By David Metcalfe
December 7, 2018
Suicide typically accounts for about 1% of all deaths, but, in some respect, occupies the minds of the majority of people at some point. It is high in prevalence among those suffering mental illness, as is to be expected. A more strange fact is that suicide tends to be occupied quite commonly, both in theory and practice, among those with great intellectual passion.
The Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias attempted suicide at the age of 17. Bertrand Russell said the only reason he had to continue living during his youth was his obsession with mathematics. Napoleon Bonaparte took a suicide pill after being exiled to St. Helena, but it was too old and didn’t take significant effect. Socrates could have avoided the death penalty, and yet drank the hemlock willingly. Vincent van Gogh, after losing all financial support and hope for any success, shot himself in the chest. Michel Foucault attempted suicide at age 22, and struggled with it throughout his entire life.
I could go on…
These suicide attempts can be separated into two groups: those who successfully killed themselves, and those who failed to kill themselves. Of the first group, I grieve at the loss of potential. If we could only have more of van Gogh’s work, more of Socrates’ ideas, etc. Of the second group, I am very thankful for the circumstances that caused their suicide to fail. How fortunate it is that Ravi Zacharias’ poison was sickening rather than fatal, that Russell was able to find something worth living for, that Napoleon’s pill was devoid of its former potency, etc.
I’ve sometimes wondered myself whether life is worth it. The “it”, of course, being all the effort needed to sustain one’s existence, such as work, relationships, eating, or even getting up in the morning. There were two times especially when my pessimism grew so much that I thought death might be a welcome thing. The first was when I had dropped out of the engineering program at NAIT and failed to secure employment afterwards. I had no good relationships, no genuine beliefs, and my desperate attempt to be saved by romance had shattered. I took a flight to Vancouver, and as the plane lifted off, I remember thinking, “if this plane crashed, that would probably be preferable to continuing the kind of life I have.”
The second one was about a year later, when I really hit rock bottom. The opportunity to move to Colorado and work at Axis saved me, I think. I had been depressed for several months prior. There was constantly this aching, sick feeling in my chest. I remember one moment in Colorado during a camping trip where I told a joke to the group as we were sitting around the campfire. Everyone laughed uproariously, and in that moment, I had an epiphany: “this is a totally new life. All that crap back in Alberta is gone now. These people are really kind and intelligent and appreciate me.” And with that thought, the aching in my chest was gone, and it never came back.
When things in Colorado ended, I knew I couldn’t go back to the life I had in Edmonton. So, on a whim, I chose to move to Kingston, Ontario. During that time, I worked on a lot of life things and learned a lot. Moving there was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. People ask me why I came back to Edmonton. I felt I needed to, but it was hard to explain why. It was like I had unfinished business there, I suppose.
Fast-forward to now, and for the first time in my life, I am operating well in every capacity. I am motivated, sociable, optimistic, compassionate, confident, and best of all, happy. Not to say I am any of these things in their fullness, but that they are all present in greater amounts than I’ve ever known in my adult life. Today I wanted to share some life principles that seem to have worked for me, and I hope they may be of value to you.
A lot of people used to treat me very poorly. My dad was the main culprit, as he is often a horrible piece-of-shit human being, but it was commonplace in many of my interactions for people to act inconsiderately or just mean, from bosses to coaches to teachers to siblings, etc. I was a good kid so I just put up with it.
But in recent years, I’ve realized that I don’t deserve to be treated poorly. I should never be insulted or intentionally hurt physically or emotionally in any capacity. I adopted a zero tolerance policy. I didn’t talk to my dad for several months, and when I eventually saw him again, I told him he was not aloud to call me names, criticize my life, talk bad about me behind my back, and, of course, yelling at me was out of the question. If he didn’t agree to these terms, I would never talk to him again, so he did.
Meanwhile, I was working at a warehouse where making even the slightest mistake, like taking a 16 minute coffee break, or putting something in the wrong place, was deemed worthy of being screamed at and called horrible things. But I was making good money, so I continued with it. I eventually quit at the end of the summer, and decided I would never do a job where the manager treated me like that again.
Again and again, I added to my zero tolerance policy. A lot of people discouraged me from it, saying that I would never find relationships or work where I would be treated well all the time. I said I didn’t care. If the only jobs in existence were ones that treated me like crap, then I would starve. If the only friends in existence were ones that treated me like crap, then I would be alone.
At Axis, everyone treated me very well, literally all of the time. No one ever, in the entire 5 months I was there, said or did anything intentionally hurtful. They criticized me lots, but it was constructive, and it really helped me become a better speaker and writer. But then I added to my zero tolerance policy. I decided that I also wanted to be able to believe and think in any way I wanted and for people to be tolerant of that. Since Axis was an organization with certain principles, mine became gradually incompatible, and I had to leave.
During my time in Ontario, I only spent time with people who were nice to me, and tolerant of all of my beliefs. The Mormons were especially good at fulfilling that, as well as certain Christian and university groups.
When I came back to Edmonton, I implemented this policy towards my entire social community. Some people adapted, and I remained friends with them, and other people did not. I felt that those who did not were toxic to me, so I broke off contact with them. It left me lonely at times throughout the summer and fall. But then, in the last couple months, I have added lots of great new friends to my life who appreciate me and accept me the way I am. I also was working with Drake International, but I found it boring, and many of the managers there treated me poorly, so I quit and started doing “Skip the Dishes”. Yeah, it doesn’t pay as much, but everyone treats me well, and I have total freedom.
“Treatment options” worked for me. Basically, the option is: be nice or get out. It was another one of those many life things that people told me would not work, but I knew I needed to do it. That’s why, my second principle is: do what you want to do.
Do What You Want To Do
People are constantly trying to tell me what to do. They say I need a certain career, a certain relationship, a certain religion, etc. But they are always wrong, because they are very stupid. My parents have a passionate stupidity when it comes to career: do the one that makes you lots of money and earns you high status. My friends think along a similar line. All of them are idiots.
The best decision to make, on any matter that only affects yourself, is to do the thing you want to do. If, for a career, you enjoy flipping burgers, then FLIP BURGERS! If, for a religion, you prefer to believe in one that makes more sense to you, then BELIEVE THAT RELIGION! All these social controls; they are tyranny. Intelligent, reasonable people naturally despise tyranny, because there is no sense in it other than to guide idiots who can’t think for themselves. If you have nothing that you authentically enjoy doing, then you can just do the default “earn money and status” thing. But if you have a functioning brain, you will find something more worthy of pursuing.
Here’s the crazy thing: I enjoy working for “Skip the Dishes”. I may not in a few months from now, in which case I’ll change jobs, but for now, I actually like it. It allows me to choose my own schedule and have whatever personal beliefs I want, and it covers all of my expenses just by working three hours a day. My parents and friends think it is a stupid job for me to do, considering my level of education and general abilities. But why do some other job just because I can? Sure, I could go to law school, but I would be miserable writing out freaking case files for hours and stressed out meeting insane deadlines and trying to pay my enormous student loans. Sure, I could be a teacher, but I would be frustrated by the unwillingness of the children to learn, and the constraints of belief imposed by state mandated curriculum. On and on, there are so many things I could do, but could is not a directive, but rather a contemplative, and the directive ought only be imposed by want.
Every time I’ve authentically wanted to do something, whether join the Mormon church, move to Ontario, become a writer, etc., there has been social opposition. But I have powered through it, and it has been good every time. I have this intuitive feeling that a certain thing is good to do, accompanied by appropriate reason, and when I do it, it just seems to work. I like to think it’s my adaptive unconscious working to make better decisions than I can consciously make, like Malcolm Gladwell talks about in “Blink”.
Invest With The Flow
There are certain times when I get to live out my potential, mostly through speaking and writing. From time to time, I get to speak to a large audience on a topic I’m passionate about, or get an article published in a large magazine. But those times are few and far between, and can only come about through lots of boring, mundane time spent investing. I often use the example of Michael Jordan, who, of course, spent significantly more time practicing in the gym than winning championships or hitting buzzer beaters. But without all the practice time, he would not have had those moments of greatness.
As I study the biographies of great people, they all spent a lot of time investing for a relatively short time of reward. I like to think of it as the “Joseph principle”. There is a story in Genesis of a guy named Joseph who predicted there would be a famine in Egypt, so during the times of great harvest they collected extra and stored it for when they needed it. When I do not have opportunities to spend myself, like when I’m in Edmonton (one of the stupidest groups of people in North America), I choose to invest in anticipation of greater things.
I have been studying lots and submitting articles to “The Atlantic”. They have not published any yet, but they are giving me lots of positive feedback, and I’m sure they will start publishing them soon. Once that happens, I may have the opportunity to move to New York or something, where I will finally get to spend myself. But for the meantime, I simply invest. And I am quite happy to be in that stage, in the knowledge that my time is going to get me places in the future.
Leashes, Muzzles, and Running Free
This advice I’ve given you only works if you have strong internal focus and high moral quality. If you are a weak minded, easily corruptible, selfish person, then doing whatever you want and forcing everyone to treat you nice no matter what could actually be a very bad thing. What these principles do is lift the social tyranny that is enacted upon us. In order to be free of this tyranny and live your life to its fullest, you need to display and harness incredible internal virtue, as Kant said,
“Morality is not the doctrine of how we make ourselves happy, but how we make ourselves worthy of happiness.”
If we are going to acquire happiness at the cost of our morality, we make ourselves unworthy of it, and do not find it. This is why happiness is a necessarily virtuous enterprise.
Dogs legally have to have a leash when they are being walked. This is because most dogs will run astray and cause mischief or even attack people if they are not tethered to a responsible human. If a dog is really poorly behaved, it may need a muzzle, or even be put down. But if a dog is very well behaved to the point where it will walk with its owner with every step, and never do anything to cause harm to itself or anyone around it, then by all practical means, a leash is unnecessary. While the dog will have to keep with its master most of the time, they may eventually come across an open field, in which case the dog can run freely.
I don’t need a social community, a religion, a government, etc. to tether me to their rules. I can walk alongside their rules of my own volition with ease. And I need to stay untethered, because sometimes, the open field comes, and I’m the only one free enough to take the opportunities it brings. Other people get bogged down by dogmas and social expectations, but I’m free to think, believe, and live however I want. As Aristotle said,
“Once a man has surpassed his fellow citizens in virtue, he is a law unto himself.”
The products of this, in a practical sense, largely remain to be seen. Will I move to New York to write for “The Atlantic”? Will I travel the world doing research for “Amnesty International”? Will I live as a hippy in San Jose while showing up to random lectures at Stanford?
I hope to do all of these things, and much more. People around me don’t think I can do it. But I can. I know I can. I know there is something exceptional in my brain and it just needs time, effort and maybe some good luck to develop and release it in a tangible way.
I want to finish by sharing a couple of the best pieces of life advice I have ever received. It is, unfortunately, from people who have long been dead. The first is from Henry David Thoreau. He goes through this massive case for why materialism is bad and it is better to live simply and frugally. But then, he suggests that, more important than anything, is for people to live authentically,
“I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”
Bertrand Russell closes “The Conquest of Happiness” by saying,
“All happiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack of integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of coordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society, where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe.”
I was pitted against the world through the many social tyrannies enacted upon me, and those are gone now. The only friends I have left are ones who treat me well and tolerate my beliefs, no matter what they may be. I was pitted against myself through not knowing what I believed or wanted out of life, but that’s different now. I have authentic beliefs, and I live them out through study and practice.
I see a future ahead that is fulfilling my potential and serving society in meaningful ways. But besides a future, I look back on my past couple years and am so thankful I chose to invest rather than give up. I care about the relationships I’ve made, even ones that were transitory, where an impact was made on one another, and sincere connection was felt. I care about the knowledge I’ve gained through books, of course, but also experiences that I thoughtfully engaged throughout and took wisdom from.
My recommendation is to surround yourself with people who treat you well, to live authentically, and to invest with the ups and downs. These principles lived out in pursuit of virtue and service to others is essential to being free, content, and hopefully, happy.