To Be or Not to Be > IDEAS & IDEALS

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To Be or Not to Be

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 We were shocked once more recently at the news that another prominent public figure in our country, Mr. Ahn Sang-young, 66, mayor of Pusan, the second largest city in Korea, committed suicide in prison. He hanged himself. He was being held for bribery charges. The shock was a lesser one compared to that of Mr. Chung Mong-hun’s a year before, who was the owner of Hyundai-Asan Group, one of the largest business conglomerations in our country. He had jumped out of his office window to the street. Mr. Chung was 56. At the time of his death he was being questioned by the legal authorities for some business wrongdoings, and he was said to be in a deep financial trouble.

     The chief cause of the shock was its unexpectedness, as any case of suicide is. No one anticipated it. In many respects they were envy of us. They were well-known public figures, highly-educated, wealthy and healthy, and had good families, many friends and loyal followers. If convicted, they could have gone to prison for some period of time and suffer ignominy and shame, but there was no reason for them to end their lives by these violent means. So many others who have committed much more heinous crimes, or who are in much bigger troubles live on.

     Most grievous as it is, suicide is a familiar and frequent thing among us. It admits all walks of life as its members. Besides the social celebrities like Mr. Ahn and Mr. Chung, many unknown men and women, young or old, rich or poor, commit it every day for a variety of reasons by any means available to them. A migrant worker threw himself into a running subway car the other day. A high school girl jumped from the top of her school building because of her poor grades at school. A salaried man killed himself after losing money by gambling. People kill themselves in order to avoid a greater misfortune, to free themselves from pain, to save their honor, or vindicate their honesty or pride, etc.

     Suicide is a puzzle, an enigma to most of us who are afraid of death. Especially it is despair to medical doctors. In all other maladies we seek desperately for their help. If we get hurt or sick, or have some disease, we will freely spend our money, endure any pain, drink bitter medicine, swallow those distasteful pills, suffer our joints to be seared, or even to be cut off, anything for the recovery of health. So sweet, so dear, so precious above all other things in this world is life. But as we see there are people who part freely with life too.

     Horrible as it is, we can not deny the truth that suicide is a way out of mental as well as physical pain. To our surprise, almost all of the famous philosophers did not condemn suicide. Rather they approved of it, even encouraged it, and practiced it themselves. Socrates defended it, and he dispatched himself by drinking hemlock to vindicate his righteousness. For Seneca it was the way to liberty. "No man is compelled to live against his will," he said. Epicurus and his followers, Cynics and Stoics were all eloquent defenders of suicide. "What need a man care about bars and prison? The way of escape is at hand. Death is always ready. Don’t you see that steep place, that river, that pit, that tree? There are ways of escape from servitude and pain. What matters whether you make or await your end?’’

     Speusippus, a famous Greek philosopher and Plato’s heir, being sick, was being carried on his slaves’ shoulders one day and made a terrible moan to his philosopher friend Diogenes on the street. "Since you endure such pain to live,’’ said Diogenes, "I do not pity you; you may be freed from it if you will,’’ meaning by death. Corellius Rufus, a Roman senator, being tortured by gout, decided to die. He entirely abstained from food. Neither his friends nor his family including his wife could dissuade him. Die he would and die he did.

     Then, to be or not to be is the question, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet: whether it is nobler to live and suffer, or to die voluntarily and be free from pain and misery once for all. And we feel tempted to agree with the great recommenders of suicide. According to their teachings only the cowards and fools live on, while all the wise and courageous should die in this world full of calamities, willingly and unhesitatingly.

     However, to our great relief, despite such a nice and sweet philosophy of suicide expounded by the great philosophers, most of us live to the natural end, and pity those few who committed it. Although we do not endorse their acts, we do not censure them either simply because we understand the agony and anguish they must have undergone before they put their head into the noose, or opened the window to throw themselves down onto the street.

     Suicides are the patients who are suffering from intolerable pains. For them nothing is so odious, nothing so tedious as the days with the sun in the sky. They cannot sleep at night. Every day, nay, every minute is a torture for them. Nothing pleases them. In othder diseases there always is some hope, but these unhappy men who are infected with this accursed malady are past all hope of recovery. In the place of hope despair sits. While living they experience hell. They themselves are hell.Finally they come to think erroneously that death alone must ease them.

     But alas! Is there guarantee for the ease they seek so desperately in those unnatural deaths? Who knows? God only knows. We the living can dispose of their goods and bodies, but who can tell what shall become of their souls? We also can tell that the sorrow, pain, and shame that had tormented them so much will surely remain long in the tender hearts of their young children, of their old parents and of the loving friends.

     We can only wish and pray, therefore, that mercy may come between the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat. A few puffs at his cigarette for Mr. Chung or a friendly call from somebody for Mr. Ahn just minutes before they put the fearful plan into action could have diverted them, and by now they might have been laughing and rejoicing in the cowards of us all. What happened to them may happen to any of us at any time. Who can say we may not be tempted? Let’s hope the for the best. Let's pray God be merciful unto us all !    
                                                                                                     (March 5, 2004)


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