Friday, June 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 70 - On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.


I've contemplated taking my life.  In 2014, I was perhaps at the closest point to seriously taking it.  But as I considered the impact on my children and wife, I decided I needed help and therefore, I sought a therapist who helped me see a clearer path.  Things and life were not as dark as I was making them out to be in my mind.  I didn't have any problems that were worth dying to avoid.

Around that same time, perhaps in 2013 or 2014, I began to drink coffee and found it to be a wonderful antidote to contemplating suicide so often.  Later, I learned of a quote that has been attributed to Albert Camus which goes: "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?"  My new found love of coffee coupled with that quote resonated with me.  It's an absurd way to reframe life's challenges and problems to the point that if I ever went to that dark place, I could ask myself that question and almost all the time, I would prefer to simply go have a cup of coffee.  It became my internal rallying cry in the years 2015-2017.

I continued to see a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for about 4 months in 2014, after which I learned of the connection between CBT and Stoicism and the rest is history.  I hardly ever contemplate suicide these days, but I do contemplate my own death.  For the Stoics, death (suicide) was always open.  Seneca gets into it a bit here in the 70th letter from a Stoic.

Just a bit more commentary about suicide before delving into the letter.  I was listening to a Victor Davis Hanson podcast last week and he discussed this ancient concept of luxury and decadence (link to podcast, go to minute 45:01) and it got me thinking about how we, in this modern era and particularly in the west, have become decadent.  And, I think several years back, I was prone to consider that life was bad, when in actuality, it really wasn't that bad!  In a sense, I had become decadent.  Temporally speaking, our society has had it quite easy - air conditioning, cars, indoor plumbing, heated water at the turn of the tap, massive amounts of data and information in our pocket at all times and ample time to sit in leisure and comfort.  Just today, the jobs report for the United States came out, and one news story noted:

However, that drop in the jobless rate also came alongside an unexpected drop in the labor force participation rate to 61.6% from the 61.7% in May, suggesting a smaller share of Americans out of work returned to the labor force to look for or take new jobs.

This indicates that anxiety to work and provide for families and people is less urgent.  Stated differently, people don't feel the need to work, perhaps because of unemployment benefits and the greater application of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Again - what is my point?  To show that to live and survive is not that difficult compared to many people living in 3rd world countries today as well as compared to people who lived decades and centuries ago.  For me personally, it shows my excuses and complaints were and are small and I really didn't and don't have such a great grievance to justify contemplating taking my life.  This theme will emerge a bit in Seneca's letter.

He begins the letter by comparing life with a voyage.  Some reach the destination slowly; others quickly.

if a man has reached this harbour in his early years, he has no more right to complain than a sailor who has made a quick voyage. For some sailors, as you know, are tricked and held back by sluggish winds, and grow weary and sick of the slow-moving calm; while others are carried quickly home by steady gales.  You may consider that the same thing happens to us: life has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, the harbour they were bound to reach even if they tarried on the way, while others it has fretted and harassed.

He then gets into the quality of life, which is what wisdom seeks.  It's not so much about quantity or length.

mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.  He will mark in what place, with whom, and how he is to conduct his existence, and what he is about to do. He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.

If you lead a rational life, you will contemplate this idea: that a life worth living, is also worth living well.  And once you've determined it's worth living, then your task is to live it well and even to end it well.  I've heard a similar sentiment about one's career.  Several people and managers at work say that as long as their job is interesting, they show up to work.  They realize that some days are just horrible, long and disastrous.  But they know that not all days are like that.  They also think about where they ought to draw the line of continuing to show up at work or to resign or retire.  One manager said that as long as he has 3 good days, he can accept a couple of bad days a week.  But as soon as it becomes 3 and then 4 bad days, he'll know when to call it quits.  It seems that Seneca is saying something similar with regard to living.

Seneca even offers an example of living ill (the opposite of living well).

This person was thrown into a cage by his tyrant, and fed there like some wild animal. And when a certain man advised him to end his life by fasting, he replied: "A man may hope for anything while he has life."  This may be true; but life is not to be purchased at any price. No matter how great or how well-assured certain rewards may be I shall not strive to attain them at the price of a shameful confession of weakness.

In other words, just because you can live doesn't not mean you ought to.  Living well is the goal of a philosopher and a good human.

Socrates continued to live well (rather than take his own life) and to prove a point (teach) his friends and the Athenians.

Socrates might have ended his life by fasting; he might have died by starvation rather than by poison. But instead of this he spent thirty days in prison awaiting death, not with the idea "everything may happen," or "so long an interval has room for many a hope" but in order that he might show himself submissive to the laws and make the last moments of Socrates an edification to his friends.

In living and in choosing death, we should do both rationally.

Do not be mindless about living or dying.  But have a purpose.  Seneca writes:

Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone. The best form of death is the one we like.  Men are foolish who reflect thus: "One person will say that my conduct was not brave enough; another, that I was too headstrong; a third, that a particular kind of death would have betokened more spirit." What you should really reflect is: "I have under consideration a purpose with which the talk of men has no concern!"

A rational being will seek and know his purpose, though it is not an easy task.  A wise person, therefore, will not simply default into the thinking of: "I'll let Nature decide when I die."  Rather, the wise person will know why he lives and when he should die.  If he complains about living, then perhaps he does not know his reason for living.  But Nature has given every one of us the choice to die or keep on living.  Seneca echoes the idea often written by Marcus Aurelius.

This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life: it keeps no one against his will. Humanity is well situated, because no man is unhappy except by his own fault. Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place whence you came.

If you desire to hold on to life as long as possible, then pivot your thinking that your body is similar to a home: you can't live there forever.

Live in it as if you were about to leave it. Keep thinking of the fact that some day you will be deprived of this tenure; then you will be more brave against the necessity of departing.

While fortune may not test us on other matters and therefore we must practice them on our own (poverty, hardships, etc), there is one thing we must prepare for yet can't practice: our death.  Therefore, we ought to contemplate death often.

Seneca next goes into various examples of people who were put in horrible circumstances, and were prevented from killing themselves at every turn.  Yet, they sill managed!  Seneca cites these examples to prove that the door to leave life is, indeed, open to all.  He cites gladiators who shoved a wood stick tipped with a sponge down their throats, and who broke their necks with the spokes of a cart wheel while it was moving and one who used a spear to kill himself, by shoving it down his throat.  Again, the point of which is to prove that death is open to us all and that "the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."

And, if death is open to the lowest of people (gladiators), then why should it not be available to rational people as well.

If such a spirit is possessed by abandoned and dangerous men, shall it not be possessed also by those who have trained themselves to meet such contingencies by long meditation, and by reason, the mistress of all things? It is reason which teaches us that fate has various ways of approach, but the same end, and that it makes no difference at what point the inevitable event begins.  Reason, too, advises us to die, if we may, according to our taste; if this cannot be, she advises us to die according to our ability, and to seize upon whatever means shall offer itself for doing violence to ourselves.

 In sum, the takeaways are:

- seek help if you are suicidal

- stay alive to find your purpose

- live with a purpose

- live rationally

- contemplate death - it is all our fates

- as far as you can, rationally choose your death

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