Musings on Suicide: Part II

Kamla K. Kapur
9 min readFeb 18, 2020
Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

I consider myself a survivor.

My view on suicide is prejudiced, as are the views of the majority of us. I am guilty of being in favor of life. I think it is better to be alive than dead. On average and to a larger extent, everything in nature, animals and insects included, flees from death. The two women in the news in the past several years who blew their faces off in suicide attempts and have undergone the pain of numerous reconstructive surgeries to mend their donated faces that invite our prurient gazes, come to mind. It makes me wonder how precious life can be, and admire them for choosing life under these horrific terms.

But I am also acquainted with the attraction of death and know that there are many ways to commit suicide, active and passive. Though I hadn’t used Donald’s pistol on myself, my own death was an ever-present possibility. I wouldn’t kill myself but the comforting corollary was that I would let myself die. On a trip to San Francisco I left my down jacket — by accident? — in the departure lounge in San Diego airport, walked shivering in the streets of Berkeley in a thin shirt in winter, and my chronically weak lungs developed pneumonia that lasted for many months. Even now I taste suicide when I fall uncontrollably into pits of darkened thinking. I have myself been preoccupied, once again in a recurring pattern throughout my life, with feelings of failure as a writer, the dark, edgy, locked-in feeling — not even the tiniest pinholes of light in the infinite universe — that turns all the colors of life into scumbled shades of grey.

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Though my life by all standards is, I feel at the best of times, a success story — many books to my credit, a comfortable and nurturing marriage, no money troubles, good friends and family, no major health issues, I fall into dark phases in which I indulge in ideation around death. I now know that these phases have much to do with my tendency to work to the point of exhaustion; that depression is often a symptom of tiredness. The Koreans even have a name for death by overwork, gwarosa, and karoshi.

We can divide ourselves almost too generally into two types: those that can and do survive because they want to, hold themselves together, and those that break and snap. I hope to live my life without being the latter kind, though I cannot say I haven’t sometimes thought of death as a relief.

I think the central question of my musing is this: is there a third category for us vulnerable types who can be helped to choose life over death?

Promises are important, promises to oneself and to others. “I made myself a firm promise on that evening at camp,” Victor Frankl writes about his experiences in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany in Man’s Search of Meaning, “that I would not ‘run into the wire;’ this was a phrase used in camp to describe the most popular method of suicide — touching the electrically charged barbed-wire fence.” A woman I know whose husband had also killed himself promised her son, and he, her, that they would never kill themselves.

Possibly Frankl’s training as a neurologist and psychiatrist, disciplines which require a delving into the mechanics of our psyche, had something to do with his survival. Both these disciplines require a conscious engagement with deeper aspects of life, an urge to know the world and oneself in it, and a passionate desire to tinker and wrestle with the circuitry of the human mind.

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Yet Donald, too, like Frankl, was a deeply thinking and feeling man, a poet, a composer, song writer, singer with a master’s degree in literature and psychology; he adored Jung, made many attempts through therapy, cognitive fixes like EST and NLP, experimented through psychoanalysis, spirituality and reading to right himself. When we hooked up again after all those years we were both very hopeful that Donald’s psyche could be mended.

Perhaps Frankl’s spiritual leanings helped him survive and prevail. Those that had a spiritual outlook did much better, and survived to live another life, Frankl says of his fellow inmates. I myself am a testament to the power of spirituality. It was this that helped me survive Donald’s death with some grace, and what helps me survive my ongoing battle with depression and a sense of failure. I was helped out of a heavy funk a few days ago by six words uttered by Arjun Dev, the fifth guru of the Sikhs: without contentment, no one is satisfied.

People in the west have turned away from religion because no non-toxic, non-insular, non-fear-based variety of it exists. Even people in the east are prone to reducing their vast, inclusive, thousands of year-old heritage of spirituality to a bite-size, bigoted version of it. For the security of certainty, even a false one, people give up their basic humanity. I hear Arthur Koestler’s words in my mind: there is fault in the circuitry of the human system. He, too, committed suicide. Donald turned to the only religion available to him easily, televangelists like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. He was looking for a place to drop his anchor in troubled waters. I left him to them, hoping they would help. But when I walked into the TV room once and heard one of them say all non-Christians will go to hell, I was really pissed off at him for listening to shit like that. In weaning him away from what I considered a destructive and ignorant belief that excludes instead of includes, may be another way I abetted his suicide.

But this way of thinking may be deeply flawed. I was amazed to discover in a workshop on grieving that almost each of the participants blamed themselves in the umbra of their psyches for the death of loved ones, even when they died naturally or in an accident. Is this not too heavy a burden to carry, too egoic, and ultimately a false assumption of power? In the paradox that is life, we have at once to assume and relinquish responsibility for people and the world as it is. While continuing to improve both ourselves and the world that we inhabit.

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In the years following Donald’s death I have made it a practice to pay attention to my mental processes and states. My own depressions are becoming more negotiable because I have over the years assiduously learned cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual tools to interrupt my downward spiral into a helpless loss of control; to question and squelch self-defeating, self-deprecatory thoughts in their tracks. Suicide, amongst the many things it is, is an unconscious consequence of self-hate and self-torture. I know from my own experiences that depressions happen when I am giving myself a hard time for being what and who I am.

I have also, for the most part, forgiven myself for the part I played in our drama. It is not an easy thing to do, and self-forgiveness is never final. It is something that has to be done recurringly. There is no panacea to periodic suffering because it can teach us so many life lessons that we can’t manage to learn otherwise. I believe we can learn much more from our mistakes if we channel the energy of self-reproach to learning the lessons in failures, and discover, through gratitude, the gifts in our tragedies.

I remind myself that my definitions of failure, which is often at the root of a longing for self-annihilation, is too generic, amorphous and unexamined. It is this that makes the concept and the reality so overwhelmingly difficult to handle in our minds. The immediate trigger for Donald was not getting the teaching position he had desired. He fell into the clutches of his ‘failed’ self, a dark theme in his life from the moment he heard his mother say of him to others, “Donald will never amount to a hill of beans.” He was only four then.

Our culture with its overemphasis on success only enforces failure. A large part of success is how the perceived acquisition or lack of it relates to others whom we know. And in this age, we know everybody of any account, because they come home to us through our cell phones as we peruse the daily news. We unconsciously adopt others’ values and concepts of success that we unquestioningly live by. We forget that success is only something others have. Nobody, unless they are unthinking, can consider herself a success in the universal scheme of things. Even Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography expressed his fear of being mediocre towards the end of his life. What have I accomplished? I have made people laugh and cry. Or Walt Whitman, who said in his deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, I have not gain’d the acceptance of my time . . . From a worldly and business point of view, Leaves of Grass was worse than a failure.”

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Success and failure are mental constructs, after all — shifting constructs in a social context; always. They must be questioned, parsed and redefined for ourselves almost on a daily, hourly basis. Our ambitions and desires are like the flower in The Little Shop of Horrors that demands we feed it with our blood. Spirituality gives us much needed vantage points from which to view our experiences of life, an angle that is healthier and more peace-bestowing. Our crises are invariably a wrestling match with our better angels who always win and to whom we must always surrender.

A sense of failure is a failure to live the life we have been given, a failure to angle the mirror of our gaze inward. And success is no fix for fundamental, existential suffering which is the lot of all of us. Celebrity suicides prove this much. I am reminded of one of my favorite songs by Doc Watson: “keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life.” Donald sang it to me in his deep and melodious voice. It seems he didn’t have a choice to stay on the sunny side. Or did he? I will never know why and how some people — and I may yet be one of them, who can certain? — lose control of their lives.

It is important to remember, so we don’t lose our compassion for those who break, that depression may very well be a chemical matter, a disease without a cure, as so many depressives feel and assert. DNA, traumatic childhood, adult experiences, brain-body chemistry have something to do with how much control we have. When all is said and done, I can only choose and arbitrate for myself. I must take sides, be partial to the survivor in me, choose life till no choice is left, take responsibility for my own life and peace of mind. I know with a degree of certainty that to endeavor to stay on the sunny side of life through the exercise of the brain muscle is not a vain effort. It is, I feel, what we are here to do.

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Kamla K. Kapur is the author of several books, her recent one being Rumi: Tales of the Spirit. Journey to Healing the Heart.

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Kamla K. Kapur

Writer. Playwright. Poet. Author of Rumi: Tales of the Spirit (Mandala, March 2019), and critically acclaimed, Ganesha Goes to Lunch.