photo of fire

 David Foster Wallace on Suicide

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

― David Foster Wallace

This passage is from the novel, Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace, American author, essayist and professor of English and creative writing. Infinite Jest was listed by TIME magazine as one of  the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

David  struggled with depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts for many years and ultimately took his own life at the age of 46.

What I really like about this passage  is that it does a really good job of explaining the pain and misunderstanding around feeling suicidal in a very visual and easy to grasp way.  

As noted in my previous memento mori – Found Drowned – while we don’t usually  think of suicide when contemplating our own mortality, it’s not something we can ever rule out. We do not know what trauma or flames of agony lie ahead of us, that will change how we feel about suicide.

As we think on our own mortality we should not forget that as much as we may see suicide as something we would never do, that those who took their own lives often felt the same way as we do now, at an earlier point. We can use this awareness to be kinder to one another, to be supportive where we can and to look after ourselves in the here and now and build psychological resilience for what ever hard times lie ahead.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *