A couple of days ago I found out that a good friend of mine died, probably by suicide, but I’m waiting for the police report to arrive before that is confirmed. This is news to me, and for a number of other people who knew him and were friends/friendly with him. But the actual death happened about three years ago. To me this is the kind of silence that says a lot.
His name was Mario, and I lived with him in two different intentional communities, and we both volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans at the same time as well. He originally knew about me from my anarchist writings on the internet and in radical publications before we even met. It was only when we were first living together and he saw how my name was spelled that he realized that I was the same guy whose writings he read. We had many different interests, values and ideals in common, and he was one of the folks whom I wanted to create a wonderful new utopian community with together, but it never quite happened.
Mario was a very shy person, admittedly socially awkward, and as a result of that he was pretty chronically quite lonely and longing for social connection, friendship and romantic relationship. His great fear was social isolation, and that much-feared result very often was a part of his day-to-day reality. However, he was quite personable, quite friendly, quite knowledgeable and he opened up quite readily to me. He held an ideal for a kind of drop-out crusty-squatter way of life, along with a desire for authentic spiritual experience and authentic interpersonal connection, anarchist social revolution, communal living and the kind of tribal social structures that I wanted as well.
The reality was that we drifted in and out of each-other’s lives, and the kind of engaged constructive work of building what we wanted to see in the world kept on getting deferred to some vague distant future. Eventually we parted ways, he ended up traveling cross-country to various places, and I started traveling cross-country to various places too. We never met up again, although we did stay in touch somewhat via e-mail. He started talking about increasing health problems, as well as depression. His health deteriorated to the point that he could not do much, so he took refuge at the home of his one parent that he was in contact with, and stayed there. He was quite socially isolated there, a crippled radical anarchist in the middle of a small town in Kansas. He began to despair that he would ever get better emotionally or physically. I don’t know what happened after that, but eventually he died, in May 2009.
None of the deaths that I have experienced before has ever felt as disconnected as this one. He died in a place where hardly anyone knew him or could grieve his loss together, I am in a place where nobody around me knew him and can grieve with me, and everybody I know who knew him is living in a different geographical place. That, and it has been years since any of us had any contact with him, and years since he died as well. This whole situation is like a picture-perfect example of social fragmentation.
I look back at this story and I feel quite angry. I feel angry because I feel quite certain that if he had a strong, supportive and loving community surrounding him, that this would not have happened. I am convinced that things do not have to be this way. If he did kill himself then that would mean that I have now had three close friends/coworkers in my life who have killed themselves. Each time, I speak the rhetoric of community, emotional health and personal growth, and each time these people feel increasingly estranged, despairing and completely powerless about their personal circumstances.
I do recognize that suicide and the choices that one takes to get to that point are all a matter of individual responsibility ultimately in the hands of the person who takes that action. However, I do not see the matter as being entirely about that. I see our human reality as being inextricably a kind of social fabric in which we are inter-related and connected with each-other, for better or worse, like it or not. We all make choices in relation to one-another to help or to ignore, to listen to or to write off, to engage with or to mind your own business. All too often I believe that we all, including myself, make the later of these choices.
And here’s the clincher – this is happening everywhere. It’s not just Mario, it’s not just the other people in my life who have committed suicide, it’s people all over the place. Just because I do not know personally all of the different people who have, or are, or are considering right now committing suicide does not make it any less important. Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that “one person dying is a tragedy, many people dying is a statistic.” I believe that suicide, and the isolation, the despair, the lack of meaningful social contact that is underlying it endemic to the world that we live in, to the kind of society and social organization that we participate in, and that ultimately we each need to take personal responsibility for this happening just as much as each individual takes responsibility for deciding to kill themselves.
To me, the kind of profound social isolation and disconnection that Mario lived in, which is also reflected in the way that so many people in our society live their lives, is completely and totally unsustainable. People need connection, community, belonging and care. Without that, suicide, homicide, and any number of other horrible things, is just a matter of time before it happens.
I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want to hear any condolences, any “I’m so sorry for your loss”, because ultimately this loss is not my loss – it is our loss. Even if you did not know the guy, this has affected you, the underlying social condition affects the context that you live in, and you helped to make it happen. We’re all in this thing together. Let’s start acting like it.