Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Once upon a time on a visit to Japan, we toured a Christian school where some friends had been teaching. Out back in the fenced-in schoolyard, our guide told us the school was blessed to have as much space as it did in a suburban Tokyo neighborhood where "farms" were little more than half-acre plots. People live atop each other in Japan.
The only problem, she told us, was that the commuter train that ran just back of school was an oddly popular place for suicides--just a hundred yards or so up the track from the station. Suicides right on the other side of the schoolyard fence, especially when they were frequent, weren't the kind of experiences school kids were supposed to enjoy at recess.
Suicide, in Japan, has something of an honorable aura created by hundreds of years of cultural history. Because it does, I suppose, there's vastly more of it. Suicide, often for financial reasons, is the leading cause of death among young men and women, happening every 15 minutes or so.
According to the LA Times, Japanese officials fully expect that already distressing rate to rise significantly, post earthquake, post tsunami, and post-nuclear meltdown--if, in fact, areas of that country ever make it past that horrific threat.
In Willa Cather's My Antonia, an immigrant Czech, out on the far reaches of the western Plains, falls victim to the arduous pressures it takes to cut out a chunk of cheap land and make a life for his family, especially when, back in the old country, he didn't farm. The old man shoots himself in the barn, then is buried in the middle of the road because there's no room in the graveyard for a hopeless, faithless suicide.
We've come a long ways since then, I'm sure. I lost an ex-student a decade ago or so, a pleasant enough kid who used to come in for extra help because he knew very well he needed it. I know little of the circumstances--he didn't live here, and I think part of it was a failing marriage. He ended it all in his garage, I was told.
If the story only ended there. But it doesn't.
I lost a friend too, not that long ago. That he hung himself was a shocking revelation, even though I couldn't say that I never would have expected him--this old friend--to take his own life. I didn't, but that he did wasn't simply out of the question. Same with the ex-student really.
I know enough about depression to understand that darkness leads nowhere. I know enough about the darkness to understand that some, so stricken, would rather find light on the other side of this vale of tears. We all understand some things better than we did a century ago these days. We don't bury our suicides in the road anymore. They too find a place up on the hill.
But we're not Japan. Culturally, we probably frown more deeply on those who disappoint us with self-inflicted ends. And I'm glad that's true. Two guys I know who took their own lives abide in a select spot in my memory, surrounded by their own tragic legacies. What they did keeps on giving, in a way.
What may well happen in Japan these days, after the tragedy, is aftershocks of a whole different level. That's what's feared.
American exceptionalism can sometimes be it's own kind of a bogus religion, but I'm happy to live in a culture where taking one's own life isn't somehow honorable. I wouldn't want to travel back to Willa Cather's era, when suicides were pariahs; but the idea, right now, of picking up more bodies from the sides the tracks of commuter trains just breaks my heart--and still troubles my soul.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:30 AM