Because of the grief faced by family and friends of those who commit suicide, many have called it a supremely selfish act. The truth is, suicidal thoughts come from a desire to relieve pain, not cause it.
Editors Note: This article was originally published on SethAdamSmith.com. It has been reprinted here with permission.
In 2006, I nearly succeeded in taking my life.
Six months later, I received a letter from a close friend. I half-expected it to be a letter of comfort. It was not. It was cutting. Of the many things which were written, I will only share two sentences: "I can't believe you tried to take your life. How could you be so selfish?"
As I held that letter with a trembling hand, I was immediately reminded of all the letters and notes I had written to my family and friends in the hour before I tried to end my life. In those notes, I tearfully expressed deep regret and remorse for what I was about to do. But, the pain had become so unbearable that I believed I was toxic — that my continued existence was actually hurting my family and friends. I sincerely believed that suicide was the only way to end the pain for myself and everyone associated with me.
Is that selfish?
And what of the tens of thousands of people whose emotional agony becomes so intense that it overrides their innate, natural desire to live? Are they selfish because they're consumed with a pain that won't go away? What about the people who attempt suicide as a desperate cry for help? Are they selfish for needing help? Is it selfish to feel like you're trapped in a burning building and your only escape is leaping from the window? Is it selfish to forget about how your death might hurt others?
I honestly don't know. It took me years to make sense of my own medical condition. How on earth could I accurately judge someone else's situation? Everyone's struggle is unique and there is so much that we just don't know.
But here's something I do know:
Calling someone selfish doesn't help
Calling someone selfish for being depressed and having suicidal thoughts doesn't help them recover. And calling someone selfish for committing suicide doesn't help their families and friends recover. It only encourages bitterness, resentment and guilt.
But do you know what does help?
Empathy. Reaching out and loving those who are in pain — suffering alongside those who suffer — that's what matters. That is the most helpful thing that anyone can do for another person.
The person that wrote me a letter and called me selfish nearly tore me apart. The words settled into my stomach like a razor blade. I couldn't sleep. I was consumed with guilt and a renewed sense of self-loathing.
About a week later, I received another letter — this one from my sister Shannon. Shannon is the oldest in our family and was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy. Her condition has caused her to struggle with a severe learning disability and has made it difficult for her to walk straight. Shannon is as gentle and innocent as a child and she's one of the most charitable and loving people I've ever known.
Here is part of the letter that Shannon wrote to me:
"Seth...Keep pressing forward. Your family loves you very much. Don't give up."
Can you feel the difference between the two letters? The first one cut me down while the second one lifted me up. I was so touched by Shannon's letter that I've carried it with me wherever I've gone (it's on the corner of my desk right now). And "pressing forward" and moving forward has since become my own personal motto.
I've seen a lot of comments and articles debating whether or not suicide is or isn't selfish. I would humbly suggest that you bring those questions to God, the Master Physician — for he is the only one that fully understands each unique situation. And instead of calling someone selfish for being depressed or suicidal, I would ask you to reach out to that person in love. Write them a letter and tell them that you love them and encourage them forward.
Take it from me: whatever the root of their problem is, empathy goes a long way to helping them move forward.