“If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face this distress.”
— Moses, to God (Num 11:15)
In the prison library where I work, the news still arrives the old-fashioned way, meaning in print, not online. Among the inmates who frequent the library, current events are dissected and discussed at length. During one week not so long ago, the news had been full of death. There were the reports of a couple of famous musicians taking their own lives, which, although they were strangers, made them feel as though they’d lost someone they knew and loved personally. There was the teenage girl coaxing her boyfriend via persistent text messages to commit suicide, which he tragically did. There was a long feature story in the newspaper about a man with terminal cancer who had opted to avail himself of California’s new "End of Life Option Act" law, intentionally taking a prescribed lethal dose of medication to end his life.
One of my patrons that week, mystified by the suicides of people who seemed to have a great life going, posed a simple question.
“Do people out there not want to live?” he asked me.
People out there. Free people, he meant. People who can do just about anything they please. People not doing time in a state prison, cut off from society’s company and progress. People like me and my family and everyone I know or interact with in a day.
Do we not want to live?
The question lingered in my mind. It came from a man who knows what it is to take a life. Serving a life sentence for murder, he also knows what it is to lose most of the meaningful parts of a life out there: freedom, family, career, marriage, mobility, variety, personal space, personal safety. Many of the things I take for granted, the small pleasures and the deeply gratifying moments and even the daily irritants, are the stuff of impossible dreams for him.
God’s gift of life, so precious and so precarious, was the topic that day. Through the grace of God, we humans can give life, but we can also end it. It cannot be restored once it is taken from another, no matter how real the killer’s remorse. Yet we can become blasé about, and even unaware of, the miracle of each lived day of our lives. The incessant bad news can inoculate us against feeling anything about the death that invades and conquers life, through war, through terrorism, through crime, through neglect, through disasters, through accidents, through suicides. We become too numb even to mourn its loss.
Maybe sometimes out here we don’t want to live, when we lose hope, when we suffer from depression, when we don’t see any future. We are tired. We understand the allure of just giving up. We can feel like Moses in the desert, crying out to an angry God: Just end it already! But it’s not only people out here who fall into despair. Suicide is a dark and seductive companion in prison as well. People who are incarcerated often feel abandoned, shunned, vilified as less than human. They suspect that they are the throwaway members of society, whose lives matter less than others. Sometimes those of us who work in prisons are guilty of confirming that suspicion.
My library lifer cannot imagine a free person not reveling in freedom, not treasuring the privilege of such a life. I cannot imagine being locked up for life and still carrying on with dignity and purpose, as many lifers do. This is why it’s good for us to talk. I finally answered him that we mostly do want to live out here. It’s just that sometimes we forget to be grateful for the gift.