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2

Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?

10

One does not have to defend the absurd in order to respect a person. Objecting to the absurdity of declaring Mother Teresa a saint does not mean disrespect for her work.

Today, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint. This naturally resulted in a flood of praise and criticism on social media. Contrary to the respectful tweet from the Prime Minister on the occasion, his supporters were NOT happy. They were critics of this step. In their eyes, she is fraudulent, and worst of all, she engaged in conversions (the prime majority fundamentalist objection to religious minority figures in India).

Those who admired Saint Teresa (must get used to not calling her Mother Teresa now) had their own reasons to cheer the long awaited development. In their eyes, her service to the poor and ill made her deserving of respect. Incidentally, this is something nurses in hospitals do routinely and get far less money for it than Mother Teresa got in donations for her cause. Nor do the see the service as a part of promoting their cause. Which does not negate the fact that she did serve like countless other organizations and people dedicated to service. Baba Amte, for example.

I don't have a problem with religious conversions. In fact, I have often said in the past that the poor must be allowed to change religion as often as they wish and religious organizations wanting to increase numbers for their religion should be encouraged to pay them to convert and/or stay in the religion. This beats a lot of hatred and violence in the name of religion and would probably do something constructive for a change.

While there are disturbing questions about Mother Teresa's ethics raised separately by several people, I think no one is perfect and if she had rendered significant service to mankind, it stands independent of criticism in other areas. Today is not necessarily a day for deliberate drawing out of every flaw, real or perceived that she had. In my view, regardless of the questions raised about her, her influence and role model for people was almost entirely one of service - which is not a bad thing.

My problem is with "Saint" and "miracles" that are required to declare a saint. The two "miracles" that proved her a saint were serious medical conditions that got "miraculously" cured by praying to her. To become a saint, the miracles have to be "scientifically inexplicable". However let us not underestimate the refusal of a mind to understand explanations, which are inconvenient to what is desired. These "miracles" have been robustly contested by rationalists and doctors. I will not get into them here, because this article is not about the miracles either - even if inexplicable healings happened.

Hospitals, the world over are replete with stories of "miraculous recoveries" that doctors have no explanations for beyond having tried their best, and yet no one has bothered to declare them places of supernatural occurrence. Sachin Kalbag, the editor of Mid-Day The Hindu, recently had a close brush with death and "miraculously" survived. His post delves beautifully into his contemplations on divine intervention as several unlikely coincidences happened that improved his chances of survival.

If a person who prayed to Mother Teresa made a miraculous recovery and a hundred who prayed to her did not, why is only one of them proof of a miracle? This was a woman routinely surrounded by the sick and dying, for whom she offered care (including medical) for decades and yet such a motivated effort found two miracles. After she died. What about the many who died? Are they proof of her NOT being inclined to save people more than inclined? Could it be that miracles started happening once her influence was gone from the world? What if someone had a freak road accident and died after meeting her? Would she be declared a malicious entity?

Selective vision is a wonderful, perception affirming thing. We see what we are looking for. You see cures in a hospital, miracles in a place of worship Even if 2000 people made unexpected recoveries in a hospital while only 2 did in the saint's worship.

 

India is a country prone to belief in the supernatural. Partly because of a rich mythology, but largely because belief is the only thing a lot of people can afford when faced with very expensive needs, wants and problems. And yet, praying to Mother Teresa is NOT an appropriate course of action if you are diagnosed with a tumor or brain abscesses.

"Saint Teresa" is not about ill people finding care in her organization, or poor and ill people finding free treatment in her memory, it is about ill people being saved by praying to her. This is my problem.

For anyone living in India, miraculous cures are nothing new. Loads of Hindi films have them, usually when the villain is wiping the floor with the hero and just before the climax. Every family has a deity or three (or a more modern guru or mata they find) to pray to when things go wrong. From Baba Ramdev curing homosexuality to homeopathy curing cancer. From quacks taking people off necessary drugs because they "conflict" with their treatment to "faith healing" events in various churches. "Miracle cures" are a staple in India. There is nothing new about them. Why two miracles make a saint should be a question that even the most gullible believer in miracle cures must ask.

Does the canonization of Mother Teresa to Saint Teresa over two piddly miracles mean that the church admits that the countless faith healing events churning out "miracle cures" every week are bogus? I do hope so. It is overdue.

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I had felt compelled to meet Narendra Dabholkar once, after knowing his views for years. I liked what he was doing. What he said. I agreed with his views about the dangers of superstition. We had a long talk, and he suggested that I become a member of their organization. I was ambiguous. I had a baby who was quite young. I had things I was doing. Not really time enough to get into stuff like that you know, I, who was writing an average of three posts a week on this blog (but not about rationalism), told the chap who quit his medical practice for such "stuff" because he had the foresight to see how the erosion of reason ruined us as a whole. I myself had a live and let live approach, even though I understood what he did, to debunk superstition and spread awareness of rationalism was necessary work. I participated in religious ceremonies though I thought they were bullshit and ineffective for whatever claimed purpose they were being conducted. I listened to people talk about various miracle workers while making no effort to encourage them to think things through.

"What is the harm?" I thought. People believed whatever would bring them solace. I remained in touch with ANS (Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti) articles and news though I didn't interact with them much. I liked what they had to say, but I wasn't "active" about my rationalism. Then, one day, I was numb. Reading news of Dabholkar being shot dead. Reading countless people on social media share his work, his views. I was one of them. I remembered his patient, extremely reasonable manner of explaining things. He was dead. What a waste. There are very grudging token attempts to nail his murderers. No real will behind them. Who would offend bastions of BELIEF? What was "justice" anyway? How could punishing a person or five compensate for the loss to people at large?

"There is real harm." It was an expensive lesson. The silence of those who didn't bother to work for necessary change, who didn't want the inconvenience of offending people is what made sitting ducks of those who were doing good work. Pick off the voices, and silence dissent.

Belief in superstition is not just about faith, it is about controlling the gullible and it has a dark underbelly. The pretty side is where countless people find hope, as they look at a few well publicized miracles and play an emotional lottery hoping for a similar result, taking it as "luck" when the expected result doesn't happen. The dark side is what happens to those who say "The Emperor has no clothes". And Narendra Dabholkar is hardly the only one to face the ire of religious fanatics for trying to bring a voice of sanity.

Before someone says that it is the Hindu fanatics who killed Dabholkar, let me remind you of Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who had to flee the country for the crime of debunking a "miracle". 

This isn't  matter of being polite and not insulting someone who did "good work", it is a matter of actively speaking up against wholesale encouragement to believe in the irrational, to stand up and be among the number of people who have a problem with the promotion of such beliefs, before the few who do it remain the standing ducks to be picked off one by one, like Dabholkar was, Pansare was, and open threats could be issued.... while the rest pretend to believe in rational thought but choose polite evasions and be "goody goody" rather than look bad disagreeing about "respect" of a "good person".

You may afford to think that oh, you like Mother Teresa, therefore you will not look too closely at why she is being called a saint. Today is your day off for skeptical enquiry because it is a special absurd occasion. After all, in this world of selfish people, is it not a miracle someone wants to help people at all? You may afford to encourage a view that helping those in need is something only a saint is capable of (and thus exempt yourselves from having to do anything). You may say, oh it is a pity that people who question superstition get murdered and I promise to be extra skeptical tomorrow. I was like that. I learned my lesson with Dabholkar's murder. It is one I won't forget in a hurry.

Respecting selfless service ought to be good enough for you to not be required to defend the absurd either.

Update: A lot of people have commented on Twitter that the miracles were a formality and the recognition is for her work. Personally, I think the recognition is more about the church having people of worship native to India, so that more people are interested. It is a huge market, you know? But all that apart, there was nothing wrong with respecting Mother Teresa, or declaring her a Saint without the miracles too. Contrary to the belief of the few "rationalists" clinging desperately to this belief of the miracles being a formality, you have the usually sane Outlook Magazine reporting on how the devout still feel her presence, etc. Let us not even pretend that the "devout" don't pray to saints to solve problems. Not even you are that gullible.