Those famous words are the preamble to the self – pitying plea by Richard the Third in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Readers in the southern hemisphere please excuse the seasonal reference. Some of you may prefer to read this edition later in the year…..
Living where I do on a hill, when it snows, as it did in January, I stay off my bike and (sometimes) shovel snow and run errands for the neighbours. But none of that compares to the winter of 1963. That year saw the coldest temperatures for over 100 years. February 11 sees the 50th anniversary of the death by suicide of the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who took her life during that bleak time.
Figures have just been released of the number of people who took their own lives in the U.K. over recent years. In 2010 5,608 people killed themselves. In 2011 the number rose to 6,045. I’m not going to speculate here about the reasons for this sharp rise (the figures for 2012 are not available). But one thing you can be sure of is that coroners may be reluctant in some cases to find a verdict of suicide. Why? Mostly to save the feelings of the living relatives. The feelings of the living, of people who do not kneel before what Alfred Alvarez called ‘the savage god’, trump those of the dead, and those of us who wish we were. Suicide is widely considered to be a selfish act, ignoring the feelings of others; loved ones left behind, the dog walker who finds the body hanging from a branch during a forest ramble. The train driver who is confronted as few of us are, with the reality of the deadly thud and bump.
For some of us suicide is an act of comfort, love and relief amidst a maelstrom of pain. But people think that the feelings of friends, relatives and strangers trump our feelings. If suicide is a selfish path, then aren’t the feelings of those ‘left behind’ selfish, too? ‘How could they have done this to me?’ ‘Didn’t he think of how his wife and kids would feel?’
Whose pain and suffering comes first?
In a recent article for a British newspaper the maverick Church of England clergyman Giles Fraser wrote: ‘…if suicide is on your mind, forget the existentialists and the poets. Phone the Samaritans. Go and see your G.P. Talk to your friends. Stop drinking. Misery is survivable. And hold fast to the belief that a brighter day will dawn.’
Let’s take these words of wisdom one at a time. ‘Forget the existentialists and the poets.’ Well, if we can’t come to terms with the most fundamental question of the all – why we are here in the first place – how we are to ascribe any value to our existence? Forget the poets? Now that I have finally stopped gasping with incredulity, which ones are you referring to, Giles Fraser? W.H. Auden? Andrew Marvell? Wendy Cope? Seamus Heaney? Carol Ann Duffy? William Wordsworth? Maya Angelou? Robert Browning? Christiana Rossetti? And surely not Dorothy Parker? Do their rhymes really offer no soothing balm at all? Phone the Samaritans? (for those of you reading this outside the U.K. it is the county’s leading mental health help line). I have found them very helpful, as have many. It’s not so simple to ring them as it is to call the plumber or the electrician, though. ‘Go and see your G.P. (General Practitioner – i.e. not a specialist Dr.) I have been lucky in this respect, but has he really no idea how hard it is to make an appointment, attend the surgery, and then actually talk about suicide? ‘Talk to your friends’. The obvious, and all too common answer to that piece of advice – and how many times have I heard this response over the years? – ‘All my friends disappeared once I had told them how I was feeling.’ Either that or they were giving advice like the pearls of wisdom I quoted above. ‘Stop drinking’. Simple. You wonder why organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous exist if it is that easy. ‘Misery is survivable.’ Misery. That old canard that depression, bi polar disorder and schizophrenia are just varying forms of unhappiness. ‘And hold fast to the belief that a brighter day will dawn.’ Does he really not realise that when we are contemplating suicide all that cosy belief in the future has long since slipped through our fingers?
The French thinker Montaigne (1533 – 1592) pinpointed the mental vice people like me are in when he wrote: ‘we are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.’
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty. She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)