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A Habit of Being

I come from an old family. I don’t mean “old” in a sense of a family whose name can be linked to a particular place or be famously traced back into antiquity. The fact that you are alive and reading these words mean that you are a member of a family whose history fades into time’s mist. We are all survivors of the past.

By “old”, I mean that my grandfather was 40 years old when my dad was born who, in turn, was 39 years old when I was born. I was 39 when my son was born. My grandfather was born in 1887 – a long 135 years ago. To put it into perspective, he shares his birth year with a few famous people such as Chiang Kai-shek, a famously anti-communist generalissimo, Erwin Schrodinger, who famously put a cat in a box, Alvin York, a famously brave WWI sergeant, Bernard Montgomery, a famously overrated WWII general, and Joe Jackson, a famously ill-equipped baseball player. 

My grandfather was not famous. He was well-respected in the community, a WWI veteran, farmer, and a Baptist deacon. By all accounts he was a good and decent man, though I never knew him. That’s the problem with coming from an old family – your ancestors are dead before you hear a first-hand account of their experiences. He suffered from an unspecified neurological disorder that eventually crippled him. His disorder remained a mystery even after numerous trips to the research hospital at Duke University. Based upon my aunt’s description of his symptoms and seeing his posture and facial expressions in old photos, I am certain that he suffered from young-onset Parkinson’s Disease as I do. He died at age 61, his life taken by his own hand.

My father was not famous, either. He was well-respected in the community, a WWII veteran, a rental property business owner, a back pew Baptist but never a deacon. By my observation he was a good and decent man who feared nothing. He suffered from an unspecified neurological disorder along with related psychiatric problems that eventually prevented him from working. Based upon my observation of his symptoms, I am certain that he suffered from young-onset Parkinson’s Disease as I do. He died at age 65, his life taken by his own hand 30 years ago. So, my family has a history of Parkinson’s related suicides to contend with – not exactly the legacy I want to leave to my teenage son.

I hesitate to talk about suicide as it is one of the few stigmatizing subjects left in our otherwise anything goes society. Having been raised in a stoical Southern family, I was taught not to talk about such even though male suicide rates are highest among honor cultures like the South. Another hesitation comes from the assumption by others that if I talk about it then I am thinking about doing it. I assure you that I am not. Instead, by engaging in this little bit of confessional writing, I am confronting a legacy of silent suffering by exploring a couple of thoughtful avenues that might be useful to myself and others in similar circumstances.

Suicide remains the first philosophical question. Shakespeare reflected this in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, opens his book The Myth of Sisyphus with the following words “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest . . . comes afterwards.” 

Camus presents the Sisyphus story as a metaphor for the absurdity of modern life. For those of you not familiar with Sisyphus, he is a member of the Ancient Greek Mythology Universe. Not to be confused with the more contemporary Marvel Universe or Star Wars Universe. According to Homer, Sisyphus cheated Hades and was condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down again leaving him to start over . . . and over . . . and over.

We all struggle with our individual boulders in the form of chronic disease, addiction, traumas of past abuse, loss of family . . . the list is endless. These boulders are our long nights in Gethsemane or in Hades if one has a more Sisyphean bent. I prefer Gethsemane.

The Southern writer Walker Percy answers Camus’ question on suicide across several essays and books. Percy, like me, was the son and grandson of generational suicides. In his quest to avoid being a third-generation suicide, Percy defined himself as an “ex-suicide” as opposed to being a “non-suicide.”

He contrasts the two as follows – “The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little travelling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest” – a perfect description of the Sisyphean boulder of anxiety rolled around by many of us.

Percy went on “The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.” He answered Hamlet’s and Camus’ question of whether “to be or not to be” with a resounding yes.

Camus presents suicide as a universal question. Percy provides an individual but permanent answer to choose life. I believe that the answer requires daily affirmation.

I continue to survive my father’s suicide, Parkinson’s Disease, and the death of my firstborn son along with the more common evils that each day is sufficient to contain. These events have made my decision to “choose life” more than a political position or a mantra to help ease the malaise of modern life. Choosing life has become my daily habit, a habit of simplification and beautification. A habit of being hard fought and hard won with a daily measure of God’s grace.