What is the value of a life? Moreover, who can be held accountable for determining the value of a life and who can judge when a life should come to a close? Can it be that a person can properly make the choice to end their own life?
An Otherwise Lazy Sunday
Since moving back to the Upper West Side of New York, my Sundays have had a pretty steady routine. I wake up at six in the morning, have something to drink and take a shower, and go to a Torah class given by one of my dear friends that lives in the area. We sit and discuss the part of that week’s Torah reading that pertains to that day; since the Torah reading is divided into seven parts every week, it is pretty easy to determine where we are.
At about ten to eight, I leave the class with my dear friend Joe and we walk over to Ohab Zedek, where we attend a Daf Yomi class. At nine o’clock we walk over to the synagogue’s basement sanctuary for the morning prayer. That’s just about how it should have been this last Sunday but it was not. What caused me to check my twitter account? I normally check twitter a few times a day but it didn’t seem necessary since it was Sunday morning and few of my friends were likely to have updated since the previous evening.
Rather, I did check my twitter account and I did see that one of the people I followed on twitter posted a message about their favorite memory of David Foster Wallace, or DFW. I froze in my seat. It was never good when someone talked about favorite memories of someone because it usually meant that the person was no longer alive. I quickly accessed Google on my phone and searched for his name and immediately found a handful of articles that had been published within the previous few hours about David Foster Wallace.
Those articles detailed how he had been found dead in his home and how his death was a suicide. I first mentioned it to Joe, who was so upset about it that he didn’t even want to discuss it. I really couldn’t believe it. Dead at the age of forty-six. What is somewhat interesting to me is that when I started writing this column, forty six seemed a bit old but eight years later, it seems still quite youthful and spry. I was initially upset just because he had passed away at such a young age but when I read further and had found out that it was a suicide, I grew even more upset.
Something I have not yet come across is an article which relates any cause or reason given for this tragic suicide. What was it that caused a seemingly happy man with no reason to have any fiscal woes (his books have all sold quite well) to decide to hang himself? Unfortunately, it was not a topic that my dear Torah teacher wished to discuss as we had the pressing matter of that day’s part of the Torah portion but it still weighed down on my mind.
What would cause a person to do it? It surely couldn’t have been a case of myopia, could it? When a person is so intelligent and writes lengthy books with thousands of footnotes, the last thing you are going to think is that the person is not an intelligent individual. This would make sense were it not for the fact that some of the most intelligent people I have known have attempted or considered suicide at one point or another. It seems a lot less prevalent amongst people who live so-called simple lives, plowing the fields or going into coal mines every day just to earn the daily bread.
According to the obituary published by The New York Times, Mr. Wallace’s father had said in an interview that his son had been severely depressed for months. He apparently had been taking medication for twenty years just to be able to function and something must have just pushed him too far, as it were. It doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who cared about him in any capacity. I know that if I were closer to him that I would feel upset for not being able to have helped, but that is generally how I feel in circumstances like these.
The Selfish Act
I began at one point to think about how some people say that committing suicide is the most selfish thing that a person can do, and the few times in my life when things seemed so desperate that I thought that ending it all would have been the easiest and best thing to do. It obviously never occurred to me in those moments of desperation that I would not be the only person affected by the action and I can’t help but wonder if this was something that was taken into account by Mr. Wallace prior to acting out on this desire.
At some point I began feeling remorse for even thinking this way because I could certainly not be someone who knew his inner thoughts and had no right to judge what he was thinking at the time of the decision, regardless of what it was that he was thinking. The only thing I could properly do is to be hurt by the decision, and to resolve to try to remember Mr. Wallace for who I perceived him to be before he decided to take his own life; a brilliant writer who touched many lives through his magnificent use of the quill.
Though it is true that in my religion, suicide is not only forbidden but is the only thing that precludes a person from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, I did not want to approach writing this from a religious legal standpoint. Rather, I wanted to approach it from the point of view of how I felt when I found out that it happened and its impact on me in the time since I read about it. I am certainly not an authority of any sort and should not be considered one. May we remember that even though David Foster Wallace lived only a relatively short life, he gave us beautiful writing which can be enjoyed for many years to come.