Content warning: this essay includes discussion of suicide
“We’re not people. We’re the stories other people tell about us.”
Captain James Holden of the spaceship Rocinante spoke that gem of an insight during book six of the Expanse series, "Babylon’s Ashes." He was talking about people failing to see the humanity of folks who grew up in a different part of the solar system than they did. I think it's rather fitting for this moment right now in human history. Maybe it even applies to every moment in human history that ever was or ever will be.
It also applies to events. An event is not merely a factual string of data points of what happened. It’s the stories people tell about the event. Just like all the protests in Portland after George Floyd was murdered. If we had better messaging, maybe the movement could have kept its momentum. As it was, in the national media regular citizens asking for change were branded violent anarchists laying siege to our city.
When I set out this week to write about the stories other people tell about us, I had no idea how close this topic would come to my heart. In the middle of writing, I got a phone call no one ever wants to receive. My friend called to tell me our friend killed himself the night before. He had clearly been planning his exit for quite a while because when he sent his goodbye message there was no way to intervene. He left all his affairs in order and removed all the food from the fridge.
The manner of his ending is shocking and intense, but it isn't the story I want to tell about him. He was kind and adventurous. He was playful and had the most infectious smile. He was one of the people who donned a T-Rex suit to set a record for most people simultaneously dressed as dinosaurs. He was thoughtful and interested in the human experience. We had deep conversations about life and work and how our internal world shaped and was shaped by our experience in the external world. He was also very fashionable. He wore cool clothes and had cool hair. I loved everything about him.
He was also a gay Black man. And he was estranged from his biological family. I can't help but wonder if we had a different kind of society if he would have wanted to stick around longer. The chemicals floating around our brains have a real impact on our quality of life. And so does all the bullshit we swim through on the daily just trying to exist in the world. Suicide rates among Black gay men are higher than other demographics.
I am also bothered by the way we talk about suicide in our society. There is a lot of shame wrapped around mental heath and it's challenges, but that is something I've known (and experienced) for a long time. This week I realized something else: all the resources I came across on the internet are about saving the suicidal person from themself. Interrupting the ability for someone to end their own life long enough to get them help managing their stress or anxiety or depression or whatever so they can function in normal society.
And all of that is great. Suicide hotlines are important and save many lives. It's critical to take notice of the warning signs in people you interact with and to help them access the resources they need. We should all take threats of suicide very seriously. But that's all about one kind of suicide. All those resources seem directed at a person who otherwise wants to go on participating in this world, but needs some kind of support to make it workable.
What about the person who weighs all the considerations calmly and rationally and decides they don't want to be on this planet anymore? I have performed that analysis myself at a couple points in my life and the conclusion I came to was that I'd rather stay alive. But that doesn't make the opposite choice any less valid? And in that case, who am I to intervene? Who am I to decide for another person that suffering through life is better than making an exit in the manner of their choosing? There is plenty of discussion about death with dignity for folks suffering from terminal disease, maybe it's time to talk about it in other contexts as well.
A lot of a person's story is the context. We all have plenty, but it's easy to forget that everybody else does too. As a species, we craft the stories we tell about other people before we bother to look for their humanity. Perhaps this is a side-effect of our great capacity for fiction. I'm not convinced it's human nature; I think it's more likely just the thing we're all more practiced at. Which gives me hope, because that means we can practice something different just as soon as we're ready to try.
We can influence the stories that are told about us, of course, but the depth of our influence is directly tied to the magnitude of our public platform. Nowadays, that's largely indicated by the number of our followers on social media. I am not a social media influencer, but maybe someday I will be. I hope if I become well-known the story people tell about me is that I am trying to humanize the world. And I hope it works. I hope the world becomes more human, and as a result more humane.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.