Let’s consider suicide

‘Make your peace with God, for earth is at bottom a silly place.’

‘That is good advice; I will follow it.’

— The Abbot’s Second Tale

“But let’s not fool ourselves, my friend, about diving off a cliff. Believe me, I know about these things! First of all, there’s the unspeakable terror involved. You may say it’s more frightening to go charging against a dragon, but my friend, my dear friend, I doubt it. Think how it feels on the cliff-edge, standing looking down. True, we’ve all had the urge to fall. But how grim, how ghastly the actuality! How excruciatingly dreadful! And then there’s the fall itself — first the unexpectedly painful banging of the heart. Many people, you know, die of heart attack long before they hit. And then the gasping for air. It’s difficult to breathe, believe you me, hurtling down thousands of feet toward the rocks. And then the landing! Aie! How would you choose to hit? On your head — ? Over in an instant, true, but can you actually conceive of — But landing on your feet would be no better, of course. Smash! In a split second your feet and legs are as nothing, fragile as glass, two blood explosions!, and the rocks are rushing toward your pelvis. Your back breaks — wang! — in a thousand places, your organs crash downward and upward and inward . . . Dear me! Bless me! Perhaps we should speak of drowning.”  The abbot stood stock-still, and the prince, too, stopped pacing.

“Drowning!” the abbot whispered. “The mind boggles! Are we seriously to believe that it’s brief, painless? Behold the drowned fisherman’s bugged-out eyes, his tightly clenched fists — though he floats, you may argue, like a babe in the womb! Time is subjective, as we’ve all observed. An instant can stretch out to a thousand years. And surely that’s one vast interminable instant when the lungs wail for air and the water starts ringing and thundering in the drowning man’s ears! Let us speak of poison.”

When the prince interrupted, his voice was weak. “I realize it’s difficult to kill yourself. You have to, you know, sort of trick yourself into it, one way or another, lie to yourself, become your own worst enemy, sneaking and shyly conniving against yourself, and even then it takes courage, a touch of craziness. Nevertheless, to walk up to a dragon, cool as you please — ”

“Yes, good,” said the abbot, “good, clear thinking. But let’s consider that. We’re assuming that to attack a dragon like Koog the Devil’s Son is suicide. That may be our first mistake. It may very well be that you’ll kill this Koog — that dwarf over there may know a trick or two, and our friend Armida may well have resources you haven’t yet guessed. She told us herself that she’s cunning and unnaturally strong. We must remember that. We must both of us always remember that, ha ha! So the dragon may prove a mere trifle after all. What do we really know, we poor finite mortals? You may find yourself slicing off the dragon’s head — and dragging it back here for all of us to see — with such ludicrous ease that your forced to guffaw — you and all your friends — at more ordinary mortals’ trepidations. That’s the thing, you see: the man who does battle with a dragon is, by definition, an exceptional man, necessarily a species of saint — indifferent about himself, a man concerned only about his brethren. Otherwise he wouldn’t be there, you see. Precisely! He’s a man ‘born again’ in a certain sense: a man who has learned that classic secret, that to save his life he has to throw it away. Now there’s a new twist on suicide, my prince! You don’t really throw your life away at all; instead you kill, as St. Paul says, the ‘old’ man — the carnal man, the self-regarding man — to give abundant life to the ‘new.’

“Put it this way: why not try it? If you fight Koog the Devil’s Son and win, against your wish — if you still even then, after that thrill, that glory, wish to end it all — come back to the monastery and I’ll suggest some adversary more fierce yet, perhaps even —   Monsters, sad to say, are never hard to come by. On the other hand, you owe it to yourself to take a crack at old Koog. That indifference to life that’s gotten into you can be a powerful weapon for God’s side. God loves the man who’s indifferent about himself, the charitable man. That’s the kind of fellow God looks after. Let me tell you a story.”

— John Gardner, In the Suicide Mountains

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