The man who decapitated himself this week on a public street in the Bronx by tearing off his own head is bringing back the topic of suicide into the news headlines. The man who decapitated himself has been identified as 51-year-old Thomas Rivera from Port Jervis in upstate New York, according to an updated Sept. 3 KPLR 11 report.
There is not much known about Thomas Rivera – except the gruesome way that he chose to die. He tied a metal chain around a pole and his neck, went into his 2005 Honda CRV, and then he stepped on the gas. As the car sped forwards, Rivera beheaded himself. His head, which was attached to the metal chain, flew out the car. His headless body was tossed into the street when the Honda hit another parked vehicle on Longfellow Ave. near Randall Ave. in the Bronx.
Why would a 51-year-old man commit suicide in such a public and horrific act? Why does anyone commit suicide?
After the previous report on this incident, which mentioned that suicide is the most selfish act anyone can commit, one reader wrote the following words: “Aren't we trying to convey that suicide is not so much a selfish act as an act of desperation and hopelessness and who only knows what else,... but not selfish.”
While it might sound harsh, the shocking truth is that suicide is the most selfish act anyone can commit. Thomas Rivera’s death will be out of the headlines in a few days, but the topic of suicide will not. And neither will the image that people have about his suicide. While there is no information available as to whether Rivera left behind a wife, siblings, children, or parents, his suicide is touching the hearts of many. Some will grieve for a man they never even knew.
Suicide is the most selfish act any individual can commit because it is leaving behind nothing but sadness; even for people who never met the individual. For those people close to the person who committed suicide, it is a pain that persists for eternity and generations.
As in the case of Thomas Rivera, many believe that a person commits suicide because it is “not so much a selfish act as an act of desperation and hopelessness and who only knows what else,... but not selfish.”
The truth is that suicide is all of the above. It is the most selfish act (unless one other person agrees to it) and it is an act of desperation and hopelessness.
In his book, How We Die, Sherwin B. Nuland writes the following on page 150:
“But when the premature death is the result of self-destruction, it evokes a mood quite different from the aftermath of ordinary dying – that mood is not dispassion. In a book about the ways of death, the very word suicide appears to be a discomfiting tangent. We seem to separate ourselves from the subject of self-murder in the same way that the suicide feels himself separated from the rest of us when he contemplates the fate he is about to choose. Alienated and alone, he is drawn to the grave because there seems no other place to go. For those left out and left behind, it is impossible to make sense of the thing.”
The key word in understanding Nuland’s discussion of suicide is “alienation.” When an individual feels alienated and separated from the world, why continue to live in pain? Suicide is such an incomprehensible act for close family members and anyone else because no one can see the “alienation” in a suicidal person’s heart.
The feeling of alienation from the world can be caused by what people like to call a “mental” condition, or a physical condition. In May of 2012, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in San Diego’s Oceanside at the age of 43. “Following his death, his brain was donated to the National Institutes of Health, who diagnosed him with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which is the result of violent head trauma.” A toxicology report also found he had Ambien in his blood at the time of his self-inflicted death.
The brain is a complex and fragile entity that not only succumbs to physical drama but also emotional drama – such as feeling alienated from the world. Unlike physical alienation that can be caused by injuries, emotional alienation is much harder to see.
Generally, the limbic system is considered to be the emotional part of brain. The different areas of the limbic system have a strong control over emotions such as pleasure, pain, anger, fear, sadness, sexual feelings and affection. Even though the limbic system is tightly connected to the Frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex (which controls rational thinking), the limbic system is from an evolutionary point of view older and more powerful. The feeling of alienation from the world, hopelessness, despair – which lead to suicide -- occurs in the limbic system.
Even though a person might understand intellectually (from the frontal lobe) that suicide is the end of one’s life and might be devastating to others, the limbic system can and wants to prevail at times. As Hamlet already expressed it:
"To be, or not to be - that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep -
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to."
Shakespeare already understood the struggle between the frontal cortex and the limbic system which he called the Rational Soul and the Sensible Soul. Alienation from the world (and rational thought) gives the limbic system the power to end all. Many people (writers, actors, musicians, composers) who have a powerful limbic system (emotional system), lead an incredible life of amazing others. Unfortunately, that very powerful limbic system also has the power to end their own life.
Ludwig van Beethoven's period of low productivity, from about 1812 to 1816, was caused by depression from Beethoven's realization that he would never marry. In his Heiligenstädter Testament, Beethoven expressed his intense despair over his increasing deafness, his “hot terror” and fear of his condition being exposed, and his thoughts of suicide. Many listeners perceive an echo of Beethoven's life in his music, which often depicts his intense struggle followed by an intense feeling of triumph. Beethoven mentions in his Heiligenstädter Testament his awareness of the great gift and destiny that he had been given:
“Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have
ended my life - it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me
impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within
me… Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, - oh it is
not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else.”
Sherwin B. Nuland discusses in his book not only cases of artists but cases like Thomas Rivera and the fact that “white males take their own lives at a rate five times the national average.” He also discusses “the error that permeates virtually every one of the publicized discussions of modern-day attitudes toward suicide.”
As in the case of Thomas Rivera, the man who decapitated himself in public, his suicide could likely have been prevented had his rational thoughts had a chance to dominate his emotional world. The fact that he tied his head to a pole near some auto body shops suggests that he was likely very upset about something that had to do with some business. If he would have been aware of his feelings of alienation, he might have taken Nuland’s advice to heart:
“All of this is not to say that there are no situations in which Seneca’s words [about the justification of suicide] deserve heeding. But should this be so, the Roman’s doctrine would then deserve consultation, counsel, and the leavening influence of a long period of mature thought. A decision to end life must be as defensible to those whose respect we seek as it is to ourselves. Only when that criterion has been satisfied should anyone consider the finality of death.”
Without the consensus of those who love a person, suicide is the most selfish act any person can commit. The opposite of selfishness is selflessness, as the Dalai Lama would say. Selfless people will continue to live – even if it is for others. Selflessness sometimes has to be learned – just as the art of living.
Even though a suicidal person might feel alienated towards the world, that alienation might not be felt by others. As one German philosopher phrased it: “Someone gave you life, you have no right to take it.” If you think you do, get their consent first.