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Actor Robin Williams. Fashion designer, Kate Spade. Aaron Swartz, a prodigal computer programmer, political organizer, and internet hacktivist hung himself at 26 years old. In 2017, it’s estimated 1.4 million of U.S. attempted suicide, and over 120 a day actually succeed in killing themselves. Suicide is the 5th leading cause of death globally, after cancer, car crashes, and HIV.*
Clearly living is a choice we all make every day we live.
Almost 4,000 of U.S. will consider suicide today. Have you? I have. Not once or twice during hard times, and in passing, but many times throughout my lifetime, from my tween years, likely till I die. Yet, virtually daily, I make a conscious choice to stay living.
I don’t believe in any higher power than the laws of physics. There is no “Jealous God” (Exodus 34:14) watching, or judging our behavior from ‘beyond’. There is no heaven or hell. I’ve never been able to pretend we are more than the collection of cells that make up our bodies and consciousness. I can choose to go hang myself in the doorjamb of my office after I finish writing this blog without fear of damnation. The only eternal soul we possess is humanity’s hope that we matter past our limited time alive. But we don’t. Not really, beyond our affect on the lives we touch while we are living, like our family, and a handful of friends and colleagues. Even if you’ve done DNA ancestry, other than their genetic contribution to your existence, your dead lineage are names in a ledger, nothing more.
Too dark a view for ya? It ain’t depression. It’s reality, and a scary one knowing that regardless of what we believe, our life adds up to what we DO with our short time of awareness.
Individually, we really have very little effect on, well, anything beyond our small realm. Even those who have ‘made it,’ like the opening list of celebrities, most will be forgotten over time, and lost to later generations. And we’ll never even know the names of most innovators, especially women, who invented the tech we use today.
For the religious reader, this blog probably isn’t for you. I’ve likely lost you in the opening bit, as suicide in most sects is a ‘sin’. If you are a true believe, it is equally likely you won’t off yourself. The only reason to continue reading is if you want to help someone who seems like they may.
How do you know if someone is suicidal? You don’t, and likely won’t. Each of the above celebs were either flat out rich, wealthy, or at the very least financially ‘comfortable.’ So, it wasn’t poverty that drove them to suicide. They ‘made it’ doing what they loved, instead of a lifetime at some crappy job just to pay the rent. Yet, each made a choice to die. Why?
Every day I make a conscious choice to keep living, but a lot of days the choice to stay is hard. Very hard. Some days, hope drives me with purpose, that I can make a positive contribution to those I touch. But other days, on days where it feels as if I reach no one, or I get nothing done, or humanity is doomed to our own stupidity, hope abandons me.
Give it up. Walk away. Stop trying so hard. You’re getting nowhere. If there is nothing beyond death, and what I do doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, then why not just check out, be done. At times, my life feels as if it defaults to the mean of hardship, and I obsess about exiting the scene, fading to black.
How do you stop the voices of fear, either before they ramp, or even after they do, when you look up from your laptop to notice you aren’t breathing? I think of checking out, conjure my exit strategy. I imagine I’m taking pills, or maybe going into the garage, turning on my car and rolling down the windows.
What stops me?
I picture coming on to the oxycontin, or choking on carbon monoxide, then throwing up, then blacking out. Then nothing. Ever again. No awareness, no consciousness once the neurons stop firing. No taking it back. No second chance. No waking up. Feel nothing, ever again. Or I try and feel what it feels like to feel nothing, but obviously, this is an oxymoron. Living and feeling are synonymous, as are death and nonexistence.
When I’ve lost all belief in myself, my work, my world, I’m left with only one reason that keeps me here. Regardless of how lost I feel, how insignificant, how hopeless, I hold on to the one truth I know is real.
Every day I make a conscious choice to stay living—to FEEL.
Living is all about FEELING—glad, sad, mad, good, bad, proud, humbled, jealous, accomplished. And the list goes on… I get to feel them all, and many more throughout my lifetime, expressed in a thousand ways. Enjoying chocolate mint ice cream while watching TV. In awe of natural wonders. Heartbroken with loss. Swooning in love. From the physical to the surreal, we all get to feel—experience being alive.
Strip away the religious sales pitch that rewards us for charitable behavior, in exchange for an eternity in paradise. Ignore the social pressure that tell us our value lies our physicality, or our job title, or the acquisition of wealth. Let go of the pretense we are going to make a substantive difference to anyone beyond our small circle of connections. And the point of living becomes to feel the moments of our life.
Death—feeling nothing ever again—will come, regardless if I hasten it. The permanence of suicide becomes daunting when I consider I’d never get to taste anything again. I’d never see, smell, or feel rain on my skin, or someone hold my hand. If I take my own life, I kill even the possibility of change, and finding ways to enjoy more moments of my brief existence.
I teeter on the edge of suicide when all reason and purpose has abandoned me. But you can help me during these times, or others who stand at precipice of ending their life. When I’m consumed by doubt, black and sticky, pulling me under, please don’t tell me to “Hang in there, it’ll get better.” It feels like bullshit in those moments of darkness. With empathy, simply remind me to FEEL.
Had a meltdown on my tween son when he asked, yet again, for an iPad at breakfast this morning.
Before the iPad he wanted a laptop. He insisted he needed my HP the moment I purchased my Toshiba, though could give no reason why he had to have it since he had a powerful PC with an enhanced graphics card for gaming in his room. After weeks of needling me I finally gave him my old HP to share after backing up [mostly] everything. He loaded the same games he had on his PC and played them in bed on the laptop for about a week, until he inadvertently downloaded a virus [that ironically sold security software] which destroyed every program, every file including seven years of my labor. Between ‘mostly’ and ‘everything’ turned out to be the Grand F**king Canyon.
Prior to the laptop he needed an iPhone. He’s had a cellphone since the 5th grade, when he started walking the quarter mile home from school. In the two years he’s had it, he forgets it at home most of the time unless I remind him to bring it with him. More often than not the phone has no charge because he doesn’t remember to charge it. Though all his friends have cellphones, he’s exchanged numbers with no one, and this seems fairly typical among his contemporaries upon inquiry.
Before the iPhone he had to have a video camera, which he used a few times to tape episodes of Sponge Bob off the TV so he could view them later through the camera’s viewfinder. That lasted about a month until he tired of it and he hasn’t touched the camera since.
An iPod was before the video camera. I use his iPod when I’m recharging mine since in the four years he’s owned it he’s used it maybe 10 times collectively.
He sat at the kitchen table this morning eating his cold cereal telling me how badly he needed an iPad. They are so cool, he insisted, giving me his puppy face, and good for school, though was unable to define how since a PC with internet access was all his middle-school required. He kept at it throughout breakfast, bargaining away all other gifts for his upcoming birthday in exchange for just one iPad2.
And I blew a gasket.
He wanted too damn much! He asked for too much with no purpose. What the hell was the point of all these things when he didn’t even use them?
To be cool, mom, he said through tears.
His palpable shame was a knife through my heart. At 12 years old, crying had ceased to be acceptable except in tragic situation, and me yelling at him wasn’t one. I sat down at the table adjacent to him and stared at my son, fighting tears from overwhelming me as well.
Being cool isn’t about what you have, I reminded him gently. Cool is about what you are, who you are, what you do that makes you special, separates you from the crowd. He was a straight A student, in advanced at math, played electric guitar, but every accomplishment I pointed out just made him cry harder.
None of that matters, he insisted. No one cares about that stuff. And being a nerd might pay off later but right now no one his age knew or cared who Bill Gates was, he said, throwing my refrain back at me.
Your dad would ask why cool matters, was the lame response I came up with. I knew cool mattered, even to me, but especially for a kid becoming a teen.
It just does, my son assured me. And I’m not, he added shakily, unable to stop the new round of tears.
My heart in my throat and struggling to swallow back my own tears stopped me from lecturing, but I again reminded my son that iPads and iPhones and video cameras are tools, nothing more, and possessing them doesn’t make one cool.
Yes, mom, he patronized me. But an iPhone is still cool, and so are iPads. I felt him lighten before I saw him grinning to himself.
They are cool, undeniably, which makes the engineers who invent Apple’s products cool, but not so much the people who use them. I needed to be sure he understood what cool really is, and perhaps remind myself as well.
Michael has an iPhone and an iPad and he’s totally popular, my son insisted. Everyone likes him. He has tons of friends and no one picks on him, ever.
Cool means Popular when you’re 12, and I suppose even for adults. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. But I knew Michael wasn’t popular because of his iPad and went about trying to enlighten my son without losing his attention. I spoke of Michael’s extensive involvement with his church, attended by many in our area. I pointed out Michael’s rather jovial demeanor, and reminded my son that his friend was also an avid sportsman, into soccer, basketball, baseball…etc, the ultimate key to cool for kids in school.
Perhaps Michael’s popularity had nothing to do with his iPad, I suggested. And to further my reasoning I asked, If Evan had an iPhone or iPad do you think he’d be more popular?
Evan is a jerk, my son proclaimed. He’s mean and rowdy, and he has an iPhone, mom. His eyes seem to sparkle with awareness of his own words. Then he smiled. He got it, and I smiled, too, for about a second, until his expression darkened again. But I’ll never be like Micheal, do what he does. I’m not discovering religion any time soon, and I suck at sports and don’t really care about ’em, and I’m not exactly what you’d call upbeat.
And I’ll never write like Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury, or John Fowles—
Who are they?
Famous authors you’ve obviously never heard of. Forget it. Tell me, who else is cool, dude? Name five, other than your friend Michael. Anyone, doesn’t have to be one of your contemporaries…
Greenday, he looked to me for approval.
Okay. Who else?
Death Cab [for Cutie] (another rock band). Thomas Edison. Einstein. And Jason, at school. All the girls really like him.
I laughed. Why?
I don’t know. He’s short but kind of buff already, I guess. He’s on the track team and the basketball team and he tells everyone he lifts his dad’s weights. He’s really into working out.
And what do all five you just named have in common?
He fiddled with the remainder of the Crispex in his bowl as he pondered my question.
They’re all good at something.
And how do you get good at anything? yet another of my canonical refrains.
You bet. Find something you love, that turns you on, and work at it, my beautiful son. Practice your guitar more and become a great musician. Invent a new video game instead of playing someone elses creation. Learn how to program and develop apps, show us you need an iPad as a tool to create with.
He brightened, smiled at me. I had his full attention again, my reason for slipping in the iPad comment.
Owning an iPad is easy, my baby, and meaningless, just one of many who do and more who will. Creating with one is cool. Cool is as cool does, kid. Pursue a passion and you’ll be engaged, entertained, and so enraptured in the process you won’t notice or care if you’re popular. And how cool is that! ; – )
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the world wide web. It was 1995. I was in my rented townhome in Alameda, a small island on the east bank of the San Francisco Bay. I already had a dial-up modem plugged into my Mac LC that I used to send graphic files and documents to my lithographers and commercial printers through FTP (File Transfer Protocol).
I don’t know where I heard about Netscape, probably from a business associate. But I remember the afternoon I logged on for the first time. The interface was full color visual, the first I’d seen, since FTP was only black text on a white screen and no images. The Netscape logo—the uppercase N sinking into a black globe against a starry aquamarine sky, was…beautiful. Once I registered, the next screen had bright, colorful illustrations of a spacecraft, a construction site, a radio tower and more. Under each drawing white text against the black frames said, “Explore the Net. Company and Products. News and Reference. Community.” I was floored, drop-jawed. The interface gave me choices to go anywhere. Netscape was a portal to news sites, business with ‘websites,’ online communities, a virtual store, and reference libraries from around the world.
I called my roommate into my bedroom/office space to show her what I was seeing on my screen. “This changes everything,” I practically whispered, sure that this portal was the beginning of a connected world I only dreamt of as a kid.
As I sat there clicking on each navigation link, then exploring each site the Netscape browser delivered, I recalled when I was 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the back seat of my mother’s huge Chevy, while she drove me and my sister home from school. “One wish,” my mom asked us spontaneously. “One wish. Right now. If you could have anything you want, what would it be?” She often came up with non-sequitur like this to fill the void of silence after she’d asked about our day at school and got, “Fine,” back from both of us.
I answered instantly. “World peace,” and I meant it. My brother had come back from Vietnam a wreck. PTSD. Clinical depression. I’d watched war on TV nightly. And I’d felt war all around me, growing up in the late 60s, the anger of the Blacks, my working mother, and most all women suffocating under our servitude to men. “I wish that everyone would be nicer to each other, and take care of each other instead of fighting all the time.”
“That’s a stupid wish,” my sister said, sitting in the passenger seat. I cowered in the back seat, and shut up. “It’ll never happen. Violence is part of our nature. We wouldn’t be here today without it, since we have no other defenses like other animals on Earth.” She was 2 yrs older than me. Surely, she must be right. She wished for a new purse.
“This changes everything,” I’d said to my roommate as I browsed the internet that first time. And I believed it. A portal to the world would let us see how others lived, and let others see what what possible. In 1960s – 1990s U.S. most of us had a place to live in, and enough to eat every day. Most kids were vaccinated from horrific diseases, and didn’t die from the flu. We got a free education, through at least high school, and 20 – 30% of the population got a college education as well. And in California, college was cheap, making it accessible to most anyone.
My roommate stood over my shoulder staring at my screen as I went from site to site. She seemed unmoved by what we were seeing, and in short order went back to her room. I stayed online the rest of the night, into the early morning hours, amazed. I pursued news sites, read articles from all over the world. We could never again pretend that Holocausts weren’t happening. We’d find out about atrocities taking place anywhere, instantly, and the United Nations would have to stop them! The privileged would no longer be able to turn a blind eye on poverty or disease, even in the most remote places in Africa or the Middle East, seeing it daily on their computers. We could talk to people around the block or in other countries we’d never meet, but share ideas, and feelings. We’d see how similar we all are, how we all feel sad, or happy, or mad at times. We could connect 24/7, and never feel isolated or lonely again. The internet was a window to the world, and the view would surely motivate all of us to care for each other like never before.
This is the argument I gave to my dad at Saul’s, eating bagels and lox a few years later. As a lover of technology since childhood, he too was on the internet, one of the first adopters in his advanced age group. He shook his head and gave me his indulgent smile.
“The internet changes nothing. It is a tool, like a screwdriver. It won’t change human nature. And it won’t save us,” he said. “We’re going to have to do that. Until we learn to care for each other beyond ourselves, we are doomed.” He took a bite of his bagel and savored the mix of salmon, onions and bread, satisfied in the moment.
“You’re wrong, dad,” I exclaimed with certainty. “The internet is connecting the planet. For the first time in human history we are becoming one world.”
“One very small world, which everyone wants their piece of,” he said. “We’ve invented technology we can’t handle, from the Bomb to this internet. Getting bombarded with information isn’t going to change how we react to it. And the more technology we invent, the more likely we’ll implode with it.” He sighed, looked at me lovingly. “You can’t change the world, baby. Best just to focus on taking care of yourself, and your family.”
It was 1998. I had no idea what was coming, how the internet would evolve into the marketing platform it has become. But I left Saul’s that morning sure my father was wrong.
As it’s turned out, he wasn’t.