This piece centers on a very frank conversation about suicide. Please read with the appropriate caution.
I am writing this because I know there are many people in the United States contemplating suicide right now. Even in a good year, the holidays can cause people to take stock of their lives and decide that it’s not worth going forward. This has not been a good year, rather it has been a year of unspeakable horrors and loss. If you are a person experiencing suicidal ideation this season, I can’t know your specific circumstances, but know that I have been there myself and understand the sensation of your soul freezing up inside your chest and the desire to simply cease existing. It is a natural human response when you feel truly isolated and crushed by the weight of history to want to escape life; I am not here to shame you for those feelings—people have experienced them throughout human history. But I would like to ask you not to take your life. We are going to need you as we fight our way to recovery over the next year and beyond.
Consider George Bailey, the central character of Frank Capra’s exceptional IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Facing financial ruin as the building and loan manager for his hometown of Bedford Falls, a fate where not only he but his whole community may go underwater, George finds himself contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. He did not want to be the manager of his father’s business, but fate bound him to care for his small community when no one else would. When the Depression hit, George was forced to loan out the money meant for his honeymoon to keep the town and his business just barely solvent. He gave everything for the town, but after his alcoholic uncle misplaces $8,000, it seems as though he’ll be ruined, with the town leaving him to drown alone. When he goes to the town’s rapacious businessman, Henry Potter, for a loan, offering his life insurance policy as collateral, Potter tells him he is “worth more dead than alive.” As he looks at the darkness all around him, he expresses the core sentiment of ideation: “I wish I had never been born.” Inherent in the desire to end one’s own life is really to yearn for the impossible; that we could be erased from the entirety of history, rather than leave a trail of pain and destruction with our exit. It is our entanglement with every other person, the weight of not only our private suffering, but our inability to relieve the suffering of those we are intertwined with, that so often drives suicidal ideation. The simple brilliance of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE lies in the intervention by Clarence, an angel who grants George his wish, and shows him the version of history without George in it.
Life without George is undeniably worse. Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, named after the predatory capitalist who has transformed the once wholesome town into a den of exploitation and sin. George’s wife never married and instead lived a hollow life alone. Because George was not alive to save his younger brother, Harry, from an accident, Harry in turn was not able to save a whole carrier ship in World War II. The chain of consequence surrounding George is not something he could have understood in his life, but with the opportunity to see life without him, he is reminded of how much he actually matters.
When we leave this life, we inevitably leave an alteration to the overall course of history, even if it may be incomprehensible to know precisely how. It is impossible for us to know exactly how we impact those around us, but once we are born into history, it is impossible to escape our role in it. We may not all be pillars of a small town like George, but the choices we make, our everyday kindnesses, and our commitment to our neighbors have effects beyond our comprehension. That is precisely what is so inherently tragic about losing nearly 300,000 people to the preventable spread of a virus. It’s what’s so tragic about 68,000 Americans dying due to lack of healthcare every year. It’s the tragedy of human beings dying due to lack of shelter, dying from hunger, at the hands of the police, and so on. These are people who mattered, whose deaths were preventable, and whose absence leaves an indescribable mark on the course of history. This year has made it clear that we cannot rely on our elected leaders having a divine moment of clarity.
Clarence is not going to visit Mitch McConnell and convince him to give everyone rent relief and enough money to ride this thing out.
Only we can make the loss of so many souls mean anything going forward.
As uprisings took place around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd, I attended a handful of demonstrations led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles that demanded that our atrocious District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, be removed from office. Every Wednesday for three years, the family members of people who were murdered by law enforcement gathered on the steps of the L.A. County courthouse to confront Lacey for her refusal to prosecute a single officer. These protests were often small affairs, but throughout this summer they were routinely attended by hundreds of people. It’s impossible to understand the power of listening to the testimonies of mothers and siblings of human beings stolen by police violence; the cascading effect of hearing family after family take their private suffering public. Together, they were a mobilizing force that resulted in Lacey being forced out in favor of a progressive reformer, George Gascon. The Jackie Lacey Must Go movement was so effective because it centered the grief of people who had suffered an incomprehensible loss. A whole community took care of each other, held each other close, and channeled their pain into tangible action. The weight of history turned because these incredibly brave people refused to accept the awful tragedies forced upon them. When I attended the rally celebrating Lacey’s defeat, a feeling welled up inside me that was even richer than when the citizens of Bedford Falls banded together to save George. This is what is going to be required of all of us as we emerge back into the world over the next year. We are all going to have to come together, care for each other, and demand that our pain from the past year not be forgotten.
If you are experiencing a dark night of the soul this season, you have known what it is to suffer, to feel the deep pain that is part of the human condition. You share that with so many people who will continue to suffer and experience pain as a vaccine is distributed and American life limps back to the reanimated corpse of what it once was. I am not strictly writing this for someone actively considering suicide, I am writing it for anyone who can feel themselves surrendering this month, hitting a wall where the only choice is to surrender and give in to letting devastation crash down outside your doorstep. For anyone who has resigned themselves to just letting things get steadily worse forever, looking out for yourself and pretending that the world isn’t burning all around you. Deep within you, you know you need to care for others to feel at peace with yourself. As the direct threat of this pandemic nears a close, you will owe it to every person who lost a loved one this year to stick around for what’s next. The Mr. Potters of our world have only gotten richer and bolder as life has gotten harder for the rest of us. It will take deeper solidarity to push them back. We are going to have to fight tooth and claw to demand universal healthcare, to demand that the frontline workers who kept us all afloat this year finally be given the dignity they deserve, and to demand that the police no longer be allowed to brutalize our neighbors with impunity.
Just as your life was entirely different before this pandemic, it has every possibility to be different afterwards. Just as one day you were living without masks and economic devastation, you may find yourself living without those things once again. None of us know what the next year holds, but that is precisely why each of us needs to stick around to see what happens next, to see what use we can be in building a new world from the ashes of the old. Just as George Bailey didn’t know that the citizens of Bedford Falls would bail him out moments after he was ready to end his life, we genuinely can’t know what’s around the corner for each of us. Our fates are inevitably bound up in each other. Each of us benefits from the other continuing to stick around. Watch IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, warm yourself by its proverbial fire, and hunker down for the thaw that will inevitably come.
You are loved and you matter. Merry Christmas.