Bestselling author Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, historian and commentator. Her newest book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, is out from Yale University Press. She is also the author of the bestseller Doubt: A History, as well as The Happiness Myth, which brings a historical eye to modern wisdom about how to lead a good life.
(don't kill yourself) aloud.
Click icon to see a wonderful video of Jennifer reading her poem aloud!
Honored to be here. I want to offer a couple of things. The first is the final paragraph of my book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (Yale, 2013). In the paperback version we’re changing “Philosophies” to “Arguments” which is both easier to say and helps people notice that mine is an argument.
Progressive secular people like me (I’m an intellectual historian and minor famous atheist) are supposed to say that suicide is a pillar of our autonomy, but I’m arguing we rethink it. (I’m talking about what I call despair suicide. I don’t consider end of life care to be suicide.) There are two good reasons: Firstly, suicide does so much damage to others, that we can make a communitarian argument against it, enough to say that suicide is wrong. I put a light on that by saying that suicide can be delayed homicide, so often does one such loss lead to another. It is worth our noting that statistically, for instance, a niece of yours not yet born will have a fearfully higher suicide prognosis. If you want your fellow ex-army ranger to make it through his dark night of the soul, you have to make it through yours. Thank you for your bravery in staying so far. I am grateful. I’m going to go out on a branch and say We’re grateful. As I’ve said many times now, Crying and useless is a million times better than dead. I suppose this notion amuses me so because it has helped me, because it lets me see that I can set down the weighing of pain and dismiss the voice that says I wish I were dead the same way I would dismiss the fleeting homicidal thought. Realizing the extent of the communitarian argument, in history, among philosophers, and also in strikingly clear modern statistics and observations, significantly illuminates how much we matter to each other.
The second secular argument against suicide is about what you owe your future self. You do not know what he might know, or she might be. Have some respect for your future self, or at least don’t kill him. I also find this argument inspiring in the way it reminds me that there is a lot I still do not know.
Anyway, the book gives all the history and lays out the studies, and even people who disagree with the argument seem to enjoy all that a lot.
I just meant to set up the quote, but I went on a bit. So, yeah, end of Stay:
“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.”
Also, here’s a poem. I wrote it years before I wrote the book or had even formulated any of the above in my mind.
No Hemlock Rock
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.
Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they’ve guessed.
But don't kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.
Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.
Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Don’t kill yourself. I won’t either.
Then, also years later, I wrote this other poem, explaining the above poem’s origins and more of what it means to me. It feels exciting and special to share this poem here, as it ends on a note that feels particularly right here. Both of these poems, and others on these themes, are in my most recent poetry book, Who Said (Copper Canyon, 2013).
Drummond’s “Don’t Kill Yourself”
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
will never be a major poet
because his name is too long and
difficult to remember.
Carlos, me, stop flipping out.
You’ve been kissed.
Maybe you’ll get another kiss tomorrow,
maybe not, ad infinitum. Nothing
can be done about this
exciting series of possibilities.
The only way to stop it would be to kill
yourself, so don’t. Just stay
and hope for more kisses, even sex.
You, tellurian, earth-beast, are flipping out
because you have spent the night
enraptured by love, a common thing
in the world.
Your insides are going nuts with panic
and emotion, also pretty normal.
The feelings and hormones and thoughts
going on my head right now are a cacophony,
like a symphony of prayers, old record players,
Catholic signs and wonders, commercials
for soap and better living. There’s no way
to make any sense of this racket inside.
Meanwhile you are walking around town,
looking normal but with such a slammed heart
that you are identifying with every passing tree.
When someone lets out one of those moans
that might be anything, might just be the sigh
of sitting down, it’s such a relief. “Oh!” someone
cries out and you agree. “Oh,” me too.
And the lights go out in the theater. Me too.
Carlos is alone and says to himself that love,
especially in the light of day, is always sad,
and it is true, but it’s not all that’s true,
and he knows it, calling himself a boy to hint
that someone too young to know is trying to know,
while nearby, also inside the poet, is the sublime
and graceful knowing. See what he says,
in the last lines? “tell it to nobody, nobody knows
nor shall know.” He’s closing the poem there,
tucking his scarf into his overcoat.
But also he’s counseling himself
to keep the crazy hidden, keep the despair hidden,
he says, "Hide it" but he’s telling us.
It's safer to keep it to himself,
but he gets it on paper
and hands it out across the century to me,
and I take it and I say, “Thank you
Carlos Drummond de A…. I wish I could
remember your name.”
I get stuck on the Andrade part.
Now reader, what I wanted the poem to say
was less, “Self, don’t flee from feeling,
even though it is so frightening that you almost feel
like running off a ledge,” and more, “Friends,
selves, countrymen of the realms of gold, fellows
and sisters of outrageous despair, Don’t kill yourselves.”
I wanted to say: We have to talk to each other.
We broken. We need to keep drinking tea
or wine and tell each other the one thing
we don’t have to trance out to hear: I was there.
It sucked. It was insane, the things I said to myself
to stay sane. You too? Got a hot brain
from coping too long all up in your head alone?
Don’t kill yourself.
Come over and drink coffee
or beer with us and tell us.
People who do not ever feel this way pity us.
Maybe you don’t want to be pitied, but I’m ready
to know that being someone who has hard time
is often awful, as awful as other awful things,
and that’s how it is for me. So pity away,
ye normals, and freaks come sit by me.