This Monday to Sunday is Mental Health Awareness Week. Nicky and I stayed up past midnight watching Horizon’s Stopping Male Suicide:
I walked the Golden Gate Bridge for forty minutes. I’d made up my mind that if anyone, just one single person, asked me ‘Are you OK?’ I wouldn’t do it. Joggers, drivers, police, walkers all went passed. A tourist gave me her camera to take snaps. I did. Then she went without a word. At that moment a voice said ‘Jump’. I jumped…
It’s one of many outstanding programmes featured this week, including Nadia Hussain on how she suffers from anxiety and Alastair Campbell about depression. What emerges is that there is something we can do: notice, ask, care. It may not be enough, but it’s better than not caring, or, more likely, being held back by nervousness about showing we care. (And sometimes caring means respecting people’s boundaries, their space, their quiet.)
We may be fortunate not to suffer severely, but the evidence is that most of us have had bleak days, frightened days, days when even walking down the street is a challenge (I need to pass the tree on that side, not this), days when our mind has rolled around the thought of ending it all.
Over the last years I’ve had many conversations with family members of people who have taken their own lives. My heart aches for them, left in unchartered territories, grief-stricken, maybe helpless, angry, regretful; wondering if it could have been possible to reach with greater love, understanding or vigilance into the inner spaces where consciousness had felt so painful that it was impossible to bear. (Sometimes the answer is no; it was not possible to access those bleak and suffering places, encased in some membrane impenetrable even to love.)
It’s well known that Judaism, like Christianity, understands suicide to be wrong. Our body is not our own to harm or destroy, but on loan to us by God for the duration of our lifetime, to be used in good deeds of kindness and justice. That’s the theory.
But the following passage in the Talmud, though puzzling, is more compassionate:
For two and a half years, the Schools of Shammai and Hillel debated: These said: It would have been better for a person not to have been created than created. Those said: It is better for a person to have been created than not created. (Eruvin 13b)
They put the matter to the vote and decided that it was better not to have been created.
The Talmud sadly omits to tell us the contents of the argument. Did the rabbis regard life as too complex, too full of temptation, too painful, too great a trial? We don’t know. But they certainly understood the harsh grind of daily existence: ‘You’re born, you live, you die whether you like it or not’.
After the vote the rabbis agreed that, since we have been created, we need to consider our actions. This doesn’t initially sound helpful. But what I think they mean is that we are all responsible for creating societies in which each and every person, and each of every person’s actions, matters. We may not leave anyone feeling meaningless, disconnected, unwanted, thinking that their life, their day, is pointless. In our communities, each person is to be respected and welcomed for his or her human dignity and unique contribution, and treated with hesed, thoughtful and attentive kindness.
That’s not enough to heal all inner pain. But it’s where we have to start from, and just to get to that starting place would be an achievement requiring the participation of us all.