Why I Decided Not to Kill Myself
Hamlet was depressed, and seriously so.
His father, the king of Denmark, had been murdered by his uncle, the king’s brother. If that loss were not enough, the uncle, now the king, took Hamlet’s newly widowed mother as his wife.
The whole sordid affair plays on Hamlet’s mind especially the way his mother has behaved. She quickly “moved on” and wed, without knowing it of course, his father’s murderer. Hamlet is soured on women and marriage in general. His feelings of love for Ophelia, to whom he had given his love, has become a source of anguish for the young man, so much so that he will say to her: “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
Hamlet was desperate; he did not know what to do. He had learned about the truth of his father’s murder by the ghost of his father. This was not the sort of evidence that could be brought to light and believed. Hamlet felt absolutely alone and very angry.
Not seeing any way out of his torment, he contemplates suicide. If he could simply cease to exist—it might be the answer. So then he utters the famous words, “To be, or not to be…” perhaps Shakespeare’s most repeated verse. If he could only die, sleep, be no more, then the heartaches, the shocks, and all the suffering humans are prone to experience might vanish.
But his mind will not let him off that easily. There was the possibility he might dream—and this thought gives him pause.
“The dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of…”
Hamlet’s question of whether it is better to live or die is one nearly all human beings will ask themselves. I have. Perhaps you have. Perhaps you know someone who you suspect might be thinking along such tragic lines.
My brother Gary came back from the war in Vietnam wounded in mind and spirit. What he experienced as a combat engineer there in the year 1968 robbed him of his ability to work through his pain. Though his other brother and I and our parents sought to encourage him and give him new hope, we failed, or rather we were not able to break through to the place he had gone to hide, and one morning he drove his Volkswagen Beatle to a nearby Lutheran hospital in the San Fernando Valley, parked under an American flag, and shot himself. Forty-one years later my brother Bruce and I (our parents are gone now) can still become immersed in sadness discussing the suicide of our beloved little brother. (His picture is below.)
The sorrow of that event, mixed with many other suicides I have come to know as a pastor of churches, is the reason I am writing this book. The killing of oneself is all too common. It seems we read of one in the newspapers every day. Perhaps it is not epidemic, but it is common. And we must speak of it; it must come to the light so that it is in some way stripped of its power.
Let's talk about it
If people can talk about their feelings of suicide, it may be a step away from the pain and hopelessness that most often lie behind the desire to kill oneself. It seemed to me that a book with such a title as this one might be useful. It seemed to me that if I could find some people who were willing to talk about why they decided not to kill themselves, when they in fact had seriously contemplated doing just that, it might be incorporated into a book that would be believable, a book I would feel good about giving to others who are in a desperate place.
I have gone to several groups of people for their stories. First, I asked for help from convicts at San Quentin Prison at San Quentin, California. I have been a volunteer there, in a number of capacities, for twenty-seven years. For the last fourteen years I have been the baseball coach there and have gotten to know a number of the men fairly well. When I broached the idea of the book and asked for their help, many came through and provided some solid material I could use for this book.
Second, for the past twenty-five years I have led a “Divorce Recovery and Loss” workshop, sponsored by the church I pastor, Miller Avenue Baptist Church in Mill Valley, California. Upon request, many of the alumni have prepared stories of their struggles associated with divorce, separation, and death and how it is that they decided not to kill themselves.
Third, I asked people who attend Miller Avenue if anyone has a story to contribute.
Fourth, the local newspaper ran a story on the project I was engaged in and invited anyone to anonymously send something to me on the theme.
The result was quite a good number of communications.
The stories of people who have seriously considered suicide will be woven into some of my own thinking about Hamlet’s dilemma, “to be or not to be.” This is the question we will look at in the chapters ahead.