Hornbill Unleashed

September 2, 2014

Moments of introspection

Filed under: Alternatives,Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 8:00 AM
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CAPT DR THIRU JR

I JUST attended an international leadership conference at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre last week. I wrote this in the midst of mourning the victims of flight MH17 and the yet-to-be-found passengers and crew of MH370.

Like most Malaysians, I was dressed in a black suit and observed a minute’s silence, offering a silent and surrendered prayer.

At times like these, it is hard not to find yourself thinking of the fragility of human life. I have personally experienced the painful separation of loved ones through death i.e. the loss of both parents while I was still in school. My wife had also suffered similar tragedy, losing two of her only brothers early in life through vector-borne diseases.

Losing loved ones makes one appreciate life, which makes it natural for anyone to wonder why some people wish to cease living and take their own lives. I am no exception so this week, will attempt to address the pertinent issues surrounding one of the hardest things for us to talk about – suicide.

Suicide comes from the Latin suicidium, which means the act of intentionally causing one’s own death, an act apparently performed by up to one million persons on this planet each year. The ones who attempt it without succeeding can number up to ten times more.

The recent suicide of celebrated actor and one of my favourite comedians Robin Williams was especially hard to accept. Not just because he made me laugh, I was disturbed because he inspired me so much in his portrayal of John Keating in the movie Dead Poets’ Society.

John Keating was the archetype of all that I wanted in a schoolteacher. My own stint as a university lecturer was marked with many “John Keating” episodes, where I tried to manufacture inspiration in the eyes of my students – though I didn’t have to resort to tearing books or asking them to stand on tables!

Williams’ suicide was difficult not because he was special or exceptional to any other human life. It was tough simply because of the perceived meaninglessness of it, the fact that a person who lived to enrich others suddenly decided that life is no longer worth living.

What bothered me was this: What could be so bad that he felt there was simply no way not?

Traditional views on suicide were largely influenced by religion. Abrahamic faiths traditionally decreed that suicides were offences towards God owing to the belief in the sanctity of life.

It was even decreed to be the “work of the Devil” at the council of Arles in 452AD and further condemned over the centuries.

Judgmental attitudes improved since the Renaissance. Today, suicides are no longer demonised but rather seen to reflect a failure of human society to accord help to those who had given up. Yet they remain criminal offences in most countries, including ours.

Most still find suicides unacceptable under any circumstance while others (particularly those who believe in euthanasia or assisted suicides) feel that suicide is a sacrosanct right of any human who had made a conscious decision to end their lives.

In spite of popular belief, suicides are not always premeditated. Many instances are impulsive in nature, demonstrated by the fact that only about 15% of people actually leave a suicide note.

What is clear however is that there will usually be tell-tale signs. A history of previous suicide attempts is possibly its greatest predictor. Up to a fifth of all suicides have suffered at least one previous attempt.

There are a number of psychological reasons behind suicides but most are attributed to hopelessness from prolonged depression, sometimes characterised by traumatic life events such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job or forced social isolation.

The feeling of hopelessness is almost always the end result of recurrent major depressive episodes, resulting in persistent low moods, low self-esteem and loss of interest.

Depressed people tend to ruminate over thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, despair, guilt, regret and in severe cases, even self-hatred.

While suicide rates are yet to reach epidemic proportions in our country, we need to be sensitised towards the rising rates of both the young and old who increasingly tend to resort to suicide due to prolonged depression.

We need to focus on prevention on a larger scale by firstly identifying people who are suffering and then identifying the interventions necessary to help them.

While I am no expert in psychological assessment and counselling, I can attest that virtually all available literature suggests the same thing i.e. empathy or in essence, to make the sufferer feel less alone.

This is perhaps why there are fewer suicides reported during periods of severe human crisis. The indefatigable human spirit will seek to simply continue, to endure and to press on when it identifies with the suffering of another.

During the December 2004 tsunami, victims did not choose to end their lives even as the giant waves approached. They insisted on surviving.

During periods of severe drought in Africa, severely malnourished people on the brink of starvation did not choose to end their lives. They insisted on surviving.

In the midst of aerial bombardment and atrocities committed against innocents in Gaza, Syria or Iraq today, survivors didn’t choose to end their lives, in spite of the overwhelming odds stacked against them. They insisted on surviving.

As unpleasant as it sounds, the fact remains that resignation to despair and submission to suicidal thoughts almost always occur in times of relative peace and prosperity.

Why is this so?

Some physicians attribute this phenomenon to introspection i.e. the tendency to over-examine one’s own thoughts and feelings. Introspection is closely related to self-reflection.

While it may be necessary to occasionally stop and search from within, an over indulgence in self-reflection can produce the opposite effect of its intended benefits. This is because it is only human nature to treat one’s own introspective thoughts as reliable, while looking at the rest of the world from that biased angle.

For example, I might perceive my own sufferings to be worse than others, simply because I am unable to personally experience the other person’s sufferings.

People are incapable of assessing introspection bias of their own, which then misleads them at a subconscious level until they slowly start believing that they are suffering the most.

If I may be blunt, I would suggest that prolonged introspection during bouts of sadness or depression could be attributed to selfishness (albeit unintentional). Because aside from clinically-diagnosed severe depression, most (if not all of us), also suffer from depression every now and then.

For some of us it is a daily struggle, one awful day at a time.

A recently-deceased lady friend of mine who struggled with breast cancer spent her last three months in a hospice, helping other terminally-ill patients undergoing palliative care before she succumbed.

A drug-dependent church worker, currently incarcerated for trafficking drugs, is now leading several Christian-based cell groups in prison, helping others find forgiveness and reconciliation with their families and communities.

An elderly gentleman who lost a son in the ill-fated MH17 flight is now visiting the families of other victims, offering a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on and a tear to shed with.

I may not understand the specific issues, thought processes or neurotransmitter activity in persons seeking to end their lives.

What I do understand however is the continued need for us all to encourage and exhort one another, demonstrating that whatever the suffering, people are not alone in enduring them.

God bless you all.

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