None of my arguments seemed to be registering, and what I was receiving in response sounded like part of some other conversation, not the one I was trying to have. In exasperation I said it felt like I was discussing nutrition and others were talking about dinner, recipes, some specific meal, rather than looking at the what and why of eating.
I had said that suicide is selfish. What I was hearing in response was personalized. Focus on individuals’ pain and how wrong I was to judge others, along with certainty that I must never have felt serious depression myself. And platitudes — that we can never know anyone else’s pain. And that mental disorders are shrouded in a mystique that leaves them beyond discussion.
What I see is culture, father culture (to correct Daniel Quinn’s error). The culture of the fathers is brutally hierarchical, competitive, devaluing and unforgiving, and judgmental in a way that I am not. But I don’t blame others for missing the difference — there is no other way to judge, according to culture! Steeping in the culture, commonly called childhood, leaves us all full of soul holes, traumas endured, physical and psychological violations experienced, and no way to frame it all except on the given hierarchy. Soul holes are filled by taking shots down the hierarchy; that’s all we are allowed.
We face traumas individually, yes, but one of the most healing things is to realize at a gut level that you are one among many others who faced the same kind of thing — it isn’t you, it’s them. And they were wrong.
I can remember the 70s (and before) and feminists’ budding awareness that a huge number of women were on anti-depressants. We began to understand that depression came from oppression, significantly if not entirely. We also learned to consider that depression just might be anger turned inward: when women could not lash back at their tormentors, or find other effective outlets, their rage would be expressed in self-hate and self-harm.
And then came the 80s, and feminist insights were usurped for more profitable endeavors. One example of this is the psychologization of disordered eating. Whereas women were beginning to recognize culture’s cruelty in forcing women to be a specific size (thin) and shape (buxom, long-legged), along came the psych industry to profit from women’s pain. That huge numbers of women entered the medicalized and psychologized disordered eating professions made little difference; the framing was patriarchal. Culturally women’s coerced appearance obsession was backed by the porn industry, something liberal feminism refused to challenge. There is a too thin and a too fat within disordered eating standards. All women are expected to be able to conform to a thin ideal. This is one area where diversity is expressly forbidden. Any woman who does not conform is seen as having a defect in her eating — by definition. And the industry controls the definitions involving weight, while the populace believes them. Women do not strive to be whole and happy within their natural bodies, no; women strive to appear correct. (There is nothing healthy in being controlled by an external aesthetic standard whether its medicalized aesthetics or pornography’s.)
In fact it is the attempt to adhere to unnatural standards that creates the disorders to begin with! For all, anorexics and bulimics alike, the disorder starts with self-semi-starvation. Anorexics continue it; bulimics hold to a cycle that is inevitably starve-binge-purge — the starving comes first, and purge is merely another form of it, a form of underfeeding.
So what does make people healthy, including psychologically healthy?
We are taught to look toward acquisition, power and prestige, and control over our and others’ lives, to find our fulfillment as human beings. Things and admiration are the stated goals. Yet these do not work for us.
In essence, meeting others’ legitimate needs is what gives our lives fulfillment. It is the human connection that is fostered by the gift economy, by meeting needs, that fills soul holes. (See Genevieve Vaughan’s book gifted on-line called For-Giving, linked below; see also the link to the talk by Charles Eisenstein, below.) But without a hierarchal culture, our capitalist patriarchy, there would be no soul holes. We have plenty.
My children’s generation, those who attended Gymboree and who were told incessantly that they were special, often have an overt entitlement. Whatever they do is supposed to be enough to rate praise and positive attention. They may be worse than other ages, but tell anyone, warmly, that they are among the common people, or that they are average, and watch the response! To some extent we are all programmed to see ourselves as exceptional. Older generations have the cult of the rugged individualist to live up to. But of course not everyone can be exceptional, above average, positively uncommon. And within this programming there is much manipulation (see the documentary film, The Century of the Self, linked below).
We really aren’t isolated selves, or rugged individuals, or even beings who are happiest when in conflict and competition with our peers. We are happiest in connected interaction with others. We are not islands, and no one is likely to be the only one ever to have gone through something — there was always someone else before who endured it — and usually thousands of such someones! If we aren’t exceptional, if we are part of a caste of humans who have been made to endure atrocities or at least significant pain, then we can pull together to resist. This should be good news!
Even as a child of the 70s, I’m aware that oppression isn’t necessarily the sole or inevitable cause of serious depression. I think it’s significant, but people are complex, and one size rarely fits most all. There are physiological origins, too. And selfish isn’t always wrong, to use a term of judgment. Sometimes being ‘self’-ish is necessary, especially in a capitalist patriarchy. Women often have no one else who will put them first. And sometimes being selfish is simply the last option. All I’m saying is that as a beginning point, it’s not conducive to filling soul holes or to making people want to continue to exist.
All people have some privilege available to them in their lives, and that privilege could be used — in the only useful way for privilege to be used — to aid those without it. For every horribly pained but privileged white man, there are women and children whose lives are atrociously oppressed, and who could benefit from his sharing what he’s been given, unearned. For every horribly pained but privileged white woman, there are other women, marginalized women, and girlchildren whose lives are infinitely more oppressed.
Now do privileged people have an obligation to use it to benefit those without? In the knee-jerk individualist stance, no, of course not. But is that the best way of looking at it? Same answer.
When we live as isolated beings in competition with one another, we lose. Generally we know this. So then why do we defend it as inevitable? The simple answer is that we have been groomed to see things in terms of rights. Our rights end where another’s begins. In this framing, we are inherently separate and in conflict with one another, practicing survival of the fittest. In reality though, cooperation is more the norm of Nature than is competition. And separation doesn’t make us happier. So what we know is in conflict with what we defend.
Because of this, I think some of the anger at my attempts to de-mythologize suicide (and to some extent psychology) aren’t necessarily aimed at me but are frustration from inherent contradictions.
When we live as beings within a connected, sane, and life-serving community, then we win. Those of us who have looked at studies on tribal people pre-civilization or separate from civilization have seen this valid form of ‘winning.’ More suspect it. In a community where lives are valued, intertwined and fulfilled, wouldn’t you expect to see some responsibility to others beyond individual rights?
Two incredible sources that have pulled me into this kind of reframing beyond Gen Vaughan’s words of community and connection are Barbara Alice Mann’s talk on WINGS, and David Abram’s books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. They’re worth some perusal, I think.
I have been called judgmental for my views. I would answer this criticism by saying thank you. Our human world seems to currently lack critical thinking, and judgment is a part of that. I would rather think critically than perpetuate the bland non-judgmentalness that has so many thinking they’re each one exceptional and better than the rest.
I have been called a traitor to the ideals of community. Again, we get nowhere with all-accepting kindness — it simply reinforces the status quo, maintaining the hierarchy and its brutalities.
And I have been called unkind, even heartless. I do care — about individuals and their very personal stories, about a culture that leaves gaping soul holes. AND I am adamant about not excusing the privileged as they minimize their very real abilities to alleviate at least some of the oppression of others. There is responsibility to be found in being given something you didn’t earn, and truly don’t deserve over and above those without who have done nothing but be chosen for oppression. There is a duty.
Robin Williams was a white man with an excess of privilege and of power; he had resources beyond most people’s imaginings. I have been said to be equating money with happiness, which is absurd. I am talking about privilege, which often includes wealth; clearly privilege does not buy happiness, either. But sharing it actually might — it is through meeting the legitimate needs of others that humans find real fulfillment. It is through community and the connections created within it that humans thrive.
Suicide is selfish. To squander luxuries, and the chance to equalize them into the provision of basic necessities, is entitled. To wallow internally in pains known when the breadth and depth of others’ pains, external, are not known, is entitled. To not try, when trying could mean so very much, is entitled. To be embedded in the role of Victim, to individualize depression as Victim, to never even begin to examine one’s privilege as well or to take responsibility for it — to be the perpetual Victim — is a sign of our times, our culture, our adamant isolation. And a block to trying for change.
But that is all I ask — to try. To not squander what others don’t receive. To hear above one’s own pain to understand those of others. Again, selfish isn’t always wrong. But dishonest selfishness probably is. I would prefer that we be honest about what we do know, including that there is a mystique shielding mental illness so that its inhabitants are above reproach. Recently someone told me about a rapist, but partially excused him because he didn’t take his medication!
Another thing we don’t allow ourselves to readily know in this culture is that sometimes damage is too much to survive whole. Those who deal with childhood sexual assault do know this, and often try to tell it: girls who were sexually abused long and early may never, ever possess a healthy normal sexuality. They may always see themselves as Objects meant to please the masters, and may be proactive (probably grasping at the only sense of control available to them), seemingly seductive, making the first moves in an inevitable ritual.
There are other ways to be damaged beyond healing, and it may be kindness to not resist the end of such suffering. I don’t actually want the ominous responsibility of deciding this. I am willing to take on the burden of calling out the bullshit when privileged people are given passes, for whatever reasons. What I want is discussion beyond the platitudes, the accusations, and the personalizing of what needs to be a genuine discussion on how we view humankind in community and as individuals. I care deeply about individuals who have been hurt in this discussion; if it’s too much then ignore it, but if possible let’s walk through it. I want to change the framing, not you.
I’m not an outsider in this discussion. My childhood was hell; I was emotionally abandoned at 18 moths of age — after molestation, “damaged goods” was the explanation — then poisoned and starved, and left out to die (porch, door locked behind me, trike, concrete steps, broken ribs and a nose that bled for 48 hours as recorded in my baby book). There was more, but that’s enough. I have chop mark scars on my arms from when I practiced with a knife, hoping that bleeding would release some of the agony and angst, or at least teach me to do better, more, next time. I have hours lost on bridges when homeless and young; I took risks that should have been seen as practice as well. I don’t know why I survived, why I found other frames, why I moved onto more solid ground. I do know the words that came to me, unbidden, were: “and suicide is silence, the ultimate family loyalty.”
I don’t face depression to any great degree these days, but when I do I take it as a sign my body (or psyche) is trying to heal. I am aware that there is much out there that I don’t have to endure (and some I do). I have cut all ties to my family of origin. And I have decades of activism past, and ongoing, with moments of sheer joy in the sharing of the work. Those do help sustain me. So does being old — knowing I AM going to die and it won’t be my choice when, most likely, since I am resisting oppression and wanting to eke out all the living I can to do so.
I’ve listed and refuted the accusations against me. If you can’t find new ones, don’t respond. Better yet, if you can find framings that don’t absolve the privileged of responsibility, let’s talk.