“If one advances confidently in the direction of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Dum vivimus, vivamus…while we live, let us live. Indeed. Let us add as much value to our lives as possible, create happiness and increase it, for ourselves and for others, with love and trust in our abilities, with optimism and courage.
Sounds good, doesn’t it. And yet often we do the exact opposite…we give up and retreat, because let’s face it, times can be tough and circumstances very challenging. And so, at such times, we end up committing little suicides. I call them little not to minimize their tragic impact, but because they don’t literally kill us (although we can debate the definition of life if what gives it value is destroyed) and because these smaller acts of destruction are reversible.
On a few occasions over the years, I’ve sat and talked to people who were seriously contemplating suicide. Families and friends were alerted, professional help was provided, and they lived. I will never forget those conversations. To witness someone so convinced that their death is worth more than their life is terrifying. And aside from those difficult emotional memories, I am left with two questions people asked, questions I’ve asked myself a few times since, in moments of crisis when I struggled to find answers and direction.
The reasons people contemplate suicide are many. Among them, a profound sense of general hopelessness and helplessness, feeling trapped in a terrible situation, feeling unloved and incompetent or worthless, being unable to overcome one or a series of perceived failures, lacking a sense of control over circumstances, lacking confidence in the ability to overcome adversity and achieve goals (because of personal and external reasons), lacking interest in the future or in contributing, and the inability to see any positive outcomes or options.
Notice anything? Are these not basically the same reasons we use to justify abandoning some of our most precious and worthy dreams, plans, projects, opportunities and relationships? Are these not the same reasons that prevent us from trusting that we can add true value to our lives, that we are competent and can achieve goals even in the most difficult of circumstances? Are these not the reasons that we use to rob ourselves of trust, hope and ultimately success? And by embracing these reasons, are we not committing suicide in whatever area of our lives we apply them to?
The first question I was asked by those who felt death was the only answer left was “what is there to live for?” (given so and so circumstances). In other words, what did they have to live for, and in general, what is the value in living in a world filled with danger, tragedy, pain and obstacles? A quote by Thoreau came and comes to mind: “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it, and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.” Let me just say that this quote did not get me the suddenly enlightened, cheerful reaction I had hoped for. And there was another question to come.
Still, I build on that quote, and after exhausting and lengthy discussions about opportunities, trust, the thrill of discovery, the joy of contributing and of connection, the rewards of growth, love, sharing, and feeling empowered through overcoming adversity, there came the second question: “But why?”
If that’s not the ultimate downer, I don’t know what is. I swear there isn’t a more exasperating question in this world than that which asks why we should care or bother…what’s the point, why make the effort, why try, why hope, why love, why anything….because after all, life is full of hardships, the only guarantees are, as they say, taxes and an expiration date (and that I’ll put on make-up), and often we face seemingly insurmountable odds. And what is the point of trying if even the best things in life cause some level of distress and nothing is perfect anyway…
My immediate answer was “because life involves struggle alongside happiness, and if we want to succeed, we need to work hard, trust ourselves, and accept that nothing of value is ever easy or perfect”. A lot of good that answer did. That terrible question came again…in another form…”But what for?”
I can not describe the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that landed on me like a ton of bricks after I had literally poured out my heart and soul into a ‘life value presentation’ for these people I cared about, using examples of adversity from my own life…and I had plenty. They looked at me, it seemed, with something that resembled satisfaction….as if my sudden silence had validated their outlook and decision.
And then I realized the answer to why is none other than the original question of “what is it you (we) live for? If one has a reason, or hopefully many more than one, it implies one automatically understands exactly why life is worth living, why value is worth creating, why things are worth fighting for in spite of any and all setbacks.
Although the conversations with myself and others these days are nowhere as dramatic as those I had with people contemplating suicide, I realize that often, I am talking about little suicides, and dealing with the same basic reasoning that leads people to contemplate that desperate and ultimately selfish act of ending their lives. And I remember how they all protested my labeling their intention as the ultimate selfishness.
All those reasons for not living can be explained in those extreme cases by the presence of severe trauma, physical pain, extreme abuse, serious chemical imbalances, severe chronic depression and so on. But in cases where otherwise well-functioning and privileged individuals simply retreat and selectively apply healthy reasoning to only certain aspects of our lives, allowing ourselves to sabotage meaningful goals and embrace irrational negativity while knowing better, we really have no excuse.
Because we do know value, we do know why realism includes optimism, why effort eventually pays off, why no matter what the circumstances, when there is a will, there is always a way. And these are not just empty words, but the basis (tested and proven) for creating value in life, living fully, with authenticity, gratitude and joy. Yes, we will falter and we must accept imperfection, struggle, and challenge…but we must also accept rewards, success, and embrace any opportunity to create happiness and add value to our lives.