The first comment I received on my first post in this series of reflections on Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death was about suicide. The question was brief and to the point and, I readily admit, I didn’t quite grasp the implications. But as we dialogued further, I understand that this is the problem: According to Becker, Beck, and Terror Management Theory, the fundamental problem of humanity is that we are alienated by our fear (or neurotic anxiety) of death and that as a result of that existential alienation we pursue various pathways–some healthy and constructive, others unhealthy and destructive–to suppress our death anxiety and to try to buttress ourselves against it. But how, then, do we account for those with suicidal tendencies or suicidal ideations–or, even more perplexing, how do we account for those many people who actually complete suicide? Do they simply constitute an anomaly–an exception from the human condition?
There has been surprisingly little research (that I can find) exploring the relation between death anxiety (under the rubric of terror management theory) and suicide. This seems to be a major gap–even oversight–in the studies. A recent article (2011), published by two European researchers, Armand Chatard and Leila Selimbegovic, addressed that relationship. Their studies suggest that the problem of suicide does constitute a challenge to TMT, insofar as it purports to be an over-arching theory of the human condition as existentially enslaved to death anxiety.
They performed six different studies, spanning various cultural contexts; the studies explored the accessibility (to consciousness/cognition) of suicide-related thoughts when people were confronted with “negative self-awareness.” In other words, when suggestions are made that they may not measure up to a societal standard (of economic or vocational success, beauty, happiness, etc.), suicidal thoughts more readily enter the consciousness. These studies are based in influential “escape theory” of suicide developed by Roy Baumeister (1990). This theory asserts that suicide is mainly motivated not primarily by a desire to seek death, but by a desire to escape one’s “self.” Highly reflective people often feel acutely aware that they do not measure up to the standards imposed by larger society or by the standards they impose on themselves. They feel they cannot be the “ideal self” they want to be or should be, and therefore feel the desire or need (perhaps as the only felt remaining alternative) to escape the self that they are. Suicide is, for them, the result of a chain of reasoning that ends in “escape” as the apparently only viable alternative. The 2011 study elaborated on escape theory to show that not only do feelings of inadequacy serve as a causative role in suicide completions; further, suggestions of their inadequacy also make thoughts of suicide more accessible to persons not otherwise prone to contemplating it. In other words, thoughts pertaining to “escaping” the self are far more pervasive than the number of documented suicide attempts and completions. This poses a problem for terror management theory because it suggests that the first intuition and most natural inclination is not always the preservation of the self from extinction; rather, it is very often related to a desire or inclination to escape the self altogether.
So, the basic problem we’ve identified here is that the problem of suicide shows that for many, the fear of life (of self) trumps the fear of death. And even in everyday reality, we experience feelings of inadequacy (comparing ourselves with standards) that “let in” thoughts of “escape from self.”
This leads us to a link Beck makes between martyrdom and “eccentric identity.” Beck suggests that the Christian tradition of martyrdom might give us some insight into the open-handedness with which we might approach the reality of death. Martyrs are martyrs because they have determined that death does not hold a place of ultimacy for them. Their identities are free from the constraints of death anxiety and they go into death willingly. Similarly (if quantitatively very different), the non-martyrs among us could approach life (and death) with an openness and an “ec-centricity” that shows that love has power over death.
In light of the problem of suicide, this connection seems a little dangerous. Might the one who deals regularly with suicidal ideations feel that “escape from self” could be a form of martyrdom–and could therefore render suicide an act of heroism? Furthermore, might adopting an attitude of open-handedness toward death increase their willingness to move toward it? Could a relaxed attitude toward death result in a undermining of the value of life?
Beck addresses this question head-on, actually, by referring to Augustine’s discussion of suicide–Augustine, we likely all know, thought suicide was “monstrous” and a direct affront to God who created life in the first place. He said some pretty awful things about people who complete suicide, and was largely responsible for the view that suicide is the “unpardonable sin.” Augustine’s errors aside, Beck argues that one who adopts an eccentric identity will not view life as something to be taken lightly:
So the goal of the Christian life is not to seek out death or to treat life cheaply. Death is evil and we are to struggle against death and resist all of its manifestations. This struggle implies that life is worth preserving, and this valuing of life always introduces anxiety. So the fear of death is simply an acknowledgement of the gift and goodness of life itself. To be indifferent to our lives would be to spurn the gift of God. Timor mortis–wanting to preserve our own lives–is, at root, an act of gratitude (89).
So, for Beck, we should fear death. The problem that remains to be considered, though, is what do we say about the reality that many people, sadly enough, fear life more than they fear death? Or, for many people, their self is considered something to be escaped, rather than embraced.
I would love your thoughts on this.
“When Self-Destructive Thoughts Flash Through the Mind: Failure to Meet Standards Affects the Accessibility of Suicide-Related Thoughts,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, vol. 100 (no. 4), 587-605