June 30, 2013
The Big Sad Wolf

In todayís New York Times I discovered something that I would probably have known if I had ever given the matter any thought: No other animal commits suicide. Why is that?

A teenage girl interviewed in the article attempts suicide, apparently because she is unpopular. Is she less popular than a lion driven from his pride by a younger male? Lonelier and sadder than a canary that has never seen another canary since leaving the pet store? Never flown free, or even flown at all?

Do these animals choose life despite all this because they are incapable of feeling emotions, good or bad, as we more sensitive beings do? Unlikely. Think of a purring cat or a whipped dog. Or look at the tiger in his cage, pacing, pacing, pacing in what certainly looks like a state of clinical depression. But unlike us he doesnít lie down and starve himself to death. That only happens in zoos that exhibit the higher primates, like GuantŠnamo.

Can it be that nonhuman animals, lacking the power of speech, simply donít know how to kill themselves? After all, a wolf might be able to kill another wolf, but he canít ask another wolf to kill him. A wolf that sees a fellow wolf die in a trap has no way to communicate his discovery. Future generations would never know that if life got too tough you could always hunt up one of those steel gadgets, stick your leg into it, and wait.

Wait for what, though?

All animals feel hunger, but how could any animal know that resisting those pangs would at some future point result in its own death? Could our wolf even conceive of his own death? No body of ancestral knowledge exists to teach him that all wolves, present company not excepted, are mortal. Lacking that knowledge, no wolf could learn any more in a lifetime than that some other wolves sometimes die. But as far as our wolf knew, he might live forever if he could just manage to get through this one rough patch.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at June 30, 2013 06:30 PM
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Back when John Lilly and his colleagues were trying to talk with dolphins they were making progress but the dolphins apparently became depressed. Some of them stopped eating and died, which Lilly et al. interpreted as suicide so they freed the remaining dolphins.

But basically your point is very solid. The sense of an ending on its way at some point can either be unbearable and overwhelming or it can be motivating and framing. Our attitude towards it seems to be the critical component.

As part of my Psy.D. training I'm answering a suicide hotline four hours a week. We have callers who cannot stop thinking about killing themselves because their mental illness, schizophrenia or whatever, keeps them stuck in that loop. Others really want to live but are hounded by a sense of worthlessness, of being a burden to others, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

In the cases I've been involved in despair has been the motivator. Often the objective situation did not call for despair, but support was insufficient or completely lacking, and the individual felt alone and abandoned.

Our society does poorly at addressing this problem in part because we're collectively in denial about death. As Americans we expect to be young forever, or at least look that way. We don't have a Day of the Dead to keep us aware of the main fact of life. As Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda:

Death is always over your left shoulder. He's not going away, so you might as well make friends with him.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on June 30, 2013 7:12 PM

It ain't necessarily so:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_suicide

Posted by: John Anthony Curran on June 30, 2013 11:25 PM

Not too sure how the article led you to that discovery; at least I can't find where Nock or the author says it. There's no mention that Nock has ever even spent any time actually observing animals. "Nockís refusal to accept any wisdom that canít be tested ..." indicates that he probably isn't very interested in them. I guess you mean it made you think about the subject more and you came to that conclusion.

John is right that there are other viewpoints on this. We don't really know what animals know or what they are thinking and there may be a lot more going on than we sometimes think. Barry Lopez believes that predator animals and their prey have what he calls the "conversation of death" http://www.mrbauld.com/lopez.html (scroll to the second piece there for Lopez, although the other bit is interesting too).

Derrick Jensen (sorry, can't find the link right now) tells a story of going out with his dogs and they are sitting resting when a rather old-looking rat comes right up to them and makes eye contact with one of the dogs. The dog goes after him but Jensen calls him off and stops him from killing the rat. He regrets it because he believes the rat was old and wanted to die and will now have a slow, agonizing death. Mystical sounding stuff, but interesting.

One more. My partner has a cousin who lived in the top floor of a 12-story high-rise. He had two Siamese cats who were devoted companions. One of them accidentally fell from the unscreened balcony to its death on the street. The other was despondent. One morning, he slipped out of the front door somehow -- remember, these were strictly indoor cats since kittenhood -- got on to the elevator when somebody was going down and rode to the ground floor, left the building, and promptly ran into the street in front of a truck. R. swore that the cat had committed suicide.

Posted by: Tim on July 1, 2013 12:20 PM

Neither Nock nor the author flat-out said it, Tim, but I thought the author had when I was writing the lede. But I couldn't find any such quote either when your comment sent me back to the article. I began to think I had lost it completely, until on the fourth re-reading I picked up on the language that set me off:

"Trying to study what people are thinking before they try to kill themselves is like trying to examine a shadow with a flashlight: the minute you spotlight it, it disappears. Researchers canít ethically induce suicidal thinking in the lab and watch it develop. Uniquely human, it canít be observed in other species."

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on July 1, 2013 2:19 PM

So everything we've been told about lemmings and their mass suicide is not true?

Posted by: JoyfulA on July 1, 2013 4:08 PM

The lemming case is a peculiar one. Despite appearances, it does not involve suicide but rather mass murder. Thousands of little rodents follow one little rodent ó let's call him Mitch Boehner ó to their deaths. Their leader knows they will die, but if they didn't follow him he would no longer be their leader. Nor will he himself be a suicide despite appearances. Suicide must be intentional, not accidental. He believes that he will not die, but that he will go straight to heaven, there to be pleasured by a thousand virgin nuns. That he will in fact go only to the bottom of a pile of thousands of other dead little rodents does not make him a suicide, any more than a man would be who polished off a can of Drano under the impression it was Red Bull.

Posted by: Pluma Lashley on July 1, 2013 5:59 PM

S'morning I posted a thing vaguely related: a sheet of stickers found on the sidewalk. Seemingly meant for use in marking a calendar book by someone whose sense of self reads "woman", not "person". They're preprinted for occasions including rare kinds of health appointments, even colostomies -- but not for funerals: http://marthabridegam.tumblr.com/post/54353951554/stickers-for-the-pages-of-a-female-oriented

Strange how people accommodate this commercial pretended innocence of the facts of life. Especially as imputed to women by a sheet of stickers that are otherwise coded with feminine responsibility-guilt for family occasions. A death is a family occasion. A loving funeral for a loved person reknits the community of survivors. A matron who is sufficiently duty-bearing to mark her calendar with pink and purple stickers reading "Anniversary" and "Graduation" has also tended her share of bedsides and prepared her share of baked meats.

Humans, as you say, are aware of endings.

LeGuin:

"Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky."

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on July 2, 2013 1:39 AM

Of course I meant colonoscopies in the above. Oops.

My point being the same: why are people thought socially more willing to contemplate medical awfulness than the naturally finite nature of life?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on July 2, 2013 1:39 PM
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