A hopeless debate?

Dr. Helen's discussion of suicide (especially the role of cognition in suicide prevention) reminded me of a vintage film I had the pleasure to watch recently. Charles Chaplin wrote and directed Limelight in 1952 (when his career was in tatters and he was about to be unceremoniously kicked out of the United States), and he plays an autobiographically based character who saves a beautiful young woman from suicide.

The problem is that saving her from physical suicide did not supply her with any will to go on living, so the two of them get into a philosophical debate. It's fascinating to see this washed-up, once-great comedian (reduced to being a Skid Row denizen) offer wonderful reasons for living, because she's the one who should be wanting to live, and he's the one who by all rights should have given up.

It's beautiful and compelling logic, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I found the dialogue here (the clown is Chaplin; the ballerina is the girl he saved):

Ballerina: I can't stay here, causing you all this trouble.

Clown: I'm not complaining.

Ballerina: You should, I'm such a bore.
But it's not my fault. You would save my life.

Clown: Well, we all make mistakes!

Ballerina: I'm sorry.

Clown: You should be. A young girl like you wanting to throw your life away.
When you're my age, you'll want to hang on to it.

Ballerina: Why?

Clown: Well, at this stage of the game life gets to be a habit.

Ballerina: A hopeless one.

Clown: Then live without hope. Live for the moment.
There are still, there are still... There are still wonderful moments.

Ballerina:But if you've lost your health!

Clown: My dear, I was given up for dead six months ago, but I fought back. That's what you must do.

Ballerina: I'm tired of fighting.

Clown: Because you're fighting yourself. You won't give yourself a chance. But the fight for happiness is beautiful.

Sorry, but "live without hope" is just brilliant. I've often heard it said that hopelessness is a primary cause of suicide, yet I've rarely seen such a poignant refutation of the idea that hopelessness is a legitimate argument in favor of suicide. The "clown" is absolutely right of course. Even in the total absence of hope for the future, there can always be wonderful moments in the present. And if the future sucks (or seems to) such moments can also serve as wonderful distractions. (Needless to say, Chaplin's character has no money and cannot even pay his rent; but the idea of that as a reason for suicide is as comical as the tactics he uses to stall the ever-clueless landlady.)

With hopelessness thus rendered irrelevant as a justification for suicide, Chaplin then (without skipping a beat) moves directly to the concept of happiness. Rejecting the logic that the lack of happiness is grounds for suicide, he argues in favor of replacing it with the fight for happiness.

And if you think about it, happiness is worth fighting for whether you get there or not. Isn't there something in the Declaration of Independence to the effect that we all share a right to pursue happiness?

I don't think it's much of a stretch to say the fight for happiness is beautiful.

And hopelessness is a judgment

Back to Dr. Helen:

It is not your job to be the therapist of a depressed spouse or friend, but do some reality testing. If the depressed person says things are hopeless, counter with some evidence to the contrary. If other people are putting your loved one down at work, in the news, or in general, reassure them that you do not feel this way and let them know that they they are more than what other people think about them. What other people think changes with the culture. Today's scapegoat can be tomorrow's comeback kid. As one of my favorite bumper sticker says, "No condition is permanent."
Absolutely true. Anyone who's had so much as a bad acid trip knows that the awful stuff will wear off, but when you're in the middle of it, it can seem deceptively permanent.

While I love Chaplin's rejection of the hopelessness meme, I also think that considering the vastness of that mystery we call "life," hopelessness is a temporary state which passes itself off as a permanent state.

Don't fall for it.

And don't surrender your right to pursue happiness.

As it is, there are plenty of people who devote their lives to making others unhappy, and they take delight in undermining our natural right to pursue happiness. By any reasonable standard, that is simply unfair. I mean, I'm all for the right to pursue happiness, but people who find happiness by making others unhappy are really screwed up in the head, and it seems to me that fighting them whenever possible increases the overall happiness quotient.

Who knows? It might even induce occasional feelings of personal happiness.

posted by Eric on 04.28.09 at 10:42 AM


In the middle of what seemed like a completely hopeless period of my life -- with limited funds and lousy health, no less -- I found happiness in taking walks, in pback novels bought for less than a dollar, in a book with reproductions of Leonardo Da Vinci's work which was more expensive, but "lasted" longer. I truly didn't expect things to get better ever, but those were enough to hold on for, even when I thought I was an encumbrance on my family. Years later, in the hospital, in ICU, when they'd told me there was no way out and I was going to die (one reason not to have National Health. I fired those doctors and got others)I found what I missed were not the expensive vacations, the great parties, the nice shopping trips... all the other things you normally think of as "making life fun." What I missed was Saturday morning walks with my husband and kids. Late night talks with a friend over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Falling asleep with a pet cuddling next to me. A cup of coffee slowly sipped while watching the sun come up. IOW things that can be enjoyed by almost anyone, in almost any health and any financial state short of famine.
I'm not saying this to sound sanctimonious. I'm saying it because it surprised me. As someone who is used to striving and doing the best she can and always aiming for more, I was shocked I could be satisfied with so little. Oh, I still want more -- greedy capitalist and all -- but if all else fails, I know what's enough. Not only does this make suicide less likely, it's helping me be relatively calm at the prospect of things like losing our jobs. "Okay, if this happens, what's the next best step?" And I know ultimately what we REQUIRE is not that much. And we can always try for more again.

Portia   ·  April 28, 2009 10:54 PM

Portia... you and Eric are both assuming a somewhat normal mental health, which certainly does not preclude despair. I suspect that among those who commit suicide there are few who are rational... and that, I think, is the difference. If you are desperate, are you necessarily rational? One can be both, but there's no guarantee they will occur simultaneously.

While I appreciate -- from the standpoint of one who has contemplated suicide -- the poetic beauty of fighting for happiness for oneself... that takes the realization that the well-being (and hopefully happiness of another) can be greatly influenced by your happiness and survival being important to someone else -- whose happiness and survival is important to you. Happiness does not happen in a void.

A selfish person can use the threat of suicide for personal gain (monetary and otherwise) and that is why the threat of suicide is a very selfish thing. In reality, one who threatens suicide is a manipulator.

Actual suicide... I dunno. I can think of arguments that it is always selfish and, perhaps, arguments that it is not. In a way, our society that keeps track of every mistake one has ever made with no way of erasing them might contribute to suicides.

Your credit rating follows you forever, your resume follows you forever, and if you are very unfortunate, your criminal file also. You might rehabilitate yourself, but will society ever recognize that you have?

Rigidity and an institutional reluctance to forgive is a societal problem that neither the political left or right wants to address. I fear it's only going to worsen.

Donna B.   ·  April 29, 2009 2:51 AM

Rigidity and an institutional reluctance to forgive is a societal problem that neither the political left or right wants to address. I fear it's only going to worsen.

How true. And unfortunately, that includes a reluctance to forgive those would-be suicides who seek help, who find themselves haunted by permanent medical records which can cause them to lose their Second Amendment rights, preclude them from running for political office or landing super-achiever type jobs of any sort. (Anyone who believes in "confidentiality" of mental health records is a fool.)

Whether truly free and independent individuals should care about such social consequences is certainly worth debating, but there's no denying their existence.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 29, 2009 8:01 AM

Donna, I see your point. And "the most selfish act" always seemed too... snap for me. Actually I think I was reacting to JUSTIFICATIONS for suicide and harangues on how to prevent it. You know "too many teens commit suicide. We should ensure they have..."

And Eric, health records true or otherwise mental or not, will follow you the rest of your life. And if your doctor was an ass and misdiagnosed you as an hypocondriac, you might have trouble convincing next doctor you're not. (I have been there because of very weird reactions. Took being with a family doctor for ten years before he went "wait a minute, she only comes in when something is REALLY wrong." Then he realized anotation on hospital file was someone who couldn't figure out problem and decided it was all in my mind. Then he stopped assuming everytime I came in I was 'imagining' it and started doing tests. But... ten years.) One reason I'm against thoese electronic files that supposedly will make health care SO MUCH cheaper.

Portia   ·  April 29, 2009 1:41 PM

Portia, you could not be more correct about medical records. Eric, you could not be more correct about their supposed confidentiality.

Donna B.   ·  April 30, 2009 12:39 AM

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