“Life will get better”
This is the trope offered to someone in the grips of suicidal ideation. Pain is ephemeral, temporally constrained. You may think now is bad, but the future will be better. Whatever problem or pain one is presently suffering from, your condition will ameliorate over time.
But how can one be so sure?
Surely it takes a certain amount of hubris to assume that life will somehow magically get better? Yes, mental anguish and suicidal ideation are often temporary psychological states, punctuated by periods where one feels OK and thus, at least relatively speaking, better.
But, why arrogantly assume that positive feelings are just on the horizon, just around the corner?
There can be no guarantee that life will get better. In fact, in certain cases, the obverse is true. Consider the man with terminal illness, where medical science demonstrates that his quality of life, probabilistically, will get worse.
When you’re thinking about ending your life, your life is perceptibly at rock bottom. A life marred by loneliness, unemployment, crippling debt. It’s at this stage that comfortably euthymic people feel the urge to pontificate, “Ah, well, the only way is up. Life will get better.”
Of course, this trite statement overlooks the possibility that one’s current situation is not yet a rocky bottom, but a mere plateau on a distinctly downward trajectory. Life will get worse. If you think life is unbearable now, it is a merely a portent of even more suffering.
People who are suicidal often feel a sense of what psychologists call ‘entrapment’. It is “an individual’s subjective perception of his or her circumstances being uncontrollable, unremitting and inescapable.”(1) I’ll never get a girlfriend, I’ll never get a job, I’m unlikely to shift this debt. To the suicidal man, life is fated to get worse, or, in the best case scenario, remain at its current level of intolerable pain. Life certainly won’t get better – for it can’t get better.
But the truth is we are blind to what life has in store for us. It may get better, it may get worse. The decision whether or not to commit suicide is thus a gamble: the ultimate gamble. Kill yourself now and risk not living a life that is due to get better. Alternatively, continue to live, but have to endure a life of suffering: a sentence arguably worse than death.
Now, a gambling man with any sense will calculate his odds based on those variables of which he is aware. A poker player will know the cards in his hand, the number of cards in a deck and perhaps the strategies and habits of other players. But of course, he has no knowledge about other things – the other players’ cards, the next card to be drawn from the deck. Yet he makes a calculated gamble about the future unknown based on his current situation.
Similarly, the suicidal man will make the decision to end his life upon those variables of which he is directly aware – his current life experience and his previous experiences, many of which will have been negative – the enduring loneliness, the perfidy of other humans, the lack of gainful employment. These past experiences may also reinforce his sense of entrapment. No matter how hard he tried, he could not escape his unfortunate circumstances.
The suicidal man will also make calculations about what the future holds. Again, these future happenings can only be extrapolated from data about the present. If the probability of things getting better seems low, then surely suicide is the rational decision?
Yes, some will cling to the last vestiges of hope. Even if life is 99% likely to get worse, why not persist based on the 1% chance it will get better? A poker player would mock the foolishness of this decision. He would rather fold than risk a very unlikely outcome.
Ah, but unlike a game of poker that deals multiple hands, you only have one life. Why put a permanent end to the one thing you have? Surely we can flip this question around though? Why subject oneself to unnecessary suffering if this is the only life you’ve been granted. It seems equally rational to cut one’s losses, especially if one’s current existence is so difficult to endure.
Indeed, this was the reasoning of the late food blogger Wilkes McDermid. Wilkes took his own life after 39 years of life, or, more aptly, after 39 years of crushing loneliness. He took this previous experience into account and made some other observations about the dating world (although the veracity of these are dubious) and decided that the odds of his future life becoming better were low. His inability to find love was uncontrollable, unremitting and inescapable.
But, the trouble is that the suicidal brain, entrapped in the jaws of the black dog, tends to miscalculate the odds of what future life will throw up. It’s like a poker player with an aberrant understanding of the game. Or a meteorological supercomputer that is biased to predict that there will be rain tomorrow. It would be foolish to fully trust the predictions of either.
Thus, when people hark “Life will get better” to the suicidal man, what they really mean is “Life may get better, just wait until you are in fairly rational frame of mind before making a final decision.” Suicidal ideation may be just a temporary state that causes biased judgements about the future and thus should not form the basis on whether or not to end one’s life. That’s a decision that requires utmost rationality.
Of course, the man with terminal illness who approaches Dignitas to end his life may have instantiated this rational frame of mind. Yet, the man who overdoses on paracetamol on hearing his wife has cheated on him may not be thinking rationally.
What about the man afflicted by chronic loneliness and singledom? As someone who frequently feels suicidal at my inability to find romantic love (among other things), I find it is best to wait for the suicidal ideas to fade away before making any decisions. When I subsequently analyse my situation I note that, unlike an inoperable brain tumour with a medically defined trajectory, loneliness is an unpredictable, complex phenomenon determined by many variables.
Yes, as Wilkes suggests, height, race and wealth probably do matter. But the latter variable is malleable to an extent – you can work your way up to wealth, or move to a poorer country to increase relative wealth. Other things such as where you live, the number of single people in your social network, cultural attitudes to personality traits such as introversion and geekiness and to physical traits such as skinniness, advances in mental health treatment: these all can have an effect on whether I’ll remain lonely in the future or not. Moreover, some of these (e.g. where I live) are changeable and within my control.
As such, I type this blog – still without a girlfriend, still without sexual intercourse and still lonely. But it is difficult to predict whether I’ll still be like this in 5 years’ time.
I can only make some changes and see.
Taylor, P. J., Gooding, P., Wood, A. M., & Tarrier, N. (2011). The role of defeat and entrapment in depression, anxiety, and suicide. Psychological bulletin, 137(3), 391.