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Suicide and the Soul: A new perspective

The young son of a friend of mine suicided recently. The relentless waves of shock buffet his family, hisfriends, and the community. Has suicide touched you closely? Recently? Can we ever really make sense of it? What follows is very considered attempt to approach a very difficult subject, that of suicide. I approach it through the view of suicide and the soul, from many aspects. Please let me know if any of these approaches has meaning for you.


This post is a serious, scholarly piece, with footnotes and references. First I present an overall view of suicide, including some history and different types of suicides. Then I introduce the root metaphors, or paradigms of society, which James Hillman defined in his book “Suicide and the Soul”.

The root metaphors are the social, religious, legal and medical perspectives, and each of these paradigms has a particular attitude to suicide, which in turn informs our own personal views. This leads to a discussion on the idea of the soul, which is in a category not touched by the paradigms of society, religion, law and medicine.

The “Death experience”.

At this point, I need to set a frame for our discussion. There are several ways of entering what James Hillman calls "the death experience", or “the death space.” He takes the question of suicide deeply into what he proposes as the most essential attitude to life: "Primum Animae Nihil Nocere", that is, first do no harm to the soul.

One way of entering the death space is when we come face to face with our own imminent and apparently certain death, through accident or serious illness. That kind of confrontation changes our perspective on just about everything. Meanings shift, values change. The taste of death changes everything.

Another way of entering “the death space” is through meditation. Intentional contemplation of one's own death is a favoured Zen meditation and the Dalai Lama daily meditates in this way. The Christian religious tradition also honours the death space through the practice of memento mortis. This means to “remember death”, and comes from the medieval practice of reflection on mortality, especially to consider earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

Momento mortis is being mindful of one's own death, where one intentionally enters the death space. It is a way of shifting meaning, and adjusting values. In the act of suicide, a person also consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) and intentionally enters the death space, the death experience, in a literal way. The notion of transformation in “the death space” will become important as our discussion develops.

Statistics of suicide.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to collect statistics on suicide, which have been gathered in his book “On Suicide”[5]. I will not go into statistics of suicide here as they are widely available, except to say that suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, and 7 people suicide in Australia every day on average. One or two of these suicides is female, and the rest are male. The rate of suicide among indigenous populations are four times the rate of white populations.

Does the method of suicide affect how we view it? Does the age of the person effect our response?

Methods of suicide vary widely. The more common methods are hanging, firearms, gases/vapours and poisoning. Many suicides may go unreported however and the cause of death attributed to accidents for instance, especially when about children, young adolescents and young men who die in single-vehicle motor accidents. Who ever considers that a four year-old who drops from a fifth floor balcony, or a twelve-year-old who rides his bicycle into the path of an oncoming car, would do so deliberately?

Do only those who are mentally ill contemplate suicide?

There is a common misconception that only people diagnosed as mentally ill would think of or attempt suicide. I believe we have a far too narrow idea of mental health, when we imagine that suicidal feelings are the evidence of an unsound mind. There are indications that suicidal thoughts and impulses are a fundamental and almost universal experience of being human. Research reveals suicidal feelings of varying degrees within the general (i.e. non-psychiatric) population.

Some people experience suicidal feelings because of major life events, but others do not. Some suicidal episodes are not related to particular events, but are what we could term existential, that is intrinsic to the experience of being alive. Most people resolve suicidal thoughts and impulses without taking their own lives. The significant difference is not so much in not having suicidal thoughts, however prolonged or fleeting, however ‘event’ related, or ‘existential’, but that the majority of people so afflicted do go on to discover sufficient meaning in their lived lives to not chose death. But what if they do choose death?

Not all suicides are equal in terms of the value placed upon life within a culture, the significance of death especially in terms of religious belief, the age and perceived state of health of the suicidal person, and even the motive of the suicide. Consider how you feel about the kinds of suicide I am about to mention.

Is there such a thing as "altruistic suicide"?

Altruistic suicides are representative of the person's duty. "Death before dishonour" has prompted suicide in face of defeat in war, to forestall being raped or captured or tortured. For example, the Japanese Kamikazi pilots in WWII gave their lives for their country. They sacrificed their individual lives for the life of the group. The Cathars in their strongholds in France in the 10-12th centuries, were forced to capitulate to the Papal decree of the Inquisition, after years of resistance. They threw themselves upon pyres they had built within the sight of their enemy, rather than be captured or renounce their faith. Especially in the case of the Cathars, it could be said that they valued life so much that they were willing to die for it.

Altruistic suicides have the aim of benefiting others, or a cause, through personal sacrifice. Regardless of whether we consider their stance as mistaken or real, some people feel that their suicide will benefit others. However, people who say that their family or spouse would be “better off if I was dead”, are not acting altruistically.

Self-immolation, that is killing one’s self as a sacrifice, is as a form of political and religious protest. 

Self-immolation refers to killing oneself as a sacrifice. The term historically refers to a range of suicidal options, such as leaping off a cliff, starvation, or seppuku (ritual disembowelment).[6] Self-immolation is often used as a form of protest to draw attention to a political or social situation, or for the purposes of martyrdom. It has centuries-long traditions in some cultures, while in modern times it has become a type of radical political protest. There are 533 recorded "self-immolations" reported by Western media from the 1960s to 2002; this list includes any intentional suicide "on behalf of a collective cause." The death of Socrates by swallowing hemlock, could also be seen as a religious or political suicide, or even altruistic. What do you think?

Suicide as personal martyrdom used in acts which kill, main or terrify others.

For suicide bombers, their act is also for a collective cause, and for personal martyrdom. Their act is at the same time designed to kill, maim, destroy and cause terror and instability. The suicide bombers espouse a religious ideology which seeks the destruction of unbelievers or infidels.

The suicide of Samson in Biblical times was apparently an act of obedience to a direct command of God.[7] Through his exceptional physical strength Samson brought down a building on the heads of his enemies, and died in the process. Christian theologians argue that it was not really suicide, because he did it for the good of his people. That is the same argument used by the suicide bombers. Is this act heroic and laudable, or a delusion at best, and a criminal act at worst? Does it just depend on which side you are on?

Cult suicides.

Cult suicides occur when the person has become less important than the group or the group leader. I refer to mass (cult) suicides of people for presumably transcendent reasons, such as Jones Town [8], and the Swiss Chalet [9] incidents. We see many people, even hundreds at a time are persuaded to take their lives. Here the person has become less important than the group, and we could see this as an abdication of the individuation process. As a Jungian, I uphold the position that Individuation is the fundamental calling and responsibility in life in our time, although I acknowledge that each person fulfils the individuation imperative in different degrees and sometimes not at all.

Emulating another in "copy-cat" suicides.[10]

There is some evidence and a lot of speculation about whether adolescents are particularly susceptible to emulating the death by suicide of their rock-star heroes, and of their peers. For instance, there have been many reports of girls in Japan suiciding in an apparent frenzy of adulation for their star heroes. Suicides have also been reported to increase after the screening of horror movies or those depicting suicides. Concerned parent groups have sought to ban such movies, and songs which specifically recommend suicide, such as ‘Die Young’. From the perspective of sociology, this makes a lot of sense. A study of the increase in suicide rates in the general population after the suicides of high profile personalities is reported in 2018. However, the acquaintance with the death possibility is not necessarily something to avoid, as we have noted earlier about the meditation on our own death.

Disappointed love.

Emotional or Egoistic Suicides was a class proposed by Durkeim to describe suicides for personal reasons, such as disappointed love, as in Romeo and Juliet. The opera by Wagner, “Tristan and Isolde”, is about a couple wedded to death, or Thanatos, and not each other in Eros or love.[11]

Other motives for suicide are revenge against enemies, humiliation over financial ruin, melancholy of aging, shame of public exposure, and despair. Some suicides stem from an overwhelming sense of one's evil, from shame and remorse over one’s own actions, especially when they have damaged the life of another.


Durkheim used Anomie or "hopelessness" to describe those who are ‘misfits’ (his word) within the society, when the framework of the collective no longer contains or sustains the person.[12] Drug overdoses from heroin, for instance, whether "intentional" or not, probably fall in this category. Although a drug addict may not previously have been a ‘misfit’ by these standards, being an addict certainly makes him so. Our society expends enormous efforts to attempt to bring the addict within the norms of society.

Aboriginal deaths in custody

Aboriginal deaths in custody could fall into this category of "misfits". Is the society or the person the cause of this ‘misfitting?’ These deaths may also be for personal reasons, or even altruistic ones. An aboriginal woman told me they were due to "black men's law in a white man's prison".[13] In which case they are either related to personal shame, or to a sense of the justice of the tribe when the good of the group is served by the death or sacrifice of the person. It is possible that the idea of a Scapegoat could be enacted here. In the original Biblical context the chosen sacrificial animal carries symbolically the sins or woes of the people as a whole. Aboriginal deaths in custody might therefore be seen in the light of the Scapegoat ritual. This ritual element is worth remembering in our later discussion of the unconscious motives and the life of the soul.

Depression and suicide

Modern psychology considers that depressions the major if not only reason for suicide. "We can fix the depression through giving them antidepressants and therefore all suicides are preventable", said Dr Robert Kosky, Head Psychiatrist at Princess Margaret Hospital, in 1985. Contemporary psychiatrists are probably more circumspect about the role of depression and the effectiveness of medication. Nevertheless, within psychiatry, prescription of a range of drugs is the major form of treatment. Ironically these drugs are often used to attempt or achieve suicide.


Euthanasia or assisted suicides in those who are terminally ill, very elderly or suffering unbearably has of recent years become an important medical, ethical and legal question. It is now an even more pressing question because drugs for the purpose of suicide are easily purchased on-line and used by adolescents and young adults.[14] These people are not terminally ill. Similarly, is having one's life support equipment turned off suicide, murder, or letting nature take its course?

How can we view suicide of children?

How do we consider the suicide of small children and young people who have not yet reached "the age of reason"? The youngest child I have seen in my practice who expressed a wish to die, and wanted to know how to do it, was four years old. Children are often regarded as having an inadequate concept of death. Does one need to know what death is, for that death to be a suicide, or to experience suicidal feelings? As James Hillmann (p39) asks, "and how to regard the hundreds of children who take their lives each year - children neither psychotic, retarded nor depraved, and some less than 10 years old?"[15].

James Hillman's Root Metaphors and suicide.

In order to appreciate the attitudes we have towards death by suicide in our society, I have taken up James Hillman’s idea of the Root Metaphors. These paradigms are the basis upon which a society develops its attitudes to life and death, endowing shades of meaning which we absorb through education. For instance, doctors and lawyers view death by suicide through the lens of their particular professions. We will now be examining the Root Metaphors, and you will possibly recognize some of your own values and prejudices.

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First Root Metaphor: Sociology.

Durkheim represented the perspective of Sociology in 1897. He assessed suicide as a problem to the entire society because it represents the loosening of the social structure, a weakening of group bonds and a disintegration. Sociology concerns itself with protecting the society against so-called “social deviance”. “Social deviance” is defined as "behaviour which violates institutionalised expectations, that is, expectations which the social system recognizes as legitimate. "[16]. That is, the society deems suicide illegitimate, and as having ‘violated institutionalized expectations.’

The suicide effectively uses his/her death to exert power and to express contempt and rejection for social norms. Suicide becomes an effective weapon to discomfort, to inflict pain upon others. It is not merely delusion that one’s own annihilation will annihilate the others, at least psychologically, and violate the social contract. The following poem by A. E. Housman[17] demonstrates the power of annihilation.

Alfred Edward Housman, usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and poet, best known to the public for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. His poem shows the collapse of social structure that suicide causes.

"Good creatures, do you love your lives

And have you ears for sense?

Here is a knife like other knives,

That cost me eighteen pence.

I need but stick it in my heart

And down will come the sky

And earth's foundations will depart

And all you folk will die."

The social fabric is torn apart by a suicide. Death for the suicide is the only reality, a reality which social controls cannot penetrate. Suicides shake the foundations of an orderly and predictable existence so that society sees them as "morally, economically and spiritually wrong"[18].

Death by suicide induces a sense of guilt within society, inferring that there is something wrong with the underpinnings of the social system, and that the social system is unable to support an individual sufficiently. It may indeed be true, that the society does not give that which makes life worth living. Aboriginal deaths in custody, and adolescent suicides generally have prompted this response. The social conscience of our Government has directed millions of dollars into such programmes as the youth Suicide Prevention Task Force. Suicide prevention programmes direct their efforts at keeping people within the bounds of the culture. We do not, as a whole, look at the ways in which a culture might better sustain a livable life, the life of the soul. In other words, from the sociological perspective, the suicidal person is the offender, in terms of disrupting social cohesion. The society itself is not examined for its lack of social cohesion. This is especially clear in indigenous suicides, where their social fabric has been damaged or broken.

Prevention of suicide is primarily the concern of the perspective of sociology. Sociology and social work look at risk factors. School teachers are also given lists of "warning signs" to help identify "at risk" students. If, and when, the prevention of suicide merges with the prevention of individuation, we can find that the perspective of sociology in not geared towards the needs of the soul. Should individual need be sacrificed to the greater good of society?

The sociological paradigm has presumed to enter the consultation room through Government legislation which requires a notification of suicidal plans or attempts. This leaves no room for the perspective of suicide and the soul.

Second Root Metaphor: The law.

In the Legal Perspective suicide has historically been regarded as "self murder". Just as murder is malicious intent to destroy another's life, so too suicide is seen as a malicious act turned upon oneself. The Law functions to uphold the social system and to protect it from ‘deviant’ behaviour. To quote Jean Paul Satre, "deviation is implicit in the moral character of society, to give oneself laws and to create the possibility of disobeying them come to the same thing"[19]. The impositions of sanctions to restrict the effectiveness of the “deviant's” stance is often one of the most effective mechanisms employed so that the “deviant's” action is kept subordinate to the accepted norms.

Suicide has historically been a crime in some parts of the world. However, decriminalising suicide has occurred in western societies, although the act is still stigmatised and discouraged. While a person who has completed suicide is beyond the reach of the law, there can still be legal consequences in the cases of treatment of the corpse or the fate of the person's property. The Will of a suicide might be declared invalid and insurance policies are not paid out. We are all inevitably influenced by the legal perspective which prejudices against suicide. However, if we consider the inner needs, the needs of individuation and of the soul, where does the legal paradigm stand?

Third Root Metaphor: Theology.

The Judeo-Christian heritage represents the perspective of Theology in most Western cultures. I will confine my remarks to the theological perspective of these traditions, although in so doing I do not privilege these traditions.

David Henry Peter Maybury-Lewis (1929-2007) was an anthropologist, ethnologist of lowland South America, activist for indigenous people's' human rights and professor emeritus of Harvard University. He was most well-known for his book and TV series entitled "Millennium", featuring indigenous cultures. In these indigenous cultures, suicide was unknown.

However, it is worthwhile noting that other cultures have different views. For instance, so-called primitive societies do not understand the concept, or even have a word for, suicide. To them it is totally unthinkable. The person is held very tightly within the structure of the group. Yet when these peoples are introduced to ‘civilization’ and undergo change at a rapid rate, suicides appear. This has recently occurred in the Kaiuwa tribes in Brazil, as documented by the sociologist David Maybury-Lewis.[20] Marbury-Lewis makes it clear that when the soul is prioritized in a culture, suicide is unknown.

The Old and New Testament do not explicitly forbid suicide, but the Church prohibits it.[21] A fundamental question here is whether the only legitimate way to God is through a religious tradition. If one is following one’s daimon, as discussed by James Hillman, or heeding the divinity within, does this still proscribe suicide?

Dr Sally Taylor, medical doctor and spiritual teacher, who gives a workshops on conscious dying, claims that euthanasia and suicide both interfere with the possibilities of that person in fulfilling their karma and dharma. Is this opinion representing the soul, rather than the ego? Can we know?

The notion that death must come through an ‘outside agent’, or ‘natural causes’ becomes very difficult to sustain, when we begin to look at unconscious material and how it infiltrates disease. How many deaths by disease are slow suicides, due to life-style choice for instance? When I discuss the perspective of the soul in the last section, it will become clear that I am not advocating suicide, but rather questioning our attitudes to it.

Fourth Root Metaphor: Medicine.

From the perspective of Medicine the perception of suicide has undergone a gradual transition from being seen as an act of "sin" in the past to the present day view which relates suicide to a form of "illness". (What in earlier eras was called sin, is now called madness.)[22] When describing suicide as "sick behaviour" the "sick person" isn't seen as responsible for his/her actions. It is almost as though the implications of suicide are of less consequence when the victim is labelled as mentally unhealthy.

For medical practitioners of every kind, the Hypocratic Oath of "first do no harm - Primum nihil nicer"is the first guiding principal. However, has this been extended to prolonging life at any cost? Death is the one condition for which medicine has no cure and is thus the arch-enemy. Are heroic medical procedures such as open-heart surgery justified when they are performed upon patients already in their 80s? Is major repair surgery after horrendous motor vehicle accidents justified when the victim is left a quadriplegic at best and a vegetable at worst? Are elaborate life support systems even ethical, as described in poignant detail in "Paula" by Isabel Allende [23]) which support a person's vital functions long after they are able to sustain life themselves? These examples all underline the importance given to maintaining physical life by our medical system.

The life of the psyche, the life of the soul, is largely, if not totally, neglected. So the health and survival of the physical body is the perceived goal and responsibility of the medical doctor, and the inner life, the life of the soul is not. From the medical perspective, then, suicide and the soul is not their responsibility.

Fifth Root Metaphor: the Soul.

But what of the person who lives within that body and for whom the paradigms of society do not provide enough meaning? For this I turn to the perspective of the soul. “Soul” is the word that I am using for the inner life, that which is not captured by the paradigms I have just mentioned. This is where we can truly consider suicide and the soul.

What is the soul, and what kind of death would serve the soul?

Is conscious death possible, a death guided by the soul? Buckminster Fuller, (known for his geodesic dome) was an extraordinary man, and he was well-known in the fields of architecture, philosophy, education, writing, cosmology etc. He died in the early 80s aged 86. The legend goes that he was doing a lecture series when his wife was hospitalised, critically ill. They had been married 64 years. He went to the hospital, asked to be alone with her and the nursing staff returned twenty minutes later and found them entwined in each others arms, both dead.[24]

We can speculate whether their deaths were suicide, or a very conscious death similar to the sages of history. If there is a difference, what makes it so? Is it true that the difference between a fortunate and an unfortunate life is in the manner of death? James Hillman says "the articulate suicide, Socrates or Seneca, is rare. A man who understands his own myth, who is able to follow his pattern so clearly that he can sense the moment of his death and tell of it, is unusual in human history"[25]. Is it possible that at least some acts of so-called suicide constitute a conscious death?

There is a correlation between the degree of dissociation from oneself, and the degree of destructiveness toward oneself. We are learning more about trauma and the dissociation which results. At least some traumas are “soul murder”, that is the paradigms of society have been violated, certainly, but so has the soul. The mending of the soul, so to speak, must be undertaken on the terms of the soul. Dissociation often leads to an unconsciousness about the finality of the act of suicide.

I am going to proceed on the premise that there is something which drives people to suicide, which if it is understood, renders the suicide unnecessary. As Robert Johnson says, by all means kill yourself, as long as you don’t harm your body! Robert is pointing out that some part of us needs to “die”, and that we had better not confuse that with the body.[26] It is true that the egocentric desire must die, as in the death of narcissism, but to die by suicide would be a “misinterpretation of a psychological necessity”, according to Hillman[27]. Loathing of the false self is a healthy but perilous movement, for instance. This will become more clear as I explore the metaphor of the soul.

"Primum Animae Nihil Nocere" - First do not harm - to the soul.

I propose that the greatest harm that can be done is to the soul. We might be tempted to hope that the suffering soul might find solace within the psychological sciences. But often this is not the case. There are many theories within psychoanalysis, psychology and therapies generally about suicide, but I will not go into them here. These views are strongly held in our culture, that suicide is the result of depression, for instance, that in my view they constitute another root metaphor or cultural paradigm. This paradigm influences our attitudes greatly.

However, I want to move our discussion back to James Hillman who proposes a perspective which in my view casts a wide net of understanding over these possibilities and draws them together. This metaphor is the care of the soul. So instead of the dictum Primum Nihil Nocere (first do no harm) which is the first principal of medicine, Hillman proposes the primacy of the soul: "Primum Animae Nihil Nocere." According to Hillman, "the soul has been imaged as the inner man, and as the inner sister or spouse, the place or voice of God within, as a cosmic force in which all humans, even all things living participate, as having been given by God and thus divine, as conscience, as a multiplicity and as a unity in diversity, as a harmony, as a fluid, as a fire, as dynamic energy and so on"[28].

Psychology and the soul.

Psychology, from the Latin, means "logos of psyche', the speech or telling of the soul. The deeper a psychology can go the more soul it has. If suffering is given a sufficiently large context, it begins to have some meaning and is more easily borne. Note that we are talking about suffering - we are not framing the mental illness. Myths and stories provide a framework for the multitudinous possibilities of the human experience, and for the full range of feeling states, including suffering. Suffering is normal health (like it or not) although the pathological bias of medicine and psychiatry has confused pain with suffering, and medication which is so readily offered numbs us to both.

What is the language of the soul?

How then do we approach the suffering soul? If the metaphors of society do not attend the needs of the soul, what can we do? First let me be clear that we are very clumsy in the language of the soul. This perspective is an art which requires awareness and cultivation. The Roman writer Apuleius said "Everyone should know that you can't live in any other way than by cultivating the soul," yet the great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all our troubles and affecting us individually and socially is ‘loss of soul.’ This quote comes from a book enjoyed my many, Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore[29]. From here on I am not going to refer to patients and therapists, but to the soul-oriented person and ‘the other’ or the sufferer. Inevitably all of us will be both.

Those attending the soul are looking for meaning in every human event, even suicide. The concern of the soul-oriented person is to maintain connection with the inner life of the other and not lose sight of the metaphor of the soul, especially when faced with the intrusion of the other paradigms of society. The language of the soul includes insight, mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality, individuality, essence, innermost, purpose, emotion, quality, beauty, virtue, wisdom, death - and suffering. A soul is 'troubled', 'lost', 'innocent', 'disembodied', ‘wandering’, travelling in liminal territory’, ‘suffering a dark night of the soul’, undegoing the “night’s sea journey”, descending to the Goddess with Inana, rising from the ashes with the Phoenix.

How does the soul fare in the other root metaphors?

The deeper we progress into the story of the soul the further it takes us away from the other root metaphors.That which is wisdom to the life of the ego is often an offence to the soul. We may lose faith when the growth of the other seems to be away from life. Yet this process might be progress. The call of the soul is toward consciousness, and consciousness intensifies when we experience reality most boldly. That is when the suffering is the greatest. Perhaps this means the soul-oriented person and the sufferer facing together the possibility of death by suicide, of being together in the place where all veils fall. The suicide possibility means inviting the immediacy of honest, open, unveiled, vulnerable experience. This is something that we all yearn for.

In the process, we can never be the sufferer's superior, or the sufferer's rescuer. Problems can be solved but mysteries only lived. That is, the death space can be seen as a mystery and not a problem. Giving personal recognition in a world which gives these things no credit is an important part of the soul-oriented person’s role.

The soul-oriented person recognizes that consciousness can be radically limited by pain. A very deep quality of listening is required when attending the soul to determine the true need of the soul, regardless of whether the pain be of the body such as through terminal cancer, or a grief which feels equally terminal and limiting.

One of the essential attributes required of a Zen Roshi is that he or she be able to sit with the suffering of another. This quality is called for in a soul-oriented person. According to the philosopher Levinas, ‘essentially the ‘face of the other’, the primary imperative prior to language, is always ‘do not kill me.’[30] This is the plea of the sufferer, especially when facing the extremities of their own lived experience. We make comments which are out of our own experience and existence, and all too easily impose this on ‘the other’, often in the name of sharing. This constitutes the silencing, the murder, the “normalizing’, according to Levinas. From this perspective, as soon as we think that we understand the other, we are wrong.

We constantly 'become'.

Satre said, “There is no essence to the human being; we are always on the way to becoming’[31]. We wait upon this becoming like a midwife. It is not something we do to or for the sufferer. We are both ‘always on the way to becoming”. The soul-oriented person endures an inescapable obligation to the other, as described by Levinas. Levinas speaks of ’the actual lived encounter with the Other, the other that you are to me before I try to reduce you to the same’[32]. This state of experiencing the absolute otherness of the other allows for his or her desires and actions to have an individual meaning that may not be parallel with our own or of the society in which we both live. This is the perspective of the soul.

As soul-oriented persons we must endure our own wounds on a continuing basis, so that compassion for suffering will flow. By doing so, we align ourselves with the wounded healer, the Shaman who places first importance on being able to face death. Many threshold or experiences of the death space are stopped short by a pathological bias which allows no place for suffering. Nor given credence by what is considered normal from the perspective of the root metaphors. I believe we need to be awake to the transformative possibilities and necessities which the death space offers.

According to Hillman, ‘it is an illusory hope that growth is but an additive process requiring neither sacrifice nor death’[33]. It takes courage to choose the ordeal of life and to enter any mystery as a result of one's own decision. Some choose life because they are afraid of death and others choose death because they are afraid of life.

The Golden Gate Bridge phenomena.

A notorious place for suicides is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. 99% of people who jump from this bridge die as a result, but 1% survive. A study of these survivors has given rise to the Golden Gate Bridge Phenomena.[34] Without exception, these people live transformed lives. (Did the others, who died, experience transformed deaths?) During the mere seconds of their plunge towards death, these survivors gain a sense of meaning, purpose and tranquillity which was absent in their lives before and which is like that reported by people who have Near Death experiences during illness or surgery. The extraordinary surrender into the hopelessness of a suicidal death has paradoxically led to an abundant life. This phenomenon can lead us to examine that fertile place, the death space, the death experience.

The Golden Gate Bridge phenomena suggests that radical transformation is possible, and that the more imminent the death experience, the more possibility for transformation. The question then arises as to whether the body rather than only the psyche, is transformed. The soul-oriented person recognizes that a suicidal person is longing for radical change or transformation. Certainly something has to die, but what? Robert Johnson says preserve the body! We all go through many deaths when our ambitions are thwarted, when we suffer radical disappointments, when our ego submits to the needs of the soul. See also The Dark Night of the Soul. How often is a suicidal person wrestling in exactly this way, like Jacob wrestling with the angel?[35] And how often do we need to wrestle, like Jacob, till the angel gives us a blessing? Till the situation reveals a possibility that was not perceived before?

What if we call for medical intervention (drugs or confinement) for reasons of prevention? From the perspective of the soul, the very intervention/prevention might make the pursuit of the death experience more urgent for the ailing soul in search of transformation. Many are the stories of ‘successful’ interventions where the sufferer has vowed a later and more determined suicide attempt, which is carried out. In these situation, all indications are that the intervention fulfilled the obligations of the first four root metaphors while neglecting the soul. As I said before, we are clumsy in the realm of the soul. We have a lot to learn.

Suicide as a response to change.

In conclusion, suicide becomes more prevalent when we as individuals, and as a whole, make rapid and radical change. Suicide itself is a bid for radical change and transformation. The perspective of the soul is essentially different to the perspectives of sociology, the law, medicine and religion. The latter inform us about our responsibility to the collective, while the perspective of the soul informs us about our obligation to life itself.


[1] Suicide and the Soul is the title of a book by James Hillman, 1964, Revised 1976, Spring Books, Texas.

[2] Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus", Penguin Classics, 2000, London, p 11.

[3] C.G.Jung. Dreams: 2012, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p 150.

[4] Freud: Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, 1915.

[5] Emile Durkheim in 1897, On Suicide, Penguin Classics, 2006.

[6] An article on self-immolation: Accessed 31/10/14

[7] 1 Sam. 31:1-6

[8] "Jonestown" was a community formed by the Peoples Temple, an American religious organization under the leadership of Jim Jones, in northwestern Guyana. On November 18, 1978, 918 people died all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed "revolutionary suicide" by Jones.

[9] Members of the Order of the Solar Temple, 74 in total died by suicide in Quebec, Switzerland and France between 1994 and 1997.

[10] A copycat suicide emulates another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media. The massive wave of emulation of suicides after a widely publicized suicide is known as the Werther effect, following Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide. This a suicide contagion, which occasionally spreads through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is a suicide cluster. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include the Japanese musicians Yukiko Okada.

[11] Notes taken at a lecture on “Tristan and Isolde” by Dr Sally Kester at the Perth Jung Society, 17th April 1998.

[12] “I suggest that it is a refusal to engage with, and be sustained by, the particular economies of value, morality and meaning that govern identity within contemporary cultural life”. Simone Fullager

[13]For more on this vexing situation, visit Creative Spirits.

[14] The Weekend Australian – Magazine, 11 Oct 2014.

[15] Hillman, ibid p 39.

[16] J Bell, Social Deviance, p 6.

[17] A.E. Housman, Collected Poems, 1995, p 186.

[18] Douglas, J.D. The Social Meanings of Suicide, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

[19] Jean Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, New York: New American Library, Inc. [Mentor], 1964, p. 35.

[20] David Mayberry-Lewis, Millenium, Viking, 1992, p 280.

[21] "Of the seven or so suicides reported in Scripture, the most familiar are Saul, Samson, and Judas. Saul apparently committed suicide to avoid dishonour and suffering at the hand of the Philistines. The Israelites rewarded Saul with a war hero's burial, there being no clear disapproval of his suicide (1 Sam. 31:1-6). And while there is no hero's burial for Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:5-7), Scripture is once more silent on the morality of this suicide of remorse.

The suicide of Samson has posed a greater problem for Christian theologians. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the case and concluded that Samson's suicide was an act of obedience to a direct command of God, and therefore justified.

Objections to suicide have a long history in the church. But the idea that suicide is an unforgivable sin is less easily traced. Among the church fathers, Saint Augustine was the most prominent and influential opponent of suicide. The early church synods declared that bequests from those who committed suicide (as well as the offerings of those who attempted suicide) ought not be accepted. Furthermore, throughout the medieval period, the Church refused proper Christian burial to those who committed suicide.

Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that suicide, by excluding a final repentance, was a mortal sin. Dante is likely to have influenced Christian thought at least as much as Saint Thomas, placing those who committed suicide in the seventh circle of the inferno. Luther and Calvin, despite their abhorrence of suicide, do not suggest that it is an unpardonable sin. John Calvin is perhaps most helpful on the issue, concluding that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:31), and suicide need not be viewed as this blasphemy. The pedigree of the view that suicide is unforgivable seems to lie, then, in the medieval church and its distinction between mortal and venial sins".

"Suicide and the Silence of Scriptures", Christianity Today, March 1987

[22] For a most interesting study, see Shirley Sugarman, Sin and Madness, Studies in Narcissism, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

[23] ‪ Isobel Ellende, Paula, HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2005.

[24] I suspect that the death of Fuller and his wife has been embroidered as I cannot find substantiation for this story. The official version is that they died 36 hours apart. Although fiction, perhaps when we envision them dying together we are directed towards a conscious death.

[25] Hillman, ibid p 52.

[26] DVD “The Golden World” with Robert Johnson.

[27] Hillman, Ibid p 72.

[28] Hillman, Ibid p 45.

[29] Apuleius quoted in Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore, Harper Collins 1992, p xvii.

[30] Hand, Seán. The Levinas Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

[31] Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yale University Press, 2007.

[32] Hand, The Levinas Reader.

[33] Hillman, ibid p 68.

[34] David Rosen, 1975, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco: “All these survivors, during and after their jumps, experienced mystical states of consciousness characterized by losing the sense of time and space and by feelings of spiritual rebirth and unity with other human beings, the entire universe, and God. As a result of their intimate meet with death, some of them had a profound religious conversion; others described a confirmation of their earlier religious beliefs.”

[35] Genesis 32:22 - 32, Hosea 12:4.

Copyright © Kaye Gersch 2018

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“Only that which can destroy itself is truly alive”. C.G.Jung.[3]

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Albert Camus.[2]

Albert Camus (1913-1960), born in Algeria to French parents, was winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1957. His novel, The Myth of Sisyphus, was about hopelessness.

James Hillman was an American psychologist. He studied at, and then guided studies for, the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. He is the author of many books, the first of which was Suicide and the Soul. The theme of this book, which to this say is still radical, is the the needs of the soul come first.

Dalai Lama: “Be Mindful of Death” - In his book "Advice on Dying" the Dalai Lama wrote: “It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained.

David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline and—with Karl Marx and Max Weber—is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science. Wikipedia

Emile Durkheim was the first researcher to collect statistics on suicide. He published a book in 1897, On Suicide, Penguin Classics, 2006.

Catharism was a Christian dualist or Gnostic revival movement that thrived in some areas of Southern Europe, particularly northern Italy and what is now southern France, between the 12th and 14th centuries. Wikipedia

The biblical account states that Samson was a Nazirite, and that he was given immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats, including slaying a lion with his bare hands. However, if Samson's long hair was cut, then his Nazirite vow would be violated, and he would lose his strength.

Samson was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies, who gouged out his eyes and forced him to grind grain in a mill at Gaza. When the Philistines took Samson into their temple of Dagon, Samson asked to rest against one of the support pillars; after being granted permission, he prayed to God and miraculously recovered his strength, allowing him to grasp hold of the columns and tear them down, killing himself and all the Philistines with him. 

Tristan and Iseult is a tale made popular during the 12th century through Anglo-Norman literature, inspired by Celtic legend. The death drive, or Thanatos, is an important element in this tale. Are Tristan and Isolde motivated by love - or death?

Alfred Edward Housman, usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and poet, best known to the public for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. His poem shows the collapse of social structure that suicide causes.

Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905-1980) the phenomenological and existential philosopher, was born in Paris in 1905, studied at the École Normale Supérieure from 1924 to 1929 and became Professor of Philosophy at Le Havre in 1931. Simone de Beauvoir was his life-long partner, and although her philosophy continues to be important to feminist thinkers today, she was overshadowed by him at the time.

David Henry Peter Marbury-Lewis (1929-2007) was an anthropologist, ethnologist of lowland South America, activist for indigenous people's' human rights and professor emeritus of Harvard University. He was most well-known for his book and TV series entitled "Millennium", featuring indigenous cultures. In these indigenous cultures, suicide was unknown.

Isabel Allende was born in 1942. Her book

(1995) is a memoir of her childhood in Chile and the years she spent in exile. It is written as an anguished letter to her daughter, who died in 1992 after a long illness and brain damage caused by medical error. She raises the question of if and when to turn off life-support systems.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, born 1921, author of many books. He said, "by all means kill yourself, as long as you don’t harm your body! Robert is pointing out that some part of us needs to “die”, and that we had better not confuse that with the body.

A phoenix depicted in a book of legendary creatures by FJ Bertuch(1747–1822). The rising of the Phoenix from the ashes is a symbol depicting a psychological resurrection from the gravest of difficulties.

The Roman writer Apuleius (124 AD) said "Everyone should know that you can't live in any other way than by cultivating the soul". Quoted by Thomas Moore in his book, "Care of the Soul."

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