friday reflections – jan 22

Have you ever heard of the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon? Or frequency illusion? It’s a cognitive bias. After noticing something for the first time, we have a tendency to notice it more often, leading us to think that it has a high frequency.

It’s the thing that happens when you are in the process of buying a new car. You test drive a Prius and the next time you’re on the road you notice ALL the Priuses. That’s what happened to me anyway. We didn’t test drive one but we bought a used Prius off of Craigslist a few years ago and suddenly I was seeing them everywhere. Does everyone drive these things, I wondered. To be fair, in Seattle, everyone really does. But how had I not noticed them before?

Anyway, that’s frequency illusion. It happened to me more recently and with something much more serious than the kinds of cars people are driving. I read three books in a row in mid-December — which I selected in no particular order and for no particular reason other than that they’d been recommended to me by one person or another and they were in the queue on my nightstand — and they were all about suicide. Well, no, maybe they weren’t all about suicide, per se. But they all involved suicide.

The first read gutted me. I wasn’t expecting it. It was a YA book, after all, and I really didn’t think the main character, who I had grown so fond of, would actually kill himself. But he did. The next book was also YA and it also involved a suicide, although in a more oblique way, as it revolved around the aftermath rather than the actual event. Wanting a change of pace and topic, I turned to the third book, which was not YA and, I thought, not about suicide. But I was wrong. It also involved suicide — on multiple levels — and it was all starting to feel rather strange.

The day after I finished the third book, I was getting ready for a walk and scrolling through my podcast options. I haven’t listened to On Being in a while, I thought, and clicked on the most recent episode. It was about suicide.

I closed the podcast app. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit even one more minute with the topic. Why, all of a sudden, was everything about suicide? I’m no longer of the theological persuasion that “God is trying to tell me something” and I don’t think “everything happens for a reason.” But my sleeve snagged on that thorn of old thinking and I wondered if maybe I should pay attention to whatever this was, this frequency illusion, with suicide. So I downloaded the On Being interview with philospher / poet Jennifer Michael Hecht and set off down the block.

A few days before my walk someone sent me a message via my contact page. It startled me a little, the message. Not because it was unkind (they sometimes are, though most of the time they’re spam) but because it was the opposite. It was friendly and warm and encouraging. And it was from a stranger. I know that I don’t write in a void but sometimes it feels that way, I guess. I forget that there are actual readers out there, actual people — many (most?) that I don’t know in real life — and it filled me with a sense of wonder and connectedness with all of you.

As I circled the pond behind our house and listened to what turned out to be an insightful and inspiring interview, I combed my brain, considering whether I had any friends who needed to hear a podcast like this. If maybe there was someone in my life I had overlooked who needed to know that I want them to stick around. And it was you, readers, who kept coming to mind. Maybe one of you needs to hear it named that life is really hard sometimes. And that you show incredible courage simply by staying alive when you secretly wonder if you’d rather be dead.

One of the things that Jennifer Michael Hecht mentioned in her conversation with Krista Tippet was that when a suicidal person goes to a bridge thinking they might jump, and the bridge has a suicide fence up to prevent them, they don’t drive to another bridge. They go home. This tells us that while suicidal thoughts may be pervasive and prolonged for some people, actual suicide is usually really, really impulsive and oftentimes all that is needed to prevent it is a barrier.

Hecht gives ideas for putting barriers up for ourselves and I highly recommend listening to her interview – whether you yourself are suicidal or not. It’s absolutely worth the 45 minutes. Hecht — who has considered suicide herself and had more than one friend take their own life — reads a poem she wrote at the end of the podcast. I’ll close with the poem as well and add my voice to hers. Stay.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.
Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won’t either.

Jennifer Michael Hecht