Avoiding death would seem to be among the most basic of human instincts. Many young adults are eagerly anticipating that the technological Singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil will bring with it the promise of extraordinary life extension, perhaps even immortality. Immortality has piqued people’s imaginations through the ages and few would deny having had at least passing fantasies of living forever.
So how can we reconcile the drive to live with the compelling intensity with which people sometimes experience the wish to die, even people who are extraordinarily talented and accomplished like Robin Williams? Life everlasting versus everlasting oblivion. How could anyone ever choose the latter?
While there may well be circumstances in which suffering is truly both intolerable and interminable without any reasonable hope of relief, most suffering is temporary and can be survived and most suicide is associated with a profoundly distorted perception of hopelessness, a prominent symptom of depression.
Depression, a brain disorder, can be unipolar, with episodes of plummeting mood, or bipolar, in which episodes of depressed mood and episodes of euphoric mood, accompanied by often frenetic activity and sleeplessness, both occur. In depression, in addition to the disturbance of mood, disturbances of sleep, appetite, and energy level are common, along with a distorted perception of oneself and the world, with exaggerated feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt, sometimes of delusional severity.
A less discussed, but more striking aspect of suicide, however, is its intensely solitary nature. Affiliation is a powerful human drive. We strive to find others to love and to love us. We feel close bonds with our parents, children, and siblings, often even if they have betrayed us. The success of social networking is a testimony to our need for others in our lives. Our social support systems are instrumental in our capacity to resolve personal crises.
Suicide is the ultimate renouncement of relatedness. It is a solitary act, excluding others from participating in the final moments of life. Suicidal people often detach themselves deliberately and systematically from every meaningful relationship in the minutes, hours, or days before ending their lives, slipping quietly into their private night. Suicide abandons survivors, who are left to wonder what they could have done differently to prevent their loved ones from dying tragically.
I believe that aloneness is the ultimate depressive delusion that leads people to spurn life. An emotional state devoid of affiliation is lacking something essentially human that sustains us through the hardest times. It is as much a part of the brain disorder of depression as the inability to sleep or eat. And as we witness the outpouring of grief and love in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death, his blindness to the love that surrounded him astounds us all.