Suicide is Painless

I remember my late sister’s outrage at the lyrics of the theme song for the 1970 film, “M*A*S*H.” She was a volunteer at the time for a suicide hotline. The lyrics of the first few stanzas of “Suicide is Painless” angered her to the point that she condemned the film entirely, if my memory serves me correctly. Here’s part of what upset her so much:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play

I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless.

And I understand her anger. I learned this morning the director’s [Robert Altman] son, Mike Altman, who was fourteen years old at the time, wrote the lyrics. Young teens tend not to understand the depths of depression unless they have experienced it for themselves. They can’t put themselves in the shoes of people who are experiencing emotional pain so great that suicide seems like the only real way to make it stop.

I was only seventeen or eighteen at the time and may not have understood, either, except for the fact that my sister was so vocal about the insensitivity of the lyrics. She spoke of how dangerous, in her eyes, they could be to individuals on the brink of making a decision to end their lives. And that sunk in with me. Despite the fact that I always found the music, including the lyrics, appealing.  Though painful. Yes, those lyrics caused me to tear up back then, when I was an emotional teen.

The meaning of the song’s lyrics, though, amount to nonsense, the sort of stuff one would expect from a mush-minded teen. Yet, coupled with the tune, they triggered something deep inside me. I think I felt a sense that I understood people who felt such emotional pain they might end their lives to relieve themselves of the mental anguish. That compassion, if that’s what it was, stayed with me through college. I actually felt that I completely understood the pain they felt. That sense is still with me, but in a fundamentally different way that I can’t explain, so I won’t try.

Today, the buzz word for people who actually feel others’ emotional pain is “empath.” I am skeptical of the word, its meaning, its connotations, and the legitimacy as applied to people. I say one can be empathic but not be “woo-woo.” I don’t buy that a person can feel another person’s pain any more than I believe a person can read or think another person’s thoughts.  I read something this morning I find especially silly: A person who is a psychic empath has a rare and special gift of being able to feel the emotions around him or her as if they were their own emotions.” [Credit where credit is due:] Bah! My curmudgeonry is showing.

Back to my sister. I’ve written several times about her that “the underdog was her pet.” And that’s true. She was a champion for people who faced especially tough challenges. There was a bit of Don Quixote in her psyche, I think. So she felt compelled to draw her sword to challenge the lyrics of a song she thought dangerous and offensive. As I think back to her outrage over those lyrics, I am proud of her. That she was so outspoken about something that really mattered.

I have no idea why this train of thought entered my mind this morning. I guess the tracks just run through my brain and the locomotive followed.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to Suicide is Painless

  1. Gracias, amigo. Your comments are very kind.

  2. Jim Hawarden says:

    Thank you for this insight into your sister’s life. I really didn’t know much about her, but am glad you shared this.

  3. Judging from your writing, I’d say you are exceptionally compassionate.

    Yes, my sister was a caring soul. I miss her.

  4. Hopester says:

    I don’t know what I think about empaths other than I’m not one. I think I am compassionate though.

    I have had too much to do with the fallout of suicide. Somewhere along the way I realized people wanted to end their pain but not their life. I’d like to think that anyway. My granny died at 90 from suicide and I’ve had several people close to me that have died that way as well.

    Your sister sounds like a caring soul.

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