Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World

“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man.  Society highly values its normal man.  It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal.  Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.  Our behavior is a function of our experience.  We act the way we see things.  If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive.  If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.”

– R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, 1967

“The artist is the man who refuses initiation through education into the existing order, remains faithful to his own childhood being, and thus becomes ‘a human being in the spirit of all times, an artist.’”

– Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

Most suicides die of natural causes, slowly and in silence.

But we hear a lot about the small number of suicides, by comparison, who kill themselves quickly by their own hands.  Of course their sudden deaths elicit shock and sadness since their deaths, usually so unexpected even when not a surprise, allow for no return.  Such sudden once-and-for-all endings are even more jarring in a high-tech world where people are subconsciously habituated to thinking that everything can be played back, repeated, and rewound, even lives.

If the suicides are celebrities, the mass media can obsess over why they did it.  How shocking!  Wasn’t she at the peak of her career?  Didn’t he finally seem happy?  And then the speculative stories will appear about the reasons for the rise or fall of suicide rates, only to disappear as quickly as the celebrities are dropped by the media and forgotten by the public.

The suicides of ordinary people will be mourned privately by their loved ones in their individual ways and in the silent recesses of their hearts.  A hush will fall over their departures that will often be viewed as accidental.

And the world will roll on as the earth absorbs the bodies and the blood.  “Where’s it all going all this spilled blood,” writes the poet Jacques Prévert.  “Murder’s blood…war’s blood… blood of suicides…the earth that turns and turns with its great streams of blood.”

Of such suicides Albert Camus said, “Dying voluntarily implies you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit [of living], the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”  He called this feeling the absurd, and said it was widespread and involved the feeling of being an alien or stranger in a world that couldn’t be explained and didn’t make sense.  Assuming this experience of the absurd, Camus wished to explore whether suicide was a solution to it.  He concluded that it wasn’t.

Like Camus, I am interested in asking what is the meaning of life.  “How to answer it?” he asked in The Myth of Sisyphus.  He added that “the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”  But I don’t want to explore his line of reasoning to his conclusions, whether to agree or disagree.  I wish, rather, to explore the reasons why so many people choose to commit slow suicide by immersing themselves in the herd mentality and following a way of life that leads to inauthenticity and despair; why so many people so easily and early give up their dreams of a life of freedom for a proverbial mess of pottage, which these days can be translated to mean a consumer’s life, one focused on staying safe by embracing conventional bromides and making sure to never openly question a system based on systemic violence in all its forms; why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many people embrace getting and spending and the accumulation of wealth in the pursuit of a chimerical “happiness” that leaves them depressed and conscience dead.  Why so many people do not rebel but wish to take their places on this ship of fools.

So what can we say about the vast numbers of people who commit slow suicide by a series of acts and inactions that last a long lifetime and render them the living dead, those whom Thoreau so famously said were the mass of people who “lead lives of quiet desperation”?  Is the meaning of life for them simply the habit of living they fell into at the start of life before they thought or wondered what’s it all about?  Or is it the habit they embraced after shrinking back in fear from the disturbing revelations thinking once brought them?  Or did they ever seriously question their place in the lethal fraud that is organized society, what Tolstoy called the Social Lie?  Why do so many people kill their authentic selves and their consciences that could awaken them to break through the social habits of thought, speech, and action that lead them to live “jiffy lube” lives, periodically oiled and greased to smoothly roll down the conventional highway of getting and spending and refusing to resist the murderous actions of their government?

An unconscious despair rumbles beneath the frenetic surface of American society today.  An unspoken nothingness.  I think the Italian writer Robert Calasso says it well: “The new society is an agnostic theocracy based on nihilism.”  It’s as though we are floating on nothing, sustained by nothing, in love with nothing – all the while embracing any thing that a materialistic, capitalist consumer culture can throw at us.  We are living in an empire of illusions, propagandized and self-deluded.  Most people will tell you they are stressed and depressed, but will often add – “who wouldn’t be with the state of the world” – ignoring their complicity through the way they have chosen compromised, conventional lives devoid of the spirit of rebellion.

I keep meeting people who, when I ask them how they are, will respond by saying, “I’m hanging in there.”

Don’t common sayings intimate unconscious truths?  Hang – among its possible derivatives is the word “habit” and the meaning of “coming to a standstill.”  Stuck in one’s habits, dangling over nothing, up in the air, going nowhere, hanging by a string. Slow suicides. The Beatles’ sang it melodically: “He’s a real nowhere man/Sitting in his nowhere land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody/Doesn’t have a point of view/Knows not where he’s going to/Isn’t he a bit like you and me.”  It’s a far cry from having “the world on a string,” as Harold Arlen wrote many years before.

Maybe if we listen to how people talk or what popular culture throws up, we will learn more through creative associations than through all the theories the experts have to offer.

There have been many learned tomes over the years trying to explain the act of suicide, an early and very famous one being Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological analysis Suicide (1897).  In thousands of books and articles other thinkers have approached the subject from various perspectives – psychological, philosophical, biological, etc.  They contain much truth and a vast amount of data that appeal to the rational mind seeking general explanations.  But in the end, general explanations are exactly that – general – while a mystery usually haunts the living whose loved ones have killed themselves.

But what about the slow suicides, those D. H. Lawrence called the living dead (don’t let “the living dead eat you up”), those who have departed the real world for a conscienceless complacency from which they can cast aspersions on those  whose rebellious spirits give them little rest.  Where are the expert disquisitions about them?

We’ve had more than a century of pseudo-scientific studies of suicide and the world has gotten much worse.  More than a century of psychotherapy and people have grown progressively more depressed.  Large and increasing numbers are drugged to the teeth with pharmaceutical drugs and television and the internet and cell phones and shopping and endless talk about food and diets and sports and nothing. Talk to talk, surface to surface. Pundits pontificate daily in streams of endless bullshit for which they are paid enormous sums as they smile with their fake whiter-than-white teeth flashing from their makeup masks.  People actually listen to these fools to “inform” themselves. They even watch television news and think they know what is happening in the world.  We are drowning in a “universe of disembodied data,” as playwright John Steppling has so aptly phrased it.  People obsessively hover over their cell phones, searching for the key that will unlock the cells they have locked themselves in. Postliteracy, mediated reality, and digital dementia have become the norm.  Minds are packaged and commodified.  Perhaps you think I exaggerate, but I feel that madness is much more the norm today than when Laing penned his epigraphic comment.

Not stark raving screaming madness, just a slow, whimpering acceptance of an insane society whose very fabric is toxic and which continues its God-ordained mission of spreading death and destruction around the world in the name of freedom and democracy, while so many of its walking dead citizens measure out their lives with coffee spoons.  A nice madness, you could say, a pleasant, depressed and repressed madness.  A madness in which people might say with T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock (if they still read or could remember):  “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, / and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.”

But why are so many so afraid?  Everyone has fears, but so many normal people seem extremely fearful, so fearful they choose to blend into the social woodwork so they don’t stand out as dissenters or oddballs.  They kill their authentic selves; become conscience-less.  And they do this in a society where their leaders are hell-bent on destroying the world and who justify their nuclear madness at every turn. I think Laing was right that this goes back to our experience.  When genuine experience is denied or mystified (it’s now disappeared into digital reality), real people disappear.  Laing wrote:

In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex, we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses.  Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste our sanity.  We begin with the children.  It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks.  Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high I. Q.’s if possible.   From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, as their parents and their parents before them, have been.  These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of it potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful.  By the time the new human is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world.  This is normality in our present age. Love and violence, properly speaking, are polar opposites.  Love lets the other be, but with affection and concern.  Violence attempts to constrain the other’s freedom, to force him to act in the way we desire, but with ultimate lack of concern, with indifference to the other’s own existence or destiny.  We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love…We live equally out of our bodies and out of our minds.

So yes, I do think most people are victims.  No one chooses their parents, or to be born into poverty, or to be discriminated against for one’s race, etc.  No one chooses to have their genuine experience poisoned from childhood.  No one chooses to be born into a mad society.  This is all true.  Some are luckier than others.  Suicides, fast and slow, are victims.  But not just victims.  This is not about blame, but understanding.  For those who commit to lives of slow suicide, to the squelching of their true selves and their consciences in the face of a rapacious and murderous society, there is always the chance they can break with the norm and go sane.  Redemption is always possible.  But it primarily involves overcoming the fear of death, a fear that manifests itself in the extreme need to preserve one’s life, so-called social identity, and sense of self by embracing social conventions, no matter how insane they may be or whether or not they bring satisfaction or fulfillment.  Whether or not they give life a meaning that goes deep.

But for those who have taken their lives and are no longer among us, hope is gone.  But we can learn from their tragedies if we are truthful.   For them the fear of life was primary, and death seemed like an escape from that fear. Life was too much for them.  Why?  We must ask.  So they chose a life-in-death approach through fast suicide.  Everyone is joined to them in that fear, just as everyone is joined by the fear of death.  It is a question of which dominates, and when, and how much courage we can muster to live daringly.  The fear of death leads one to constrict one’s life in the safe surround of conventional society in the illusion that such false security will save one in the end.  Death is too much for them.  So they accept a death-in-life approach that I call slow suicide.

But in the end as in the beginning and throughout our lives, there is really no escape.  The more alive we are, the closer death feels because really living involves risks and living outside the cocoon of the social lie. Mr. Pumpkin Head might seize you, whether he is conceived as your boss, an accident, disease, social ostracism, or some government assassin.  But the deader we feel, the further away death seems because we feel safe.  Pick your poison.

But better yet, perhaps there is no need to choose if we can regain our genuine experience that parents and society, for different reasons, conspire to deny us.  Could the meaning of our lives be found, not in statements or beliefs, but in true experience?  Most people think of experience as inner or outer.  This is not true.  It is a form of conventional brainwashing that makes us schizoid. It is the essence of the neuro-biological materialism that reduces humans to unfree automatons. Proffered as the wisdom of the super intelligent, it is sheer stupidity.

All experience is in-between, not the most eloquent of phrasing, I admit, but accurate.  Laing, a psychiatrist, puts it in the same way as do the mystics and those who embrace the Tao.  He says, “The relation of my experience to behavior is not that of inner to outer.  My experience is not inside my head.  My experience of this room is outside in this room.  To say that my experience is intrapsychic is to presuppose that there is a psyche that my experience is in.  My psyche is my experience, my experience is my psyche.”  Reverie, imagination, prayer, dream, etc. are as much outer as inner, they are modalities of experience that exist in-between.  We live in-between, and if we could experience that, we would realize the meaning of life and our connection to all living beings, including those our government massacres daily, and we would awaken our consciences to our complicity in the killing.  We would realize that the victims of the American killing machine are human beings like us; are us, and we, them.  We would rebel.

Thoreau said a life without principle was not worth living.  Yet for so many of the slow suicides the only principals they ever had were those they had in high school.  Such word confusion is understandable when illiteracy is the order of the day and spelling passé. Has anyone when in high school ever had Thoreau’s admonition drummed into his head: “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse.”  Of course not, since getting a “good” living is never thought to involve living in an honest, inviting, and honorable way.  It is considered a means to an end, the end being a consumer’s paradise.  “As for the means of living,” Thoreau added, “it is wonderful how indifferent men of all classes are about it, even reformers, so called – whether they inherit, or earn, or steal it.”  Is it any wonder so many people end up committing slow suicide?  “Is it that men are too much disgusted with their own experience to speak of it?”

What the hell –TGIF!

I believe the story has it that when he was in jail for refusing the poll tax that supported slavery and the Mexican-American war, Thoreau was visited by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who asked him, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”  To which Thoreau responded, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”  Today, however, most folks don’t realize that being outside their cells is being in them, and such imprisonment is far from principled.  That’s not a text message they’re likely to receive.

I recently met a woman, where or when I can’t recall.  It might have been when walking on the open road or falling in a dreaming hole.  She told me “if you look through a window, you can see the world outside.  If you look in a mirror, you can see yourself outside.  If you look into the outside world, you can see everyone inside out.  When the inside is seen outside and the outside is seen inside, you will know what you face.  Everything becomes simple then,” as she looked straight through me and my face fell off.






33 thoughts on “Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World”

  1. Excellent piece. Since having an awakening of my own several years ago I’ve been trying to figure out how to live and integrate my awareness of the insane civilization without succumbing to anger or despair. Finding esoterics has certainly helped me, from Yogananda to Guenon to Laurency and so many others. Slowly, as I come more into my authentic self, I find myself attracting others who also experience the world as I do now, and are actively trying to create a different reality. Thank you for your thoughts today in Counterpunch, it’s the only “news” site I visit with any regularity anymore, and it’s thank to contributors like you. Cheers.

  2. Thank you Ed. A beautiful piece. I was struck by some of the synchronicity of your quotes with my own life and influences. You had me at the Laing quote. One of my favorites. Laing was a huge influence on my thinking from my early 20’s on. I was introduced to Norman O. Brown through reading Ernest Becker’s amazing “The Denial of Death.” Becker became another huge influence, Brown I read studiously, but often struggled to understand well.

    Earlier, in my last two years of high school, while totally alienated from the people around me, from the endless “pep rallies,” from the mindless pro-Vietnam war banter, I carried a tattered volume containing both Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” & “Walden” with me everywhere. I carried it like a shield or like some power talisman that would protect me from the madness that was everywhere. I read Civil Disobedience over and over again, in an effort to retain my humanity in retrospect. I think somehow it worked.

    I quite agree with your observations of the “slow suicide” that characterizes modern life in the U.S. It appears that existential “bad faith” = death in life – is the order of the day for most people. This existential life of bad faith is what Laing referred to as what is considered “normality” in our modern world. The sort of half-madness that you speak of. I sometimes wonder if anyone anymore reads Laing or Thoreau or Becker, and what it will mean for the world that they do not. Thank you Ed.

    1. Gary,
      Thanks for the great response. You touch on writers who inform my life as well. Although I don’t mention Ernest Becker by name, his brilliant thoughts in the monumental The Denial of Death run through this piece. I teach a course in which the students read Becker and come away amazed and stunned. I try to introduce students to all these writers, and more, so that their wisdom will be carried on. Ed

      1. Ed, turning your students on to Becker is I think the most wonderful gift you could ever give them, and also the most challenging. I had a feeling you were a fellow “Becker” guy.

  3. Thankyou for this article.
    Authentic being is a process, a dynamic process of integrating experience. It’s also disturbing. Is there a “self”, let alone an authentic self. Neitzche doubted it (who actually thinks ? Me ? But thoughts may just appear – who/what thought them ?)
    And then there’s the post-modernists with their subjectivity is discourse: I don’t think, discourses merely flow/think through me…
    Whatever – we are still left with the responsibility of ethical existence. What to do ?
    I wish I knew – –

    1. Harvey,
      Nietzsche also didn’t know until he took pen in hand and started writing, and in writing his authentic self emerged from sleep, even though he denied it. He was a brilliant and very complicated example – perhaps the best ever – of becoming who you are by becoming who you are becoming. As for the post-modernists, they got lost in the woods. Wishing to know, as you do, means you are already “acting” in Nietzche’s sense, which is wonderful. Many thanks. Ed

  4. What a wonderful article and comments, thank you all for contributing.
    Finding this website is a real treat for me.
    I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in mid-adolescence, urged to be hospitalised after I had run away from home at 14 and been kicked out of a couple of expensive schools my parents signed up for before I was born.
    Ronald Laing’s ‘Politics of experience’ was a huge clue for me, right up there with Hesse’s books (especially ‘Steppenwolf’ and ‘Narziss and Goldmund’) and Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Perennial Philosophy’.
    So thanks for this essay, it nails so many aspects of modern life and the soul price we all pay as all that’s good and real becomes relentlessly commodities and turns into its grotesque opposite.

    1. Thanks, Michael. Glad you liked it. I especially like Steppenwolf. Hess was so brilliant and a lifelong anti-war voice of great conscience. Ed

  5. Alan Watts said there is a point when you know too much that makes returning to who you were impossible. So i would comment that ending my life would not be of “fear”. It would be that i do not want to participate anymore. I quite frankly know too much. Bravo for your words it is wonderful to know you are here.

    1. Fred,

      I love Alan Watts, but I think you are misinterpreting him. Knowing, he argues, is greatly overrated, and I agree. When you think what you know is too much, you have reached a spiritual breakthrough, so you let your “too much knowledge” go and enter into true life – the wisdom of insecurity. Watts would say you are being reborn into true life here and now. It is wonderful to know you too are here. Ed

  6. If the world is crazy why should anyone be sane? If you want to research it you should find sane people somehow and ask how they got that way because it must be exceptional. I think I am pretty sane and it took not only a lot of work but also a lot of luck.

    I guess for most people the main chance for authentic satisfaction is in family life but that also ties you in to needing money. If you feel a vocation in art or science that might drag you closer to reality.

    I don’t see what fear of death has to do with anything. What binds you is fear of losing love. If you are a weirdo nobody gonna love you. Personally I have no friends, much less lovers, but I am pretty happy anyway.

    When you mention need for identity that is much of the problem because it is not how we are built. We aren’t anything in particular. We are cans of worms.

    1. Paul,
      I don’t think the world is crazy, just American society and many others. The world is beautiful. and perhaps that is one reason you are pretty happy anyway. You make a good point about the fear of losing love, and thank you for it and your other thoughts. Ed

      1. When I look at your article again I see that you put most of the emphasis on the moral and intellectual aspects of our being. While these have become important to some of us I don’t think that is true for most people, and even for us they are somewhat peripheral. When I look at the core of my awareness it seems to consist of a blend of integrated perception and feeling tone and action, mostly on a preconceptual level.

        I read an article in the Times a few days ago about a woman who seemed to have a high-functioning and healthy life but complained of feeling that she wasn’t there. I think they called it depersonalization disorder. I have spoken to a few people who mentioned their fear of the emptiness inside them. In Buddhism we make a lot of the emptiness but it is positive because it naturally gets filled.

        I think the reason for these problems is good old-fashioned Freudian repression. There are too many things that people won’t let themselves see or feel or do. I think that most of the mental chatter that goes on for most is the activity of defense mechanisms blocking out reality. I think the key to mental health (aka Enlightenment) is to accept all aspects of your awareness and stop fighting with yourself. This is not only my opinion. It is essential Buddhism.

        So apparently we have become so over-civilized that we won’t let ourselves be, on the biological or animal level which is the foundation of our reality. I could attempt to analyse the causes of this but I think I will pass on that for now. You are the sociologist. What do you think?

        1. Paul, I agree with what you write about my emphasis. I think repression is a huge factor and that much happens with many people at the preconceptual level. They sense the nothingness that is so integral to Buddhism (and to Christianity as well) and make believe or repress this out of fear. But they fail to see that repressing is embracing and that only by first embracing no-thing-ness and the void or death or … can you be free. That is also the essence of existentialism. Alan Watts calls it the wisdom of insecurity in his marvelous book with that title. I imagine you have read it. I don’t think being a sociologist generally helps in understanding all this; is, actually, a hindrance. But on the other hand there are sociologists and then there are sociologists. I am not the normal kind. Ed

          1. I’m sure you’re not the normal kind. You don’t get paid to bite the hand that feeds you. I’m not the normal kind of physicist but I still feel like one.

            As I imagine it a sociologist gets to talk to people to see what’s going on with them. You seem to have settled on alienation. I wonder if you’ve looked into that.

            I wonder why people should lose contact with their mind-process. Is it repression or something else? I wonder why it seems to be coming to a head now.

            You mentioned a book by Watts. I like the Hero’s Journey. I had something like that happen. I lost my mind and became dysfunctional for a while, leading me to isolate myself in my apartment for three years. I thought I was finished and had nothing to look forward to but decline and death, so I had to drop my attachment to my ego or self-concept. Eventually my mind came back spontaneously, except that it was better than before. That’s what I meant about being lucky, though being a Buddhist I call it karma. I figure there must be a reason for it.

            When I was out of my mind I wasn’t much afraid of dying. I was afraid of coming back and fucking up again, but worse. Maybe people lose their agency.because they are afraid of revealing themselves and being scorned and rejected. Or maybe it’s wrong to generalize from myself.

          2. I forgot to mention that I later figured out that the reason for this trip was slow bleeding in my brain, due to bingeing too hard on a certain substance.

  7. There are so many beautiful and true parts of this piece, which I have read twice over the last two days. As it happens, the first time was shortly after coming across a scrap of paper used as a bookmark on which I had jotted “… the only living boy in New York.” I might well have written down “I gather all the news I need from the weather report … let your honesty shine, shine, shine …” from the same Paul Simon song. Perhaps there is so much garbage in the media — and life — that many people succumb to it, fall in line, and commit themselves to a zombie-like state. It’s good to know about The Greanville Post, where I first read it; I’ll recommend it to others.

  8. This is a brilliant piece of work that crystallized many of the things I have been feeling, but find myself unable to express. Thanks for sharing it.
    In some ways I am reminded of Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers, particularly his final summation. Have you read it?

  9. This is the delusional world of 21st century capitalism. Another one of the great critics was the late British psychologist David Smail, whose writings I treasure.

  10. This powerful essay leaves me feeling a little less alone in this upside-down world. I’m a writer and everyday ask myself, why write, why bother? Certainly there will be no posterity to admire me or even hear me… and now global warming brings with it a kind of melancholia psychologists are just beginning to recognise and name.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks. Hearing from you leaves me feeling less alone also. I will get one of your novels or poetry books and read it. You write in the hope that someone will read it. Me, too. We write alone and so often feel alone when people ignore our work and our efforts to reach others. Posterity? I don’t know. It’s hard enough getting living people, even friends and family, to give us a nod and share deep thoughts. Yet something keeps me going, as it does you. Let’s trust that something. Ed

  11. Doing almost anything in protest gets you locked up by local police in prison where you achieve nothing except poverty for yourself.


    1. Sandra, That does happen, but not always. There are prices to pay for dissenting, but we have to live with ourselves. I believe in the old saying, “What does it profit a man if he loses his soul.” There are too many soulless zombies walking around counting their money, and one day they realize they are dying and wish they had done things differently. Be true to yourself. Ed

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