Tag Archives: suicide

The melancholy undertones of Christmas

The films

In the run up to Christmas, much of the talk over the tv schedule has been about the sequel to The Snowman, entitled The Snowman And The Snowdog. The original is a classic. I am of the right age where I grew up watching The Snowman every single year; it was one of the markers that meant Christmas had arrived. Some families make a tradition of watching the Queen’s speech, but mine didn’t. It’s not that my parents are republicans, they’re not; it’s just ‘one of those things’.

Yet The Snowman, in spite of charming style, visual narrative and the famous theme song sung by Peter Audy (the Aled Jones version was a cover, released 3 years later), it is a story about the death of a grandfather figure. The relationship that develops between the boy and the snowman has many features of that between a grandfather and a grandson. I always recognised my own granddad in that cartoon, at least.

For all its joy and beauty, it ends in inevitable tragedy, with the boy having to come to terms with the death of this figure who was in his life for all but the briefest of moments and who came to mean so much to him.

At the same time, one of the most popular ‘Christmas’ films is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Again, this is one of my favourite films of all time, but not because I think it is some simple, optimistic tale. The film has a huge reputation, yet I never saw it until I was in my early 20s. It seemed to be ingrained in some sort of collective consciousness, yet I don’t recall it ever being aired on television. Maybe it was on when my family & I were all playing Trivial Pursuit – another hallmark of it being Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of a man who is driven to suicide by events overtaking him. The alternative reality he encounters in a world without him is nightmarish and ghastly, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I think particularly of Jimmy Stewart’s panic-stricken face in close up as the shock of the alternative world hits him. It’s not a cheery film at all, although I would regard it (along with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) as one of the best films to deal with the normality of mental health issues.

I don’t have space here to go into some of the darker passages of A Christmas Carol, an equally influential work of fiction in the modern mindset.

Pondering

So why is it that such tragic films are entwined with the modern notion of Christmas? I couldn’t hope to answer that fully, but I will venture a few thoughts.

I don’t think it’s going beyond the realm of reason to state that Christmas is seen by many as a time for being with, and celebrating family. Whether that be a “holy family” or one’s own (or both), when I hear people asked questions such as “What does Christmas mean to you?” then family is a noticeably recurring theme in the answers.

Yet Christmas is (incorrectly*) noticeable for being perceived as a time with a high suicide rate. That is not to downplay the suicides that do occur. For those, I would conjecture that part of the cause may be to do with those who either have no family or are estranged from them feeling isolated. It may even be that they are envious of those who they see being part of a family, which only exaggerates feelings of loneliness.

Conversely, for families who have lost members during the year, or who have in the past lost members around Christmas time, then there can be a gap in their togetherness, an empty seat at the Christmas dining table. How we react differs greatly from person to person and from family to family. One of these reactions is to hold on that little bit tighter to what we have. When we experience loss, or witness it in others close to us, then we may treasure a little bit more those who we love, embracing them a little more to keep them safe.

A prayer

Suicides are not the only cause of death. We think especially of the families in Newtown, Connecticut who are facing a Christmas devoid of their children, their lives ripped from them. In the cold winter months, those who are elderly, homeless and those who cannot afford to heat the homes they have are especially vulnerable.  Lord, please show us how we may show practical compassion for those who are in need and grant us the strength of resolution to aid those who are at the sharp end of winter. For those whose loss is keenly felt at this time of year, we ask that you will bring comfort to their family and friends. We may struggle to find the right words or find it hard to be physically present in a time of need, but we ask that you will facilitate the right person to say and do the right things at the right time.

If this has chimed with you, the phone number for the Samaritans is 08457 90 90 90 who are always willing to listen.

*When I investigated this, it turns out that the statistical evidence doesn’t support the popular opinion. Suicides in December are lower than the year average, with the peak occurring around late spring & early summer. Still, one suicide is one too many. Each is a tragedy to be mourned, leaving holes in the lives of many.

Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

I wanted to branch out some of my reading and get into some Japanese literature. So I asked around for where would be a good place to start. I got 2 suggestion: Kokoro and The Tale of Genji. The latter was quite long and seemed a bit of an investment for a first foray, so I opted for Kokoro. Upon reading the description about the book, I was expecting something that would be broadly similar in themes and style to one of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. What I found was very different, but still extremely good.

The first thing to strike the reader is that the book is all told in the first person, although there are two different viewpoints. The second thing is that no one is actually given a proper name throughout the entire book. Indeed, there is a paucity of characters which gives the book it’s distinctly “sparse” feel. The first narrator, through whose eyes we see the first half of the novel, is a young man, studying at college. He spies an older gentleman and instantly decides to follow him. This older gentleman is referred to as Sensei, though that is not his real name.

The author becomes, as it were, disciple to this reluctant rabbinic figure and they form something of a friendship. Here, it is worth saying something about the translation. My Japanese is appalling; I can say about a dozen words and even then my pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the first part of the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the translation had left the book a little staccato. The sentences were often short, simple and did not feel to have much flow to them. However, in hindsight, I think this may have been excellent writing from Soseki as the second half (which is narrated by Sensei) is much more fluent. Therefore, I think the punctuated writing pattern of the first half reflects the relative immaturity of the first narrator.

The central theme of the book is one of self-loathing. In particular, in all of the first narrator’s discussions with Sensei, there is a nagging sense of something in Sensei’s past which not even his wife knows about. This is brought out early in the novel when it is revealed that Sensei regularly visits a certain grave, though the identity of the grave’s occupant is not revealed until much later on, though I shan’t spoil it.

The change in narration comes about when the first narrator constantly questions Sensei as to why he is the way he is: aloof and withdrawn from the world, with a distrust for everyone in it, including his own wife. Throughout the first part of the novel, Sensei avoids these questions, but decides to write a letter to his disciple laying out much of his personal history in an effort to ensure that at least somebody knows what his reasons are. It is this letter that forms nearly half the book.

There is much more that I could write about this, but I shall refrain for fear of spoiling it for you. Needless to say, I would really recommend this to you. In fact, I wish I had read this when I was in my early 20s, around the same age as the first narrator. If I could describe it as a piece of scenery, it would be of a handful of people on an open moor, separated by wide open spaces, calling out to one another, but always just on the boundary of being out of earshot. It has a bleakness to it, but not in the fatalistic sense of Hardy. The bleakness is in the outlook on life that Sensei possesses, based on his own past and the things he blames himself for, though it is slightly open-ended as to how much of what he has piled on his own shoulders is his own fault.

A suicide on the rails

I apologise for any typos or lack of coherent thought in this post. I am typing this in a short space of time as I try to gather my thoughts. Last night all the trains on the line I use to get home were heavily disrupted. The reason was because a person was hit by a train; in all likelihood, a suicide. This is a reasonably common occurrence on this line. I delayed leaving work and stayed a few hours late (having arrived a couple of hours early in the morning), but managed to get home in a reasonable time. As usual, I buried my head in a book on my commute. Only this time, what I was reading was resonating with my surroundings. The section of the book I got to was a long suicide note. I haven’t yet finished it, but I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter on the train.

There were phrases used like “inconsiderate behaviour” or “thoughtless act” and all I could think was this: which is more inconsiderate: to end one’s life or to not care as to the reasons and circumstances why someone might do it. I don’t know the person’s identity, so I don’t know if I ever knew them. But I have had friends attempt suicide before, some unsuccessful, some successful. Today there is most probably a family grieving and friends wondering what signs they missed, digging through their memories in search of a reason.

When we have no direct connection with another human being it becomes far easier to be judgemental (not that it’s particularly hard, otherwise) and to treat them as something other than a valued individual. This is something J. B. Priestley in his play, An Inspector Calls. There may 1, 2, a dozen or hundreds of people I pass by every day who may be in a very dark place yet managing to mask it, while inwardly crying out for someone to understand them, to accept them, to love them.

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel is a fantastic work of literature, though not for the reasons you might expect. The start of the novel is nothing particularly special, though as the story progresses, there are vignettes which begin to appear giving insights of extraordinary self-awareness. The main theme that Plath explores is the isolation felt by someone going through depression and breakdown, which is very hard to express to those on the outside looking in. One of the ways in which she does this in the book is by having a variety of secondary characters who often seem to appear out of nowhere and then disappear quite quickly, only to reappear later on with little connection to their earlier cameos. Yet in these, there is the sense that the characters lack depth. This is quite a deliberate move by Plath, not an example of poor writing. When your world is insular and suffocating in an intangible bleakness, other people become two dimensional and plastic.

As the novel progresses, there are seeming gaps in the narrative where you suddenly find yourself in a whole new scene just seconds after having been somewhere else in an unresolved situation. This again is a way in which Plath sees the world, with yawning gaps in memory, something that is very common in people with depression. Once the reader has adapted to this writing style, the work is an utterly moving piece of literature. For the most part, I read this on the train over the course of a week, and at times had to dab the odd tear from my eye and try and disguise it from my fellow commuters.

* spoiler warning below*

As someone who has suffered from depression at times myself, there was much here to identify with, and it brought back some memories from a very dark time in my life. There is a point in the book where it all seems to have to a head and the deepest of fogs is taken to its logical conclusion. Knowing that Plath took her own life shortly after the publication of the book, it reads horribly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, perhaps in an effort to sanitise the book slightly, Plath pulls out at the last minute and gives her character a way out, with renewed hope, albeit with an uncertain ending. This does give the book an air of optimism that feels slightly out of place and I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better had the book ended in the coal cellar.

To anyone who has ever suffered with depression, this is an absolute must read, and also to those who have ever had to try to support and understand someone else who has.