The past week brought news, as always, of the deaths of many strangers. But amid the usual numbing crush of reports of fatalities from wars, epidemics, accidents and murders, two stood out. Last Sunday in New York, the American actor and medical-research activist Christopher Reeve died of an infection-induced heart attack nine years after suffering a near-fatal horseback-riding accident. On Tuesday, in two lonely spots outside Tokyo, nine young people were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning after they sealed themselves in cars to carry out what police said appeared to be suicide pacts planned on the Internet.
Death is death, no matter how it is reached, and it generates the same awful sense of loss for those left behind. But what a contrasting view of life these particular deaths offered.
Reeve, of course, was well-known — so well-known that many people reacted to his death as that of an intimate rather than a stranger. They had seen his movies, regretted the accident that left him a quadriplegic, perhaps read his memoirs “Still Me” and “Nothing Is Impossible,” and watched him on television giving interviews, speaking at the 1996 Democratic National Convention or testifying before Congress.
His work to advance research on spinal-cord injuries was so familiar that even some doctors expressed surprise that the 52-year-old actor had died before his dream of a cure was realized. He willed himself to live — and someday to walk. His steely optimism had already become part of his legacy.
The nine people who chose to die in Saitama and Kanagawa last week, on the other hand, preferred to remain anonymous, their lives and motives a matter of speculation. Their actions tell us they felt sad, frustrated and without hope. Still, not one of them could have had more cause to feel that way than Reeve did. Job loss, peer pressure, generational angst — whatever lay behind the death pacts — it could not have approached the horror of Reeve’s inability to move and, often, even to breathe unassisted. His wealth and celebrity underplays the bravery it must have taken to claim a new public image that made many people feel embarrassment or, worse, pity just to look at him.
Yet it was Reeve who said of his misfortune: “You play the hand you’re dealt. I think the game’s worthwhile.” And on another occasion: “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” By that definition, most suicides are the opposite of heroic.
The question raised last week was simple: What is it that enables one person to persevere and causes another simply to give up? The honest answer is that we don’t know. Perhaps some people are genetically wired to be optimistic. Money, connections and a supportive family obviously help. All we know for sure is that despite his near-total incapacitation, Reeve found the mental strength to live out the maxim attributed to the English essayist Joseph Addison: “Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”
There has been much discussion in the media about why those nine young Japanese, and thousands more like them in recent years, were unable to do likewise. Perhaps it is true that joblessness left them with nothing to do, an unsatisfactory family or social life left them with nothing to love, and a feeling of malaise common in both affluent and stagnant societies left them with nothing to hope for. We can only speculate — and recall the wisdom of something else Addison said: “A misery is not to be measured from the nature of the evil, but from the temper of the sufferer.” Their burdens, whatever they were, were obviously heavier for them than Reeve’s was for him.
More useful, probably, is discussion of why Japanese seem more willing than people of other cultures to see suicide as a solution to despair. (Japan has about the same number of suicides each year as the United States, which has double the population.) Some note the lack of religious strictures and the fact that seeking psychiatric care may be considered more of a social taboo than suicide. Others point to a long tradition of multiple suicides, citing celebrated cases such as the 47 ronin and the “love suicide” of novelist Dazai Osamu. And in the last few years, the Internet has facilitated, though it could hardly be said to have caused, such pacts by creating a virtual community of like-minded but otherwise isolated people.
As with so many other social ills, education is surely the key to bringing down the suicide rate. There will always be despair. That can’t be changed. What can be changed, with time, imagination and planning, is the idea that suicide is an acceptable way out of it.
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