Has suicide become the pop culture flavor of the month?
Recent weeks produced an odd flurry of news stories suggesting that the notion of taking your own life suddenly seems courageous, respectable, even chic.
Consider the pathetic death of acclaimed "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It provoked wildly inflated estimations of his artistry -- Tom Wolfe anointed him the past century's "greatest comic writer in English" -- as well as mostly admiring remarks from his family about his decision to shoot a bullet into his head at age 67.
"This is a triumph of his, not a desperate, tragic failure," declared his 32-year-old wife, Anita, while noting that he ended his life at a time of only minor illness. His son and daughter-in-law told The Rocky Mountain News they "could not be prouder" of Thompson's bloody suicide. "The guy was a warrior, and he went out like a warrior," declared son Juan Thompson, while daughter-in-law Winkel added, "We're happy for Hunter."
Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave both of its "best movie" Oscars to films portraying assisted suicide in a sympathetic light: Million Dollar Baby took home the award as best picture (plus best director, best actress and best supporting actor) while the Spanish offering The Sea Inside won recognition as best foreign language film. On the entertainment industry's night of nights, millions of people saw glamorous figures in fairy-tale gowns and tuxes receiving standing ovations for telling intense stories of deeply endearing figures who longed explicitly for death and persuaded friends to help them get their wish.
Ironically enough, two days later a suicide-prevention conference in Portland, Ore., featured warnings of the disastrous rate of self-inflicted death: At 29,000 suicides a year (or about 80 a day), 50% more people now die by their own hand than as victims of murder. Among young people ages 15-24, suicide counts as the third leading cause of death. In the suburban Seattle community where I live, a 17-year-old honors student killed himself last week, and among his paralyzed family and friends, no one holds up this needless death as a "triumph."
Despite the visceral pain occasioned by such tragedies, the brute power of demographics suggests continued momentum for the trend to rationalize and glamorize suicide. As the oldest cohort of my baby-boom generation advances inexorably toward old age and infirmity, we will no doubt see increased emphasis on euthanasia as an acceptable (or supposedly "brave") means of coping with the pain and pessimism associated with the end of life. The disproportionate number of baby boomers in the population has helped us wield dominant cultural influence while redefining stylishness at every juncture in recent history.
As youthful "hippies," we sought out sexual adventure and thrilling drugs (à la Thompson); transformed into striving yuppies, we sanctified the finest cappuccino machines and home-theater systems; as middle-aged fitness nuts, we have resisted the aging process, dictating a society-wide obsession with experimental diet and exercise, not to mention Botox and Viagra. At each stage, our focus expressed the core values of hedonism. So, in years of diminishing pleasure and fun, it is entirely predictable that the children of the '60s should embrace life's deliberate termination as the quickest, surest means to reduce discomfort and suffering.
Fortunately, a timely example from an older generation offers a powerful counterweight to today's vogue for the "suicide solution."
In Rome, Pope John Paul II struggles nobly to overcome illness and to maintain, to whatever extent possible, his role in blessing and leading his flock. In refusing to surrender to his well-publicized frailties, he illustrates the important strain in Christian and Jewish tradition that cherishes life as a gift, not a choice, even at its vulnerable moments at the beginning or end of our human journey. In so doing, a fragile old man of singular integrity provides a lonely witness against hip, current notions of suicide as liberation, and teaches the world a precious lesson on the true meaning of death with dignity.