A minister in a liberal Christian church once told me that a friend of his had committed suicide.
“I know that he is going to hell. That’s what my religion teaches me. But I can’t accept that. He was a good person. And good people don’t go to hell.”
In some religious circles suicide is still a sin, one that consigns the deceased to eternal hell, no matter how virtuous that person may have been. But today many have substituted mental illness for sin. This is part of the redefining of traditional sins, such as drunkenness, not as moral failings, but as a mental illness or an addiction. A sin is self-chosen; a mental illness or an addiction is some that happens to you.
But these aren’t the only two ways to understand suicide. There is a third possibility: suicide as a rational choice, neither a sin nor an illness.
I’ve known several people who committed suicide. One was a former psychiatric patient who was doing fine, until she stopped taking her medication. She then walked in front of a train. Another was involved in a divorce, precipitated in part by his emotional instability. He drove his car around the lowered track barriers and was struck by the speeding train.
No doubt many suicides are like these: irrational acts that should be prevented. If only the woman had taken her meds, I assume she wouldn’t have wanted to die. And if the husband, depressed by life’s circumstances, could only see how counseling and time may have made life worth living, he, too, wouldn’t have killed himself.
There is a widespread belief that suicide is, by definition, irrational and should always be prevented, if at all possible. But I don’t share this view. There can be a concatenation of circumstances so overwhelming that life may not be worth living. It is not unusual for an elderly person to conclude that extraordinary measures taken to be kept alive isn’t an option they want. They refuse treatment, and this may very well be a rational choice.
So, too, a combination of poverty, deteriorating health, unceasing pain and the lack of intimate, day-to-day sustaining relationships may be too much to bear. Realistically, the future will only be worse. The quality of life is so minimal, with no prospect of improvement, that no life at all may be the better choice.
It is very difficult to sort out when the choice for suicide is rational and when it is irrational, one that cannot see future possibilities that may well be there. But when the choice is thought out, carefully chosen and not clouded by temporary circumstances that may well change, then suicide can be a rational choice, a tragic one but one that a person is entitled to make.
Sometimes, all things considered, suicide may not only be rational but courageous. It may be neither moral nor immoral, but a personal choice, one that confers dignity upon a person that life itself can no longer provide.
Suicide is a complex subject and I have more to say about it here: https://arthurdobrin.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/suicide.pdf
You can also listen to one clergyman’s view at http://people.hofstra.edu/podcast/ It is the podcast #2.