Becoming an Ex-Suicide



The Marines have a saying, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

We all love the soaring poetry of the Prayer of St. Francis, but have we even noticed that it ends with that jagged truth, “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life”? A cross lies at the heart of Christianity, and a dying is demanded by every great religious tradition. Our ancestors put sacrificial lambs and bulls on the altar because they knew instinctively that something or someone has to die in order for the divine life to be born. Jesus died on that altar as the Last Sacrifice, reversing the sacrificial impulse: what has to die is not something outside yourself, but something inside.

What–or who–in us has to die?

That question looms in the recent spate of high-profile suicides. All of us know someone who stepped off the edge of the abyss, and the rise in youth suicides is especially lamentable. Some are suffering from a mental illness that leads them to do the unthinkable. And yet others seem to be victims of the same battle we all fight every day, the struggle to make sense of apparently random suffering or the cruel clash between what we were promised (almost guaranteed by virtue of wealth, education and culture) and the cold stare of reality. We tell four year-olds that life is not fair, yet fifty and sixty years on, some part of us still cannot accept the injustice, the outrage, the betrayal. The final refusal of reality is suicide. Something or someone inside us tells us to lift the safety cover and push the big red button.

Most of us have heard that inner voice of protest. It’s actually coming from a person. St. Paul called it “our old self” (Romans 6:6), Thomas Merton called it our “false self,” and Carl Jung simply called it the small “s” self. I have a friend who knows that needy, selfish little imp inside so well he has a pet name for him. He calls him Eddie. This hidden self is incredibly powerful. He can whisper in your ear all day, telling you how angry you ought to be about this, and how bitter you need to be about that. One minute she’s telling you you’re brilliant, and the next minute she’s calling you a loser. This morning you’re stupendous and by the end of a tough day you’re just stupid. I believe this is the person who tells people to end their lives. And this, then, is the person who needs to die. You don’t have to kill off that imp, though. If you simply ignore her she slowly dies away; if you tell him you’re not taking his advice anymore he explodes in a rage and tears himself in two like Rumpelstiltskin.

The Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, created many characters who contemplate suicide in the face of absurdity and death. Percy knew something about the subject–both his grandfather and his father took their own lives. But Percy insisted that we must trust God and live in hope even though we have teetered on the edge of that abyss. Those who have walked up to that edge and walked back, vowing that life is worth living, Percy called “ex-suicides.” It was as if they had already died and the life they were now living was not their own. They were free. Death couldn’t threaten them anymore because they couldn’t muster the old fear. They didn’t feel entitled to anything, so whatever they got was good enough and beautiful.

Living what we call a religious or spiritual life is really just finding the courage to be an ex-suicide. It’s not a one-time choice, but a daily practice of learning to recognize the voice of “our old self,” the tricks of our “false self,” the lies of our little “s” self. That’s when they begin to die, and in their place the great God-Self begins to rise within.


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