“Don’t. Don’t. This will hurt someone”. These were the final words ever spoken by Robert Budd Dwyer before he pulled the trigger on his gun and shot himself through the head in front of an audience of people called together at a press conference.
Budd Dwyer was an American politician who served as the treasurer for Pennsylvania from January 1981 until January 1987. During his time in office Dwyer was convicted of receiving a bribe from a Californian company that would give the company a contract worth $4.6 million. The day before Dwyer was to receive his sentence, a possible 55 years in jail and a $300,000 fine, he called a press conference and committed suicide in front of friends and members of the media.
The incident was recorded by the gathered media and the footage of the event has been seen worldwide. I have watched the video a number of times on YouTube, and it is without doubt one of the most controversial and tragic things hosted on the website.
I have included the video here because it is the reason I am writing this piece. To attempt to understand what I am saying, it may be necessary to watch the footage that I am talking about.
VIEWER WARNING. EXTREMELY GRAPHIC FOOTAGE.
As Dwyer reaches the end of his pre-prepared speech, he asks for three people and hands them each an envelope. One of these envelopes contained a suicide note, a second an organ donor card, and the third envelope was a letter addressed to the new Pennsylvania Governor. One of the things I find quite remarkable about this event is the manner in which Dwyer hands these objects out. He is fully aware of the actions he is taking, that in the envelope he handed over is his own suicide note, and yet he seems almost calm. His hands do not shake, he is not teary eyed or emotional. He does not panic.
Compare this demeanour with that of one of the people watching what was unfolding. Footage from a different camera shows the face of an onlooker, and the sheer panic and horror in his eyes as he glances into the camera.
I once read that when dealing with suicidal people you should be most concerned when their mood seems to improve. When one day, all of a sudden, they wake up and they are smiling, and they seem almost happy. That is the period which is where you need to be most aware, because that is the period when they have made their decision. In the days, weeks or months leading up to a suicide attempt the person is still weighing up the options in their head, they have doubts, and they are unsure. They are suicidal but they have made no decision about the course of their life.
When a person has made a decision, when they have committed to ending their own life, a weight is lifted from their shoulders. They appear and act differently because they have decided on something. The end is in sight and so there is no worry, and the internal debate is over. It is in these final days, when they appear more content and happy, that the person makes the necessary arrangements for ending their own life. They plan it, they see their friends and family for the final time, and they write a suicide letter.
Budd Dwyer, though a little nervous, and understandably so, seems very composed for a man that is about to take his own life. The decision had been made some time before the press conference, and Dwyer was committed to following it out.
The suicide itself is sort of anti-climactic. Not that I would like to see suicide on a grander scale, indeed I would not like to see suicide at all ideally, but the footage is of a humans life ending. The permanent extinguishing of another persons existence and it just seems so small, and so easy. The gunshot is more a pop, the body collapses and slumps, and that is it. It is over. Where once was a living, breathing human, who was talking and communicating, there now lies just a body.
It is a concept that I cannot get my head around. A person can exist one second and not the next. With one movement of a finger Dwyer ceased to be. He felt no pain, he heard no sound, his life simply stopped. At once a fascinating and truly terrifying situation. A clear demonstration that life is incredibly fragile.
The topic of suicide always brings up the argument that the action taken by the person is selfish. I completely disagree with this belief for a number of reasons.
Personally, I am terrified of dying. That is my one fear. It always has been. Ever since I was a child I was aware of my own mortality and that every second that passed meant that I was another second closer to death. I think that everybody is scared of dying, whether they admit it or not, nobody wants to die, and everyone is afraid of it. If you weren’t afraid of death, you wouldn’t look when you cross the road, you wouldn’t wear a seatbelt when you got in a car, you wouldn’t believe in a paradise that you reach after death. Heaven was invented to ease the pain of people who know there is nothing more after this.
Due to our own self-awareness, and our own mortality, suicide has to be one of the bravest actions anyone can take. It is not believing that you are going to die, it is knowing. Knowing that your next few actions are the last actions you will ever take. To know that, and then still conduct them takes unbelievable nerve and mental strength. A conviction that I would never be able to possess. I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it because I am too much of a coward.
For an atheist, suicide is braver still, because they know that there is no after-life. They are aware that what is about to happen is final. They do not falsely believe that they will be transported to some paradise once their life on earth comes to an end. There is an ultimate finality about suicide, and in an atheists head, they know it is the final full stop in the autobiography of their lives. Such determination and resolve, the knowledge and the certainty that this is it.
Don’t misinterpret what I am saying. I do not advocate suicide, I am not pro-suicide. If ever I had a friend or relative, or if ever I encountered someone about to commit suicide, I would do almost anything I could to prevent them from taking their own life. However, I respect a persons self-determination, I respect their freedom of choice and I respect a person who says “I no longer want to live”. I will try to talk them out of it, I will try to show them the positives in life, the great experiences and love that you can both give and receive, but I would never convince someone. It is their choice, it is their life and if people don’t have control over that, then they cannot have control over anything.
As well as suicide being an act of bravery because it is a journey into the unknown, it is also an example of actively making a change. I feel that making a change requires certain virtues because you are stepping away from what you are used to. Just continuing to do the same thing day-in-and-day-out does not require bravery, strength, or even thought, because it is routine. There is no change, and you are not stepping away from the comfort zone that you have become used to.
There are arguments that say suicide is an easy way out, a cowardly action, but again I completely disagree. Easy is simply continuing to exist. I mean it does not require much effort just to exist, you wake up, you eat, you just simply are. There needs to be very little action from anyone, even breathing is automatic. That is easy. What is hard is when you actively make a change in this routine. Remaining in a job is fairly easy, you just follow the routine of attending work, what is hard is changing this routine by taking the decision to quit your job. Being in a relationship is fairly easy, again you follow routine, what is harder is ending a relationship and breaking up with your other half, making a change to that routine.
I mentioned earlier that I disagree with the belief that suicide is selfish. I fail to see how an action conducted by an individual with regards to their own existence is a selfish choice. A persons life belongs to nobody but themselves, and when you are the sole owner of something, what you choose to do with that is of no-one else’s concern. We are free to eat what we want for lunch, we are free to listen to music of our choice, we are free to wear the clothes we fancy, but when we want to decide on our own existence, suddenly everybody has a say in it.
I believe that suicide is considered selfish because we are all too often viewing the act of suicide from the perspective of those left behind, when really we should be looking at suicide through the perspective of the person committing the act. It is called a selfish act because by killing yourself you are denying your friends and family the happiness that you gave them when you were around. Any potential future happiness they would receive from you has also been taken from them. This happiness is replaced by grief and loss, and the person who committed suicide is deemed selfish for only thinking of themselves.
But it is important, in fact crucial, to remember that people are not means to an end. They are ends in themselves. A friend is not there purely to provide you with entertainment, a parent is not there purely to provide you with financial assistance, they are people themselves. If anything, those that call suicide a selfish act are in fact the truly selfish ones, because they are opposed to another person taking their own life, purely on the basis of how it would affect them.
I have a friend that owns a really nice car, I sometimes go for a ride in the car and I thoroughly enjoy myself, I get great happiness from it. One day my friend decides to sell his car and so I will no longer receive any enjoyment from it. Is this selfish? No, of course not. The car belonged to my friend, just like his life does, and what they decide to do with it is entirely up to them.
Another good example would be that of Zoo’s. Are the animals caged for their own enjoyment? No, they are not. They are there purely for our viewing pleasure. We are gaining some sort of happiness from them being there and so they remain there, no matter how distressed or unhappy they may be. If we were to release all the animals in the Zoo’s back into their natural habitats, as perhaps we should do, would we then be accused of being selfish? Again, the answer would be no.
For me, suicide will always be an emotional and fascinating subject. It is a drama that is played out across the world every single day, and is a drama which divides opinion. It is both tragic and brave, poignant and courageous, and for those suicides captured in the media, life-ending and immortal.
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