AN epidemic of suicide is sweeping through Ireland this winter. It is not taking the usual victims -- young males -- but the middle-aged, and of both sexes. I don't return to this topic with any pleasure; indeed, quite the reverse. But as a society we seem so paralysed by the phenomenon that we dare not even acknowledge its existence, never mind do anything about it, other than perhaps to give its victims far larger funerals than they would otherwise have had.
The first thing to remember here is that we are not dealing with rationality, either in the subject of suicide, or in general human behaviour. Anthropologists long ago concluded that a great many of the things we do are simply mimetic, or based on group dynamics. Market researchers in the 1950s discovered the existence of predictable trends within a society, and the percentiles that are likely to be drawn to them. Which is why all election victories are as much based on appealing to the different and mathematically calculable percentiles in any society as they are on policies.
Humans belong to a weak, impressionable species anyway, and we in Ireland have certain cultural characteristics which make us particularly vulnerable to suicide. For example, we have a tendency for political violence that is disproportionate to the alleged causes. There is also an appetite for martyrdom and for the most murderous form of passive-aggression, namely the hunger-strike. Overall, we have sanctified the concept of early-death well outside the usual parameters of lawful war. And we have traditions of melancholy, of brooding and of self-pity that are incarnate in our poetry, drama and music. We must take all these factors into account when we try to deal with the suicide epidemic in which we find ourselves.
One general factor in all this is the atmosphere of doom and gloom that now pervades Irish life. Sorry, but this is utterly unacceptable and unjustified. If you want to know about desolation and misery, consider Italy, Germany or Japan in 1945-46, or post-tsunami Japan nearly a year ago. Catastrophes that were vastly greater than anything that has been done to Ireland laid waste to their lands and their peoples. And what did the survivors do but roll up their sleeves and set to. We must do the same. The workforce that brought forth the Celtic Tiger can now give birth to the Celtic Phoenix: and with high food prices around the world lasting into the foreseeable future, and with our wonderful meat and dairy industries focussed on exports, agriculture is set fair to lead the recovery. Being unnecessarily pessimistic at this time is treason. It is also undermining the resolve of the weak, the damaged and the confused, to stay alive.
Suicide spreads when people feel authorised to opt for it, and when they have lost the will to remain alive. The second part is less important than the first part. Most people wish they were dead at some time or other in their lives. It is the culture of authorisation that translates a possibly temporary indifference to life into a decisive and final action which can be a key factor in the spread of suicide. The more people hear of suicides, the more suicides will follow. And the emotive, non-judgmental, godless culture that has emerged in recent years rules out the use of taboo as a social influence on society generally. If anything, nowadays, a suicide will receive a larger funeral than a cancer victim. So what impact does the sight of a huge funeral have on a depressed person who feels that life is not worth living, and they are a burden to others? Will their own death not merely end all their misery? And their funeral will then serve as a paradoxical affirmation of how important they really were: yes, well, the point is that suicide is not a rational choice.
This is the third time in just over a month that I have written about suicide. I do so reluctantly, because to judge from previous experiences, the issue is used by some to show how much more they care than I do. But we are in the middle of a national crisis that is apparently being ignored by the Government. I know of four people who have ended their lives in the past month: none of them young, and three of them women. This is a quite startling departure from our already appalling suicide pattern. Moreover, each death can serve as a cultural authoriser for others. Irrationality triumphs, and tragedy and grief then consume the lives of the next of kin.
And do you know what I am most concerned about? About whether or not I have inadvertently used some untoward phrase or word which will allow the putative leaders of the next internet lynch mob to tear me apart for my "insensitivity". The endless morality competition that is Irish life is not about caring for real people, but being SEEN to be caring and compassionate. Thus the empty optics of posturing triumph, while the scourge of suicide moves through Irish life like wolves through an unguarded flock.