Lately a poker player announced that she was deeply distraught and thinking of ending her life. She didn’t follow up with this; meanwhile, there were the usual motions of distress within her social media reach, and even castigation of her when she resurfaced. How dare you worry us, et cetera, in addition to the more typical we know all about how you should react to pain. I don’t think the word motions is really meant to denigrate their efforts: what I mean is, very little is and can be done through social media, yet it is the first place we often go. As for who should know what, remember that they will also say silly things like you’re a different color or sex or religion or age so I can’t possibly imagine what you feel. Strange to protest that you have no empathy yet also mean well, but such are the contortions of life.
Still, that means nothing changes, merely the presentation of our attentions: lies and politeness belong together today, as ever. Mortals that we are, human suffering is something to which we keenly turn this attention, and poker has as much or more of it as any other field. For anyone who has experienced a suicide attempt by another or by themselves, known suicidal thoughts that went nowhere, or seen despair beyond depression in others, there is empirical knowledge to be utilized in cases like this that is perhaps different from whatever language the clinicians use.
The illusion of despair is the feeling most primarily experienced and probably yields many suicide attempts and even completions. That’s important to note: even a mistaken sense of loss can yield the suicide. Further, the idea that you have lost something insurmountable or are experiencing unconquerable pain might convince you to take a drastic positive or negative action. It is a prime motivator for a vast number of humans and is something most will know at least once. In fact, suffering is all over the place, to the point that we often only take it seriously when it finally touches us or intrudes in some degree.
However, actual insurmountable loss and unconquerable pain, as the very unhappy and very small minority know, is a very different affair. Most people are simply not sensitive, even though they could be with some thought, to the difference, and therefore treat the suffering with a wide degree of rather unfair, if not cruel, similarity. The death of one’s body is very different from the loss of potential, and so is the actual loss of the beloved, whatever it might be. There are indeed circumstances that lend themselves to pure despair; the case of this poker player may well belong here.
That is the point, however: how do we know for sure where we are on this clear if dark scale? One must, therefore, be not so quick to judge without thought and investigation as to which it is, the illusion of despair, or its stage four incorporation, the death of hope, or where it is between the two.
For this reason, I would be more careful and less certain of your ideas when someone proposes to end their life. To ask more questions than provide answers. They may need to throw these feelings into the wind and live in them and in the reaction to them, before coming to the natural feeling of well-being that even the depressed actually have and enjoy. It is potentially good news that true despair does not involve much social media, which is the most surface form of communication given that it is only the projection of self. Potentially, though, doesn’t account for many sad cases.
Where on the spectrum was this poker player, who hinted at horrible illness? We cannot know but we do not need to in order to behave better about suffering.
There are some meaningful trends that might guide one. The actually despairing human is in retreat from the world, because the condition of their pain is terminal and wearying, a cause for shame and shadows. Real despair does not respond to the simple disinfectant of sunlight and clichés and your anecdote about your cousin’s cousin’s rebound, and so it does not seek these remedies. These hard cases give up not merely surface patterns such as “activities” which any depressed person naturally retreats from in the reorganization of their mind, but surrender people, places, time itself in a kind of diminishment that is itself a form of slow suicide. In other words, there are millions of true suicides not labeled as such, they are simply happening on a frequency you approve of, at a frequency you don’t have to think about, whereas the burst of despair that is spread in a community is as little as an annoyance that is greeted with false hope, real hope, and all the pathologies we normally project.
Who makes the call as to which is which?
Perhaps some are more at risk than others. Competitive fields like poker can yield slightly worse outcomes in terms of suicide; while measuring poker’s is probably impossible, there is hard data for some professions. Interestingly we don’t have to look too far to know the false reasons we see distributed and a solid reason for differences in lifestyles. Failure is not a primary cause of suicide, being that it is an illusion of despair that results in a reorganization of the mind, even a renewed determination to succeed. The most successful, useful professions feature high rates of suicide. Further, we love failure more than many things; hence the sports lingo, self-improvement mania, and even the quotidian word “journey,” so overused and meaningless on the surface but in fact also a key to the possibility of redemptive suffering.
No, the real terror of sports, competition, and poker, is that its participants often do not find something else to occupy themselves with when the trial is done. Work has always been the panacea and the salvation of the suffering, yet if a person has very little to do, much like a retiree, much like a poker player, a downward spiral can commence far more easily.
It’s important to note that work is not valuable in merely a Protestant, moralistic way – that is a primary mistake of those who believe in the technological end of liberatory politics. Work is itself a social and personal good, as work invariable benefits someone else. It fosters real connections and creates real community. It creates the whole human and thus heals the human, too.
Sympathy, never mind empathy, is difficult to provide correctly. The cavalierness this writer felt in the face of potentially helping the despairing end their lives is a window onto the two types of suicidal despair I am talking about. After supporting his country’s efforts to offer a dignified end, he has come to realize the spectrum of despair, its states, and even its creators and causes, which he formalizes into societal pressures, “capitalism” etc. Even if he requires a standard bogey man to see the problem, it is still a powerful realization on his part, because it has forced him to ask with more precision, where and when do we start helping people die? The illusion of despair, whether it is from lack of love or money, from cancer or capitalism, in the dark corners of poker or the silliness of school, can lead to tragic outcomes no one wants – the very ones he was eager to support in an act of solidarity only a short time before.
And what of more complex cases? Of the ideological, of the sacrificial? Why the strange bias that the suicide is out of control, when the act is one of control? Perhaps another day, but the return of one of my favorites, Sun and Steel, to some surprising popularity in the weird and interesting corners of the web surely hints at deaths to come, deaths that won’t be so easy for the cliche-bound to understand. Despair is, to the undepressed or uninitiated, almost another world, with gravity you are not prepared for. It is no coincidence that it takes Von Trier an astounding metaphor to convey the idea in his suffocatingly beautiful film.
All this means is, deciding that the problems of the suffering are or aren’t real can’t be done online, certainly if it can’t be done well by the credentialed experts and committees our cavalier activist wished for. Maybe the truth is that no one can.
So, back to where we started. The social media you may rely on is, regrettably, not a substitute for community, for friendship, for love, for family, for the touch of a dependent animal or even, really, the coarse reassurance of a tree’s bark, if not the grass they mock you to touch. The projection of self solves little, by definition, because we do not become well by leaving ourselves but by finding ourselves. Abandoning social media can be a first step in healing for this alone.
We are continuing to make it harder and harder to reach out over what media we use, we must also admit. Words themselves fail in most social media settings; for one thing, the volume and access to words and images now available debases the pool. More disturbingly, we are seeing that artificial intelligence can duplicate insincerity and unserious feelings with pinpoint accuracy; this alone is enough of a misfortune for society already bit sick on falsity. What’s a thousand times worse, however, is that humans are mistaking real thought for the duplicable thought, and even ending the purpose of most expression by rendering everything contextless, simple, and abstracted.
The silver lining? This leaves us with real answers, even if they are hard and not the responsibility of the crowd. If you follow my metaphor, a Hallmark card can help a suicidal far more than a barrage of clicks, but of course you still have to find that card, contort your fingers to make some “handwriting” (what the hell is that?) and put a stamp on the envelope, if you can’t deliver it yourself. When was the last time you took the time to so express yourself to someone, past, present, or future? If there are a million slow suicides, you know one, and that means you can stop one.
Of course, there are as many exceptions as there are cases, so don’t show me you misunderstand this blog post by sending me some clinical literature, because all that is actually to reinforce my point. Moreover, while I’m sure you are special, and that your way of being or not being is more authentic than everyone else’s – that is exactly the madness the artificial will be replicating and selling back to you, if it already isn’t.
In fact, it’s probably more interesting than even this topic that the recent A.I. developments don’t merely demonstrate their potential, but that we are already deeply ingrained in their DNA. Yes, the dumb crap we fill the cloud with is the starter for the monster’s yeasty subconscious, and already inevitable here in 2023, where we still bicycle touching the ground and smart phones need buttons. It is a terrible inevitability that life matters more than death, a cruelty and a liberation that the death of the gods has given us, as well as the unpolite, vicious reason not to kill yourself. If you can’t be happy, it is still worth raging that there is always someone or something grabbing at the sword you will not lift. All our emotions have purposes, obviously, yet only some are praised. Sad!
What’s important is this: since we cannot know just how much someone is suffering, it’s best to not make too many assumptions or judgements without primary, first-hand observation, no matter what they do or say. Pretty dull advice, perhaps, but you can see that this kind of sobriety just won’t fit into 280 characters. Little worth saying does.