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Bishop Scott Benhase: suicide is “selfish”

Bishop Scott Benhase: suicide is “selfish”

In his most recent eCrozier reflection published by The Living Church, “Robin Williams, My Friend, and the Selfishness of Suicide”, Bishop Scott Benhase of the Diocese of Georgia offers the following pastoral reflection:

I had a dear friend who committed suicide four years ago. Like Mr. Williams, he was brilliant. His brilliance, however, was in a different vocation. He was a palliative care physician. The irony of his life was that he could relieve everyone’s pain but his own (like Mr. Williams who brought so many people joy without finding joy himself). My friend knew he had many people who loved him dearly. I don’t know what was going through his mind and soul when he chose suicide. Clearly, he was in emotional and spiritual pain. Maybe he thought his suicide was an act of love and kindness to us who loved him? It was not. His act was neither loving nor was it kind. It was selfish. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.

What my friend needed and still needs from me isn’t the cheap grace and absolution of the well-intended “well, I guess he’s at peace now.” No, what he still needs from me is my forgiveness for what he did to himself and to those who loved him.

What are your thoughts on this reflection by Bishop Benhase? Is this a compassionate response for those who may suffer from suicidal thoughts, mental illness, and their friends and families who love them? How might you and your community of faith respond in love and competence to anyone-especially those living with mental illness-after a suicide in the community?

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Ann Hall

I can understand the need for forgiveness in that suicide does cause pain. However, many times a person may end his life because he truly believes he is sparing his loves ones suffering as well as himself. There does not appear to be any qualification in the bishop's comment. I wish I could see the whole context of what he is saying. It is such an unqualified statement as it stand. I find his comment as it stands to be disturbing. I have lost a love one by suicide. I believe with Fred Buechner, who lost both a father and an uncle, to suicide that God's love is a tide so wide and broad that it will bring the suffering ones safely home. Yes, sometimes suicide may be selfish but it may not be. We wouldn't judge a cancer patient as selfish, would we? And we should not judge those who suffer severe depression as selfish either.

The bishop's anger would be better directed toward those insensitive and hardened souls who give invitations for one to die rather than an enfolding love that invites one to live. As a general rule this bishop is on target but I think by this one comment he has done unintentional damage even if he meant well. I do not judge him for this because we all err. I just don't think that Christ would make such a statement. I will never be over my friend's death but between her cancer, her lack of medical insurance, her physical pain, and the anxiety and depression that she endured all her life, I can understand why she felt as she did. She had also suffered abuse. She showed amazing love not just to me as a friend but to the many animals she cared for many a year. I do find comfort that she is not suffering anymore. I do believe that through God's redeeming grace, I shall see her again. I invite folks to read Buechner's "A Wizard Tide" which has been retitled as "A Christmas Tide" (I think). I invite folks who have lost a loved one by suicide to trust the Heart of Love, who enfolds us all, with their loved one.

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Clark West

Is Suicide selfish? (please forgive the length of this comment).

Is suicide selfish? The question itself puts the matter immediately into the realm of moral theology, which is where the church has often put it. But I wonder if there’s a better way. Christian thought has often struggled with dualistic assumptions regarding the mind and the body, with the mind thought to be something completely other than the flesh and not subject to its limitations.

Recent work in neurobiology has challenged this assumption. The brain is of course a part of the body, and our thoughts are themselves inextricably bound to our bodily states. This is something the desert monks knew as well as today’s neurobiologists and body-oriented psychotherapists, of course, but alas, it is too often forgotten. Ravaging physical illness can lead the mind astray, and severe depression can leave the body utterly listless and undone.

Here’s a thought experiment, then, regarding suicide, one that assumes that our brains, and the thoughts produced by them, are a part of our embodied, material selves. What if we thought of severe mental illness, like the depression that afflicted our brother Robin Williams, as akin to cancer, cancer of the mind. It is unbidden, unwanted, and produces horrific physical, neuro-chemical effects in the mind, leading to thoughts often utterly divorced from reality. Just as some forms of cancer are so ravaging that they lead to death, so some forms of depression and mental illness do the same. And just as we would never dream of calling death from most forms of cancer “selfish,” so to it is perhaps a mistake to think of suicide brought on by extreme mental illness as selfish. The mind-body has utterly betrayed the suicidal person, so much so that even the thought they may have that they are making a choice is itself misleading.

Now there is one caveat I see here, and it is a very crucial one. When we first receive a diagnosis of a life threatening illness, we are usually in the early stages of its effects. The cancer patient will be given a whole host of treatment options, from change of diet, exercise and life-style habits, to chemotherapy and radiation. If one wants to live, to ‘beat cancer’ as we sometimes say, great effort must be made, and this of course is a choice. Some people refuse to change their life, and this does lead us into the realm of moral theology. But again, surely, when they have done all they can, and the brutality of the cancer nevertheless takes their lives, it would be cruel and unjust to accuse them of dying ‘selfishly’ of a disease whose provenance and meaning is simply inexplicable.

So too, I would say, with mental illness and the risk of death by suicide. Sufferers of severe mental illness are often well aware of the disease they suffer under, and the resources available to them to fight it. Taking full advantage of medicine, cognitive-behavioral therapies, healthy diet and exercise, prayer, are crucial for this. What makes this fight even harder than the cancer patient’s fight, however, is that the very organ that is afflicted, the mind, is the organ that is needed to recognize the need to continue these therapies and to act. Extremely vigilant discipline is needed to fight mental illness because the mind betrays one into thinking such discipline is not needed (we read continually about bi-polar sufferers, for example, refusing their medicine because they feel better during their high cycle). Here the mentally ill person has as much need, if not even more, for a circle of close friends, doctors, spiritually mature advisors, etc, in order to help keep them accountable to the treatment plan that has been agreed upon during his/her more lucid moments.

And yet. And yet, even when all of this hard work is done, as it is being done by so many heroic victims of the diabolical disease of mental illness, sometimes the disease overwhelms. In my own ministry with young people, I will never forget the young man whose funeral I facilitated after his death from suicide. He suffered from not merely one, but multiple mental and physical illnesses, and the physical, emotional and spiritual toll this took on him and his family is simply incalculable. When I preached at his funeral service, I reminded everyone there, many of whom were his friends who knew of and shared in some of the same mental illnesses he did, of how important these resources are to those who survive.

And yet, in that moment, we had to acknowledge that a disease like cancer, whose ravages every effort sometimes is simply no match for, had killed our friend. He had not killed himself, had not ‘committed’ suicide (a morally laden term that every suicide counselor I know refuses to use), but he had died from the scourging effects of mental illness. And so we celebrated his life, his loves, and his courageous battles he waged over the course of his all too brief life. And we mourned. We mourned over the power of death, its dark pull, which even for those of us who count the resurrected Christ as liberator, is still among us in so many forms, mental illness being one of the most insidious of them.

It strikes me that as Christians, we must, as William Stringfellow so brilliantly taught us, acknowledge the terrible powers of death among us, not minimize them, nor accept them as anything other than alien to God’s kingdom. We can be angry at the death of our brother Robin Williams. But not, ultimately I think, at him. Rather, in language Stringfellow did not hesitate to use, we must deny, rebuke, reject the powers of death their meaning, their moral authority, their reason. To reject Robin Williams’ death as a defeat is to reject the powers that overcame him in his final moments, to acknowledge that we live between life and death at every moment, that the heart, as Dostoevsky and the desert monkes put it, is a battleground. I am here reminded of one of my favorite prayers in the BCP, the one for young people, in which we acknowledge that in this life there is still failure (not necessarily moral failure), that death sometimes wins and that the kingdom of God’s reign is not yet complete. “Let us take failure, not as a measure of our worth, but as a chance for a new start.” I take it that this prayer holds for our brother Robin, but even more, for those of us who remain.

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Pete Haynsworth

Let's stipulate that the pain and suffering experienced by a clinically depressed person is felt at a debilitating level.   For Robin Williams, add the certainty of a different, pernicious, strung-out sort of pain and suffering from PD (Parkinson's Disease). 

Is not such intense pain and suffering on the same continuum as that faced at terminal stages of disease, which our culture now allows to be purposefully ended ("final directives" and all that)?

Could not an individual morally choose a perceived path of lesser cumulative pain and suffering - his and loved ones' combined - by truncating a fate of intense pain and suffering sooner as opposed to later? How much "sooner" is too soon?

Just asking.

... and just FWIW, might not an 11th "reason to be an Episcopalian" be: Upon one's death, a funeral liturgy from the Burial Office can be expected rather than some god-awful "life celebration"?

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Willa Goodfellow

It is fairly common and acceptable for the bereaved to feel angry, even to blame the one who has died. Only in the case of suicide is it considered acceptable to nurture that anger.

In the full article, Bishop Benhase demonstrates a singular lack of ability to read the minds of those in extreme suicidal pain. No, we do not mistake understanding and compassion for encouragement to die. Rather, we take these things as evidence that we are not as alone as we feel. Oddly enough, understanding and compassion support us in our efforts to survive this mortal illness.

I regret that a bishop of the church has used his voice to heap pain on those already suffering, and pray that he return to his priestly vows to seek knowledge of such things as may make him a stronger and more able minister of Christ.

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Mary Davis

The thing about being suicidal is that it's not generally a one-time thing. It's a decision that has to be made every day, sometimes (for me) several times a day, sometimes several times an hour, all day: is this torture more than I can bear? Can I live through the next fifteen minutes of agony, for the sake of all those who love me?

I actually would agree that suicide is essentially a selfish act, and that those who commit suicide need the forgiveness of those who survive them (just as the survivors need to find that forgiveness in themselves). But *not* committing suicide--being alive today because I chose to keep going--well, that is the most unselfish and heroic thing I will ever do. Even those who attempt or complete suicide almost always choose unselfishly hundreds or thousands of times before they give in, once, to what feels like a desperate bid for self-preservation. I can forgive them that small act of selfishness.

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