying question of meaning and the self and why the self should go on making history in the world.
Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the horrors of the Nazi death camps write a fascinating account of his journey through that horror in Man’s Search for Meaning which is a book well worth reading. He noted that the difference between those who survived, and those who didn’t were whether they had a meaning that the death camps couldn’t take away. Those how put their meaning or their “treasure” into wealth, family members, their ability to achieve of contribute gave up on life and died. It was a sort of suicide by Nazi. Those who maintained the will to survive found meaning by placing their hope on something the Nazis couldn’t take away.
My Critique of Hecht’s Work
I think Hecht’s work and book is valuable. Those who consider trying to end their own stories by ending their biological lives should be strongly counselled and prevented from doing so. It is a terrible mistake to throw away life. Life itself is a gift that should be honored, protected and valued but given he limitations of her belief system and that of her audience of elites she has few tools.
She wants to admonish them to “not give up” because you are cutting off the life of your future self. I think this is a good argument, but if I were depressed my problem is that I don’t believe that the life of my future self will in fact be any better. This is almost a straight definition of the experience of depression. She also basically says her book isn’t for the sick or the elderly because apparently she imagines for them they might as well take their own life because they don’t have much of a chance at a wonderful ‘future self life” like the elite. Well what about the rest of us? What hope do you have?
The Self and Death
People have long tried to figure out how to manage happiness, life and death and the self and different philosophies and religions have come up with different answers.
Secularists and Epicureans
Most ideas aren’t really that new and this is true of our own culture. Many of the ideas we have the Greeks had first. The Epicurean school was one of the dominant philosophies in the Greek and Roman empires. While they weren’t necessarily atheists they believed that the gods weren’t involved or paying attention and that once we died that was it for our stories. This isn’t too different from atheist secularism today.
They basically said “you don’t need an after-life to have meaning, you can find or make meaning here” and that is to a degree true, if you are satisfied with a meaning that is felt, but no more than simply felt.
The assertion is that as long as you are feeling meaning in your life that is meaning enough. I liken it to the experience of watching a movie in a good movie theater. The experience is immersive. While I’m watching the movie I’m filled with the drama of the story and I feel the importance of the meaning within the story. Once I step out of the movie theater, however, that meaning vanishes and it is gone.
In terms of suicide I find this to be weak medicine. It is as Hecht asserts. As long as I have a hope for another good movie in my future I should stay alive, but if I don’t imagine I have any real hope of another good movie ahead, why go on?
End of the Individual Story/Self/Psyche/Soul
A variety of religions and philosophies assert that the best we can hope for is the elimination of our individual self/soul/story.
For Stoicism, the other dominant philosophy of the Greek and Roman empires, the continuation of our individual stories was considered impossible, so finding solace in virtue in this world was of primary value rather than pleasure. You must simply adjust yourself to the vagaries of life, don’t indulge in nostalgia or expectations but accept what comes along until your story ends. This philosophy wasn’t actually very different from some forms of Buddhism.
Other forms of Buddhism were more closely related to Hinduism and the assumption there was that there is a “you” deep inside that you don’t know and isn’t really an individual. This “you” is an impersonal “you” that somehow gets reborn time and time again into this suffering world. The goal was to escape being “you” as an individual story and for that individual “you” to be eradicated and absorbed into the great ocean of being that makes up everything we see and touch.
This idea has the advantage of “you” never ending to exist but it has the liability of asserting that “you” don’t really exist as a personal individual story anyway. Your experience of “you” is an illusion that through meditation or moral achievement must be annihilated and absorbed into oneness.
The Christian Story
Christianity asserts that you as a story is exactly what God intended to make, and his desire was that your story be a good one, and a never ending one. The misery of our current stories is because of our rebellion against God. We are in fact so determined in this rebellion that we do things against our stories, we sabotage our stories and turn them into painful things.
Christians believe that this creator God wrote himself into our stories by one of his selves becoming a person like us and coming into our painful story. He entered into pain because of his love for us, and subjected himself to our violence, to our conflicts and allowed himself to become subject to this pain. We’ve spoken about him all through lent.
Because of his power and his joy and his courage and his goodness we decided we didn’t want him in the world and so we killed him, but God raised him from the dead. This is the story.
John 20:1–18 (NIV)
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Now the asserted resurrection Jesus is an astounding claim. I know that many people say “I can’t accept this” because they haven’t seen it or experienced it. OK. But if you limit what you can accept to what you have experienced you are limiting your story in a rather severe way.
I would also assert that the second amazing thing about this story is something subtle, something you might not have noticed, that Jesus’ future self is in continuity with his pre-death self especially in terms of his relationships.
Notice Mary’s story. She has no experiential framework to enable her to accept something like this resurrection in her mind. She is naturally completely focused upon the normal expectation of the events before her. If the tomb is empty then someone has moved the body of her friend, the one who rescued her from her terrible story, the one she loved. All she wanted was the natural way to honor her dead friend, but honoring all that she imagined was accessible to her, his corpse. But as I noted with the story of my father, what can you learn from a corpse? Can you really know the person?
It was in that moment that the resurrected Jesus completely obliterates every natural assumption we possess about our selves, our future selves, the meaning of life and what life can be about. He does it with one word, her name, Mary.
What he does with that one word is connect the stories. He says that his story was not destroyed by death, he has conquered death. What he does with naming her name is invite her into his never-ending-story and promises by his power that death will never finally separate them. With naming her name he promises that she has a future self that all of the pain, all of the violence, all of the crime of this present world cannot touch or destroy. Mary is his friend and he will not let her self, her story, her soul see decay. He will invite her into his never-ending story of meaning and passion and joy the likes of which we can only taste in our present state today.
Wallace and Hecht do see life clearly “under the sun”. Life in this world is short, hard and painful. Wallace is right the seemingly meaningless tedium crushes us. Hecht is right that it is easy to wonder, even for the elites who have more of everything that most of us think will make us happy won’t in fact make things much better at all. Wallace ended his life and Hecht has clearly considered it more than once.
What I offer you is not some simple platitude to “make life work” or give you “your best life now”. I don’t sugar coat life in “the age of decay” because Jesus didn’t. It killed him.
What I do offer you is a future story and a better one than you can even imagine. The Christian story asserts that the God that made us did not abandon us to our rebellion but made himself flesh, paid the penalty of our rebellion against God, freed us from the power of the devil, and will not in fact let the grave end our stories, our psyches, our deepest selves. We as embodied story makers will not be subject to decay but will be raised by him, we will be called by name and we will see him face to face.
One of the best articulations of this message is found in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.
1 Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death–
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
Only My Father’s First Book
I believe that this volume is only my father’s first book, the stories of the first chapter of his life. I believe that right now he is with the LORD awaiting to be enfleshed once again in a body for a world that does not know decay. He is waiting for the rest of us to finish our stories and for Jesus to finish the story of this world so that the new and better story making and story telling can begin.
I believe that I will not only hear Jesus say my name, but that I will hear my father say my name and he will hear me say his and we will speak them with real lips and hear them with real ears, more real than the ears and lips we possessed in this age. I believe the story making will continue and the stories in this book will be somehow perfected and expanded. The older I get the more I believe this like a child.
Will you Embrace The Story He Is Making You To Be?
There are many ways to throw away your story, only one of which is suicide. What Jesus invites you into is his story, living a life of “your well-being at my expense” out of gratitude. Learning to love your neighbor even your enemy and filling this short first chapter of your life with more meaning and drama than you can imagine. Yes there is tedium, but with seen as a rather slow start to a very long and thrilling book the first chapter becomes the set-up for all that is to come.
Don’t waste your story. Dare to believe. Dare to expect. Dare to imagine that the best way to live a life is to pour it out in love for those around you. Be your story and make is shine.
Jesus invites us to live our story within his. Live our pain within his. Find our meaning within his. Live it in expectation that he will call our name and not let our stories end in decay.