The Dignity of Suicide

I am close to the halfway point of my life but probably a few years away still. I am far from being suicidal. Yet, as my age increases I do wonder how and when my life shall end. In my 20s, my rough plan was that I would take my exit when I am 50, which was partly influenced by not knowing many older guys who I thought had an enviable life. Most guys older guys I meet, even superficially successful ones, look beaten. There was certainly nobody I genuinely envied. I still don’t come across older guys I envy. Arguably, life will wear all of us down, sooner or later. Yet, the point remains that at eventually you will probably have had enough. My current estimate is that 70 to 75 years on this planet would be plenty.

In my family, there is no history of diseases. I don’t think there is even a single case of cancer in my wider family at all. That we come from decent genetic stock is also shown in our longevity. For instance, my late grandfather died when he was 86. He was physically active into high age and still craved stimulation. Even days before his death I recall him reading the newspapers and discussing geopolitics. (His wife, on the other hand, despite being 25 years younger than him, seemed to have a much more limited horizon.) He died not of illnesses. Instead, as he got older, he needed to take more breaks. A habit of his was to take a long nap in the afternoon. That is also how he died. He withdrew after lunch, fell asleep, and no longer woke up. My grandmother wondered why his nap took so long, so she checked upon him. That was that. It’s probably one of the best ways to die.

Yet, not every man can be as lucky as my late grandfather. Now that my parents are getting quite old, I also see how their acquaintances age. While both my parents are in remarkably good health for their age, friends of their, some many years younger, have serious health issues: Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, dementia — you name it. This, the question is whether you would want to risk staying alive, hoping that whatever quality of life is left will outweigh the potential pain and suffering. It’s a risky bet to make. On the other hand, if you are in poor health, it probably shows at an earlier age already.

Let’s say you end up suffering from dementia. Gradually, the person you are will disappear. You are still there physically. You may not even notice the extent of your suffering. However, the people interacting with you will. To them, you are gradually turning into a shadow of your former self. Many illnesses come gradually. My encounter with dementia was a deeply profound one. I have mentioned here and there that my opinion of mandated schooling is not a particularly good one, having had to suffer through lessons that are geared to IQ-100-types, served up with a bunch of politically correct nonsense. I had one teacher I really liked (most pupils hated him). He was in his last year before retirement, and his memory has started to fail him. One afternoon, he entered our classroom. It wasn’t his lesson, though. What had happened was that he had misremembered his schedule. Upon realizing this, this proud imposing man felt deeply embarrassed. I am not a particularly emotional person, but at that moment, I felt deep sadness. His condition deteriorated rapidly. Somebody else took over his lessons, and then he was gone.

It is quite difficult to make estimations based on the status quo. Then there is the problem that anybody with a positive outlook on life will tend to be too optimistic rather than the opposite. In the end, it may happen that your health deteriorates faster than you may have anticipated, but possibly not fast enough to ensure a quick and relatively painless decline. Then you are stuck in a body you no longer have full control over. In the last lesson that teacher gave, he went on a rant, talking about his health problems. What stuck with me was when he said that when you notice that your body is failing, you stop being afraid of death. You end up getting ready to leave it all behind.

So, what is the gamble you want to enter? I am a rather well-organized person and I am quite tidy. Thus, blowing my brains out with a shotgun is not what I’d do anyway. Besides, it’s not as if it is easy to get your hands on a gun in Europe if you are a law-abiding citizen. Here, all the bad guys have guns and police shows little interest confiscating them. Yet, your options as one of the suckers supporting the system with your immense tax contributions are rather limited. It is next to impossible to get a real gun in most of Europe legally.

There are plenty of other approaches to suicide, however. In some European countries assisted suicide is legal. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, for instance, there are organizations that take care of that. I think the one in Switzerland invites you to a house they rent, you drink some chemicals that lead to a quick and painless death, and then your husk is taking a journey up the chimney, or one six feet under. The price tag is a few thousand Euros, so that is probably not much of a deterrent if you want to take care of your own demise in an orderly manner.

Deciding when to leave this world behind gives you the chance to leave in a much more dignifying way than most. The big risk is missing your window of opportunity. If you end up sitting in an easy chair, being your old, demented self, you missed your chance to exit gracefully. When will it be too late? A decade or two ago, I thought that 50 would be a fine age to die. I have since then revised that estimate. 70, maybe 75, but that is probably pushing it. If you remain in supreme health, then 80 may be a good age. You’d still shave off 10 to 15 years of your life expectancy if you are in such superior physical condition. At one point, though, you will experience rapidly diminishing returns in your quality of life. In rare cases you can probably live out your existence just fine — think of my grandfather! In most others, you won’t and may wish you would have ended it years ago.

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6 thoughts on “The Dignity of Suicide

  1. This is highly reminiscent of the way Yukio Mishima went. He basically trained himself up to his peak condition, staged a coup, and upon failure killed himself via hara kiri. I assume it was very messy though.

    1. I did not know about EXIT. Dignitas, on the other hand, offers their services also to foreigners. In fact, some even speak of “suicide tourism” from Germany to Switzerland since Germans are such a high percentage of their clients.

  2. Thought I remember you saying you wanted to have kids at some point. I imagine you’d revise this upon having kids.

    1. My kids would be well into adulthood by the time I’m entering my 70s. I would expect them to be able to fend for themselves by then. I would discuss this with my family, of course.

  3. I don’t agree that there are no old man that look like they are happy with their life.
    If you look at the average European man that is interested in football and drinking beer, whose body already starts to seriously deteriorate after 50 years of living an unhealthy lifestyle, that might be true. But I met some older guys who were not married (divorced or never married) and retired in a warm country, which seemed genuinely happy with how their life went. One thing those men had in common is that they were still interested in various topics and the world around them.

    So while there are not that many older guys to envy, I still have some hope that life will not suck when you get older provided that you make some smart choices and don’t live your life like most other people.

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