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QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
Teen

Please remember, this column is designed to help the consumer seeking behavioral-health information, and not intended to be any form of psychotherapy or a replacement for professional, individualized services. Opinions expressed in the column are those of the columnist and do not represent the position of other SelfhelpMagazine.com staff.

Question

I was wondering if suicide is a selfish act? Also, is pity a form of selfishness?

Answer

Boy, this is a loaded question! First, let's talk about suicide. Many people believe that suicide is an act of selfishness. However, if you better understand people who have suicidal thoughts and/or actions, you may change your thoughts about suicide. People who get to the point of taking their own lives are most likely suffering terribly. In fact, they have probably been suffering for quite sometime. We can never know the pain others are going through. Even if they attempt to tell us to help us understand, it is not possible to know how those circumstances affect another person whose life experiences are different from ours. This explains why some people bounce back easier than others who share similar traumatic experiences.

Generally speaking, it is believed that people who attempt to kill themselves are not thinking rationally. Suicidal thoughts are usually associated with major depression and/or chronic physical pain. People who become suicidal due to either of these contributing factors are probably not thinking rationally. One exception to this rule MAY be a person who is suffering great pain from a terminal illness. The case can be made that because of their pain they are not thinking rationally either, regardless of their well planned strategy. If people who are suicidal are not rational, how can we hold them accountable for their actions or presume to know their intent?

Suicide is truly an act of desperation.

As for pity, many of the same principles apply. People who have self pity have often learned through their life experiences that things seldom work out the way they would like, so they stop trying. This is called "learned helplessness" in the professional community. These people feel powerless to change their circumstances, for whatever reason. They may view the world and the people in it as controlling them and their destiny, seeing themselves as victims many times.

Racial minorities are a good example of a group of people for whom these feelings have been substantiated and reinforced year after year. Although racism is not as blatantly obvious now, it still exists in every form at every level. The results of the many years of racism have devastated generations of minorities, and those effects will continue to impact others for years to come. It will take years of positive, empowering experiences to reverse these effects. That is true not only for minorities, but anyone who has repeatedly and systematically been beaten down by negative experiences, attitudes and beliefs.

On the other hand, 12 step programs are well known for confronting their members if one is perceived to be using pity as an excuse or crutch to continue self-defeating behavior. They often say "So and so is having a pity party." Or "Get off your pity pot." This seems harsh to outsiders who are not accustomed to the climate and culture of these groups, but members understand that their sobriety, and indeed for many their lives, is at stake if they engage in pity.

So, I now ask you the original question . . . in light of this information, do you think suicide and pity are selfish acts? Or do you believe that people who resort to these behaviors are usually doing so for reasons that defy our understanding and therefore our judgment of their actions?

3/12/98

LuAnn Pierce, MSW, CMSW
Author of Growing up Sane (in uncertain times)
Seminar Leader Growing Well Adjusted Kids
Editor-in-Cheif Person to Person: Strengthening Youth & Families
Telephone Counselor Affinity Counseling Center
Affinity Books & Resource Center: Your Source for Emotional Wellness

 

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