Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Suicide and the Soul - James Hillman, 1964

I had a bizarre experience last summer (2016). It had been a rather rough year for me in which a lot of things in my life had come to an end, either by death or by my own choice or by decisions beyond my reach. I was sitting at my desk contemplating this loss as all of a sudden it felt like my inside turned into lead and simply streamed out of me via the soles of my feet. I felt amputated, more specifically the body part that is removed and left behind while the rest of the body lives on. I felt dead and had no thought until this one emerged: if this is how I’m gonna feel for the rest of my life, then I’ll pass. Then I remembered what a friend of mine, who worked with suicidal people, once said. She said, “It’s almost as if they’re suddenly taken by something external. In the morning they seem fine doing their daily routines, next thing you know they jump off a roof.” This is actually how it happened with my next door neighbor. Remembering these words I noticed that I felt tears on my cheeks and I realized that somewhere in my body there was a growing resistance against the very idea of being dead now. Maybe it’s not me wanting me dead, maybe it’s some other force trying to persuade me that I’d be better off dead. That very idea made me team up with my bodily revolt and I thought: well fuck you, I’m not going anywhere yet. My bodily sensation was still that of a dead limb and it took all of my efforts to get up when my friend got home and climbed the stairs to meet me with a cheerful: “Hi sweetie, how are you?” I hung on to him, it literally felt like I was just hanging there, and I couldn’t find the energy to speak. He just held me and then after ages I expired, “I am not okay.” He suggested to join him for a walk with the dog. I didn’t want to go but I knew it would be better, so I agreed. The first half hour I could barely set one foot in front of the other. It was like my feet were made of concrete and the earth was quicksand. Then slowly but surely I felt life coming back to me, the heaviness lifted and a few hours later I started feeling slightly better again. Still, it took me several weeks to stop experiencing life as a numbing burden I had to drag myself through.

After the fog in my brain had cleared I decided to read something about it and ended up with this book. Although I’m pretty sure that I didn’t really want to act upon my death wish, the book was very helpful in clarifying the nature of that wish. En passent it made me understand my resistance against so-called regular professional help, as this precludes the soul and focuses on changing my thinking behavior. It seeks to unlearn with the purpose of cure, whereas my soul seeks to learn with no particular purpose at all other than living out its curiosity for life. Soul and thinking behavior are two different categories with two different languages. I already know the common language of thinking behavior, what I need now is to understand the private language of my soul. Ignoring it, not listening to it, thinking it away, it can result in devastating sadness.

So anyway, here’s a brief summary of the book. A more extensive one you find here.

“Suicidal moves give us a clue about our ‘inner-killer,’ who this shadow is, and what it wants. […] The danger lies not in the death fantasy but in its literalism.” The death wish of the soul is metaphorical, suicide is using the body to carry out the death wish. If you take the death wish of the soul seriously, instead of denying or repressing it, you can explore it. “We never come fully to grips with life until we are willing to wrestle with death. […] Life and death come into the world together; the eyes and the sockets that hold them are born at the same moment. […] Death is entered continuously, not just at the moment of death as legally and medically defined. […] In dreams and in psychosis one can go through the anguish of dying, or one is dead; one knows it and feels it. In visions, the dead return and report on themselves.” Death is experienced in life. 

“Approaching death requires a dying in soul, daily, as the body dies in tissue. And as the body’s tissue is renewed, so is the soul regenerated through death experiences. […] When we refuse the experience of death, we also refuse the essential question of life and leave life unaccomplished. Then organic death prevents our facing the ultimate questions and cuts off our chance for redemption. To avoid this state of soul, traditionally called damnation, we are obliged to go to death before it comes to us.” And so, the suicide (attempt) can be seen as “an attempt to understand death by joining it. The impulse to death need not be conceived as an anti-life movement; it may be a demand for an encounter with absolute reality, a demand for a fuller life through the death experience. […] What is called death by the neurotic mainly because it is dark and unknown is a new life trying to break through into consciousness; what he calls life because it is familiar is but a dying pattern he tries to keep alive. The death experience breaks down the old order […]. Without a dying to the world of the old order, there is no place for renewal […]. The soul favors the death experience to usher in change. Viewed this way, a suicide impulse is a transformation drive.’”

If the death experience is a transformative choice, then suicide fantasies can free you of your usual outlook on the world and let you meet the realities of your soul: “These realities appear as images and voices, as well as impulses, with which one can communicate. But for those conversations with death one must take the realm of the soul—with its night spirits, its uncanny emotions and shapeless voices, where life is disembodied and highly autonomous—as a reality. Then what appear as regressive impulses can reveal their positives values.”