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Monday, November 08, 2004
A deathstyle choice

If there is something obviously ghastly about committing suicide by driving one's car onto a railway track and waiting for the next train, there is also something wearily, darkly familiar - something distinctly modern - about the attitude towards others that it demonstrates.

In past ages, of course, suicides occurred. (Though also new is the phenomenon of men taking their lives because modern divorce laws can so suddenly turn any husband and father from the head of a family into a weekend babysitter with no one.) But in the great majority, there was always the fear of the judgement still to come, the concern for the afterlife, to ensure that in peacetime a suicide attempt was lethal only to the one committing it. Now, when the most anyone has to fear from any higher authority is a prison sentence - hardly a worry for the dead - that incentive is gone. The temporal is all, and one can go out with a bang.

But more important than any change in religious belief: the modern age promotes, upholds and celebrates the idea that one's entire existence is all about oneself; that life is a great ego trip, its passing pleasures the only purpose. In a YouGov survey I filled in this morning, I was proffered various new commandments which I might prefer over the ten originals. "Be true to yourself" was one, and its message the essential theme of most of the others. It means, of course, almost nothing - how can one be untrue to oneself? It's a stupid cliche, convenient shorthand for 'do whatever you want', self-denial and self-sacrifice being a sin against the self - the worst offence in this pagan age. But meaningful or not, by goodness, it's a good summary of the raison d'etre of the modern world. What else can one say of a society where people can say with a straight face that self-love is the greatest love? Where one never any more sees the word 'esteem' written without 'self-' as its prefix?

But what becomes of those who come to live by such maxims? Of those who do see life in these shallowest of terms? The liberal of course explains that not harming others is central to his whole belief structure. But without any sense of duty to others, without any sense of obligation beyond not causing others harm, it is inevitable that other people become not moral ends in themselves but mere means to your pleasures. When one comes to see life in these terms, it is very difficult to take anybody else seriously, for what is their own life but a similar pathetic hedonistic quest? And in any case, no one can ever live up entirely to a moral code: the laxity of this one does not promote goodness by its realism, but further selfishness by setting the bar so low. In the end, when everything comes back to you, nothing can come back to anyone else.

So if after all this selfishness you fail to achieve the requisite enjoyment, and you get only frustration in exchange for your efforts, then with life being about nothing more, ending it seems only rational. What do you care who you take with you? When did others ever figure in your thinking? Be true to yourself.

Two girls of seven and fifteen are among the dead.

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