I have been reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s, ‘On the Suffering of the World’, and have been quietly astounded as to how readily it has conjured up a fresh perception of the human condition. Even a serial optimist such as myself is carefully guided to connect the dots, revealing what is already quite evident; the futility of humanity’s struggles against an unforgiving, meaningless world.
But through these collections of essays came a reasoning that, sadly, can be framed in a 21st Century context. The tragic death of Caroline Flack provoked a gut-wrenching public reaction, and it feels like too many are being pushed to cutting their own lives short. In the inquiry that will take place to dissect the contributing factors in her death, a blame game will inevitably ensue. The role the mainstream media played, the public hanging of her private life on social media, the delay before trial and the CPS’ prosecution procedures will all be under close examination, but one thing is regrettably clear; a young woman was driven to her death feeling that there was no escape route from the situation she had found herself in.
This is the heart of the tragedy in all of this.
The stigma of suicide being a selfish act committed by fragile souls has unfortunately remained intact, partly due to the feeling of helplessness and devastation that those left behind never completely recover from. It is too difficult for those left behind to even begin contemplating the possibility of being able to have prevented such a catastrophic event from happening, and maybe one of the many ways we attempt to cope is by depicting those we have lost as mentally distant from us and too far gone with the demons that haunt them.
But Schopenhauer thought differently. He saw those that took the choice to take their own lives as those who took steps to actively deal with their suffering, and analogised it to a person waking up from the most terrible of nightmares. This, of course, does little to console those who are left behind, but one of his justifications for reaching this unsettling conclusion is the futility of great suffering, which he deemed to be one of the main commonalities between those who take their own life. The emptiness and calm that must have enveloped someone to judge their existence as not paramount anymore is an indication that suicide is not a rash, momentary lapse. It is a considered calculation and is the antithesis of hope, which is the giver of our reasons to continue on through the blustering futility. It is not simply unhappiness or crippling depression that typically allows the entertainment of such an act of last resort; it is the lack of a pathway out of the darkness that has swallowed a person’s entire life.
Those who perpetuate the stigma of suicide may assert that there is always a way out, and that the act of suicide definitively robs a person from the chance of their life improving. But such a person must therefore underestimate the effect of not just suffering in general, but suffering in silence and in confinement. The ability of those who are troubled to speak candidly and openly about how they feel to their friends and family is becoming more unrestricted, but has historically been a taboo topic full of misunderstanding. Men in particular have found expressing thoughts of a grave nature to be unmanageable, and we are seeing the impact of this with the worrying suicide rate of men under 40. The death of Molly Russell at the age of 14 signified a growing concern for parents of young children especially, which reflects that this is a problem not confined to just celebrities or men; it affects us all.
And although the silence around mental health is gradually being lifted, confinement when dealing with personal issues has become worse. The amplifying effect of social media should not be underestimated, where negative perceptions of one’s self can distort the true nature of things, and paints an apocalyptic reality in which the entire world appears to want you gone. I can only imagine the extent of the confinement that Flack experienced, given her public profile and the incessant media coverage. Critics will argue that given that she had built her career in the media and had continued to use public forums to flourish, that she should be expected to take additional negative publicity by virtue of her public status. To these critics, I would reiterate the need to change the values we portray, rather than simply accepting the state of affairs that have existed thus far.
No one is above scrutiny, but no one should be below dignity.
Because if we are being honest with ourselves, this is not the fault of the ‘papers, social media platforms or the other significant external factors. It is us. We revel in the downfall of other flawed, well-intentioned people like ourselves, whether that be in witch trials that swept Europe and Colonial America in the 17th Century or cancelling celebrities for past transgressions on social media in the 21st Century. There is no doubt that there are institutions that facilitate this, but they only continue to facilitate this because we as a society have an insatiable desire to mud-sling and violently degrade other human beings, with no consideration for the value in the life of the victim of our twisted sport. The sad realisation that many who will be publicly calling for reform and discussion of measures to prevent this from happening again are most likely the same group of people who will have closely read updates of her private life unfold by accessing click-bait hit-pieces.
I used to believe that if you had committed a mistake publicly, it would be reasonable for you had to anticipate a public backlash. On closer, more careful consideration, that opinion was predicated on being brought up seeing that public condemnation, even the most severe, eventually paved the way for redemption, reformation and a chance to be re-introduced into civil society. I saw public figures routinely make mistakes and be given opportunities to redeem themselves. In hindsight, the public treatment of figures such as Monica Lewinsky and Princess Diana seemed to pave the way for the intrusive culture we see today.
Increasingly it is becoming the case that these pathways are being obscured or retracted altogether for those human enough to make a mistake in today’s toxic climate. If we do not seek to refrain from humiliation and covering those in most need of support with unbreakable shackles, then we become active facilitators in people’s fatal suffering.
“Suicide does not mean there was no killer.”