“Books saved my life,” writes young novelist and Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers in the opening to his recent NYT op-ed dramatically entitled, ״What kept me from killing myself.”
In this must-read for anyone seriously interested in understanding and preventing suicide, Powers describes months of a case-of-beer-a-day alcohol habit that succeeded in numbing his extraordinary psychological/spiritual pain, but that also left them with him with no joy or purpose — without anything to live for. And he describes how books helped him pull out of that incredibly dark place.
But Powers is hardly claiming that books are the solution to preventing suicide, a topic that is been on the minds of many in the wake of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s recent deaths.
Suicide is among the most painful and confusing ways to lose people. Thus, the desire to find clear formulas for identifying those at risk and preventing their deaths can be almost overwhelming, and we have thus seen a flood of easy answers and pat formulas come to social media and daytime television. Some of this energy has gotten channeled into people taking part in walks and other fundraising and consciously raising efforts put on by advocacy groups.
And, of course, raising money to help people is a good thing, but Powers’ account makes clear that the works of these kinds of single-issue groups would never have been able to reach him in his dark place. And Powers doesn’t even mean to hold up books as some kind of one-size-fits-all solution for deep mental anguish. In fact, he also makes clear that it isn’t really books that helped him; it was what he found inside of the words, a opportunity for relationship with other human beings. It came one day, seemingly at random, while he was reading the words of the poet Dylan Thomas. Powers writes:
“For the first time in a long while I recognized myself in another, and somehow that simple tether allowed me to slowly pull myself away from one of the most terrifying beliefs common to the kind of ailment I’m describing: that one is utterly alone, uniquely so, and that this condition is permanent.”
It sounds maybe a bit simplistic to say that relationship — relationship that breaks the sense that one is utterly alone — is what can help a person who is potentially suicidal. But I have to say that this role of relationship fits my life story as well.
I spent much of my teenage and adult lives thinking about taking my own life. And, despite the tremendous difference in our respective life stories, there’s real resonance around how the Powers and I each experienced what this state was like and how each of us was able to choose to stay alive in the face of it. And here’s where those of you who have never been to this place for an extended period of time should really listen. Because, the fact is, suicide was probably the most rational thing I could have done during that time of my life, and there is nothing rational about what saved me (or Powers, I think).
That is, it just hurt to be alive. Life was nothing but pain. Joy was rare and far between. And no one could show me any path to an end to that pain. Suicide would not have been the proverbial “permanent solution to a temporary problem,” as no one could have provided me with any convincing proof that my problem was indeed temporary.
I think of Torah as having saved me. Not because of any ideas that were in there about suicide, but because of what they taught me about ethics and about my responsibility to not hurt others, especially members of my family.
Even if suicide was indeed the rational answer for me, I could not say it was the rational or ethical answer for the people who cared about me. Basic ethics that I understood about the Torah I had been raised with told me to value my relationships with my family, no matter how broken those relationships actually were.
In time, Torah came to help me learn to appreciate life in new and complex ways that I have found sustaining. I think Powers found something similar in his deepening relationship with books after Thomas’ words started to awaken something in him:
“[O]ver the following months, the tether to the world outside my mind was made stronger by other books, until I came to the belief that the whole range of human experience, including suffering and pain, when witnessed or shared, could be transformed into a kind of transcendent awe.”
That sense of everything, including suffering and pain, somehow adding up to a beautiful whole beyond rational conception sits at the core of my own spirituality. It is what I see when I read in the Talmud of the two rabbis who together sit crying over their shared awareness that even the most beautiful among them will one day rot in the earth. Decay and death are a holy decree that is part of what life is for us. It is sad — and sometimes it drives me even to a rageful cry of protest against it — but it is also an inseparable part of the beauty of the whole pattern. Such beauty. And so my tears that I also shed in hearing the Talmud’s “Give Me Your Hand” story of the two rabbis and their sick beds are not just ones of sadness, they are also ones of profound awe.
Can awe take the pain of living away? I don’t think Powers is really addressing that question, at least not directly. But he does seem to believe strongly that it is not so much a “brain chemical imbalance” that causes the kind of (trauma-influenced) depression he had, as conventional wisdom and its near-worship of antidepressants would have us believe. Rather, he thinks there is something about our relationship with the self. He writes, in the continuation of the quote from above, “In a strange way, the same impulse that led me toward self-destruction — the desire to erase the self — was still at work in my life. What changed was that I started to see immersion in a book as a reliable alternative to drink or death.”
The desire to erase the self. It sounds almost like a description of the motivation for suicide. But Powers is understanding it instead both as a path towards a release from psychological/spiritual pain and as a path towards finding awe at creation.
Here, Powers is reminding me of a French philosopher I have been studying — Gilles Deleuze — whose 20th century work was an effort to revive and extend the work of the great, and highly controversial to this day, Jewish philosopher of 17th century Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza. Deleuze gives us a way of understanding our path through life of one of moving towards dissolving without annihilating.
That is, we are looking to dissolve our demanding, egotistical self in the sea that is everything and everybody, while not allowing our individual existence or consciousness to be erased. The purpose of dissolving is not so much relief from pain, but it does have that effect. The path of wisdom is to try and find a way towards that less anxious, less painful existence while still truly remaining our unique selves, crafted in the image of the One God, while yet appearing like no other individual vessel created out of that mold. So much of the spiritualities of all the religions of the world — no matter their many deep differences — have a path to ultimate wisdom that looks something like the one suggested by the work of Deleuze and Spinoza before him, paths that involve something of the dissolving the individual self in a greater sea of existence.
Is philosophy then the path to preventing suicide? Maybe it is for one particular person in the way “books” were for Powers. But the key lesson here is, I think, that there are no easy answers. No one — least of all his family members, I would think — could have predicted Powers’ path back from his darkest place, nor facilitated it happening. He had to find his own way.
What we can do is remain truly available to the suffering when they are ready to come back and be willing and able to help them re-enter a more normal life. Patience isn’t easy, but it may be all we have.