August 27, 2014

Listening, and Being There, without Judgment

A number of people have sent me emails in response to my post the other day, more than is usually the case. I'm enormously grateful to all those who wrote, and I especially appreciate their sharing very intimate, and occasionally painful and even frightening, personal matters with me. Some of the messages moved me deeply.

As I was reflecting on one particular aspect of these messages, I had a very odd thought. "Wait a minute," I mused. "Do some of these people think that I view suicide as a good thing?" I found the idea enormously upsetting. So I looked over my post again. I wrote that I regard any suicide as a "horrible and horrifying tragedy." The same idea is repeated several times in the course of the essay; the article as a whole unmistakably conveys the idea that when anyone is driven to suicide, it is a terrible, awful calamity.

As an important side note, I add that I think it is a terrible, awful thing even in those instances when suicide is an entirely rational decision -- when, if you will, taking one's own life might even be regarded as the "right" action to take. I'm thinking in particular of the person who murders another human being (or more than one person), and does so not in self-defense, but as a act of gratuitous, unspeakable cruelty. When you have killed an innocent human being, it is impossible to make amends in any complete sense: you cannot bring the person back to life. It is an irreversible crime, one for which atonement is impossible. In such cases, if a person finally grasped the nature of what he had done, including the fact that he could never make amends in any way that would approach the full meaning of that term, I would consider the person's decision to kill himself as completely rational. I would still view it as an awful tragedy for all concerned, most particularly for those who had been the murderer's victims. I further note that this is one unassailable reason that no one should join the military -- or, these days, probably the police department or any other agency that utilizes lethal force -- of a government which murders innocent people with the systematic regularity employed. for example, by the United States government.

Much has been written about the suicides of U.S. military personnel. But this is one critical issue -- and in many ways, I think it is the critical issue -- that I have never seen discussed: How do you make peace with the fact that you have murdered entirely innocent people, people who never wished to harm you, if only your government had left them the hell alone? How do you make amends to their families and friends, to all those who lives have been grievously wounded for the remainder of their lifetimes? Such torments will certainly be felt by those who kill innocent people themselves, but they also might very well be experienced by those who provide indirect, but necessary, support to the murderers. That is, these people will be tormented if and when the full reality and nature of their actions begins to take definite form in their minds and souls. Given the rash of unprovoked, aggressive military operations undertaken by the U.S. government around the world, and in light of the huge number of utterly unjustified murders that are an inextricable element of such operations, is it any wonder that so many people in the U.S. military suffer the torments of hell? Aside from the meaningless, vacuous phrases often associated with religious or quasi-religious viewpoints, what comfort can anyone offer them?

When I thought about the messages I received concerning my post a bit longer, I realized that it wasn't that my correspondents thought I viewed suicide as a "good" thing, for I clearly don't. They obviously don't think it's a good thing, either. What I had picked up was enormously important, but for a very different reason: the people who sent me messages did so out of a profound feeling of relief. They knew they were writing to someone who would not judge what they wished to say about these matters, who would only listen as openly and compassionately as he could. And that, of course, was one of my central themes in that essay. In my own case, readers know that I myself have experienced episodes of deep depression, including thoughts of suicide. But it's not necessary for the listener to have had these feelings and lived through such episodes. What is necessary is that the listener be entirely open to what the person wishes to tell him, and that he do so in a completely non-judgmental way.

In the previous article, I wrote that some of those people who strongly condemned Robin Williams for his suicide claim that they offer such condemnation to "help" others who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts; in some way, they consider it a helpful preventive measure. I said that this could not be the real reason, and that I would take up this question again. Think about it for a moment. A person who is thinking of suicide -- even if he does not have a specific plan in mind (I never did) -- is in the depths of unimaginable despair. He is also assaulted by feelings of inadequacy, of worthlessness, even of self-hatred and self-loathing. For all these reasons and more, he is immensely vulnerable and suggestible. And you're going to help him by vehemently condemning him for what are, at this point, only thoughts, and often only partially-formed thoughts? You're going to tell him: "To commit suicide is the act of a coward. It's weak, and it's selfish. And it's incredibly cruel to all those who care about you." This is going to help him?

To the extent he believes you, and given his tremendous vulnerability it is all too likely he will, he'll conclude that he now has still more reasons to kill himself. He's much more worthless and even loathsome that he himself had thought. He's thinking of suicide! What a terrible, disgusting, horrible person he is! Obviously, he should kill himself immediately.

I underscore that the person who claims he is trying to "help" in this particular manner adds a new, devastating element to the unbearably painful feelings of despair and helplessness that the sufferer already endures: the "helper" is piling an enormous amount of guilt onto feelings that are already unendurable. If he believes that he is weak, selfish and cruel for even having thoughts about suicide, he'll hate himself still more.

As I indicated, all these observations should become apparent after even a few moments of serious thought about the subject. And yet, we know that many people -- actually, I would say most people -- offer "help" of this kind in varying ways and degrees. There is an explanation for this, but it is an explanation that many people do not care to consider. A story will help to make the explanation clearer. It's not my story: it's one that Alice Miller tells in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Here are two brief excerpts from Miller's chapter entitled, "Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering." Miller writes:
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear.
In the book of Plath's letters, her mother relates that a pastel still-life of Sylvia's gets blurred accidentally when an apron brushes up against it. Sylvia said, "Don't worry, I can patch it up" -- but later that night, she wrote her first poem, "containing tragic undertones." Plath was fourteen.

Miller goes on:
If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression -- symbolized in the fate of the pastel -- the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self -- at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child -- -- well behaved and dutiful -- of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me. This can be observed in various parental attitudes.
Let me repeat the two most crucial sentences from these passages:
Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person.
We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self -- at the expense of life itself.
The vast majority of parents are not concerned with attending to their child's genuine, firsthand emotions and needs, certainly not to any consistent degree. Instead, they are concerned with behaving "properly" and "correctly," with acting and even feeling the "right" way. They first learned this as children, when their own parents made the same demands of them. And now, they make identical demands of their children.

While I would not claim this is the explanation in every case, it is certainly the explanation for the majority of parents who behave as Plath's mother did (which is most of them), and it is also the explanation for all those who rush to condemn the person who kills himself. As I have observed, if we make real to ourselves the immense, unbearable pain experienced by someone who considers suicide, however briefly and in however vague a manner, we would quickly realize that the absolute last thing we would wish to do is add to their suffering, by criticizing them for cowardice, weakness, and the like. This is not a sophisticated, complex point encountered only in advanced texts on therapeutic techniques: it is simple common sense, a matter of what could be everyday understanding. But most of us are so bound up in the commandments imposed on us by our parents, and then internalized within us as we grow to adulthood when they are only very rarely dislodged, that we have rendered ourselves impervious to ideas that would otherwise be grasped quite easily.

There remain many additional issues to discuss about this subject, and I will shortly take up a few more of them. For the moment, I'll conclude with some thoughts I offered once before:
Finally, here's some unsolicited advice. If anyone you know ever makes a tentative effort to discuss obviously painful feelings with you, and perhaps even thoughts of suicide, do not judge them, do not condemn them, and above all, do not attempt in any way to shut them down. Listen, listen as carefully as you can -- and communicate to the person in every manner possible that there is someone who cares about them, who hears and sees the pain they are in, and who wants to help, if you can. Just be there, as a friend, as someone who empathizes, and make real to yourself what their pain feels like.

Just be there, with understanding, with compassion, with affection or love, as the case may be. As Miller indicates, be open to what the person is telling you. Sometimes, just being there, being there in the most meaningful sense, is the hardest thing in the world to do -- and the most important.

And perhaps, someday, the horrors will end. I still choose to believe in miracles.
Now, more than ten years later, I feel exactly the same way. That passage is from an article I published in February 2004, when I first related the Sylvia Plath story as discussed by Alice Miller. While my understanding of these issues has thankfully increased in the past decade, just as I have encountered (and sometimes written about) many other examples of these same dynamics, I did a decent job all those years ago. Perhaps the presentation is more effective this time, if only because Robin Williams' tragic death is still so recent.

Until next time.