Dismayed by the recent news of David Foster Wallace's death, I've been wondering about suicide prevention. The traditional messages we offer to those who are suffering - you are not alone, help is always available, don't let temporary mindsets seem like life sentences - are crucial but clearly don't work in all cases. I'm posting some of my personal geek reasons why life is awesome -- scientific truths that would apply even to a person's darkest, most withdrawn moments.
I don't bring these ideas up to trivialize traditional suicide counseling -- I offer them to those who have hit the web in desperation, looking to lift despair and have failed so far. Or just to those who want a place to put their thoughts for a few minutes.
1. Your feelings are all chemicals
Anguish over the loss of a loved one or feelings of helplessness have complex roots. But in the end they make you feel bad because they adjust your brain's chemistry. Happiness and its opposite are both electro-chemical reactions; those reactions are temporary and ineffable, and could even have hidden benefits. The symptoms of depression, for example - lowered energy, decreased willingness to engage with others - could be an evolutionary response to a pressing need to change your life, to get over a loss or make a drastic improvement to your personal situation. Depression provides exactly what you need (calmness, lack of interference) to reassess your life and make positive changes.
2. Your teeth were made in stars
Except for hydrogen and helium, elements require such extraordinarily high temperatures to form that they can only be created in the stars themselves. That means all elements in you - the carbon in your skin, the calcium of your teeth - were born in the collision of atoms in a star. All that comprises you comes from way beyond your street, your country, and your planet. Makes those insurmountable concerns of your daily life seem a little less so.
3. Many, many creatures are depending on you
You are literally never alone. While there are roughly 6.7 billion people on Earth, you may not feel that many of them at all care very much about your existence. But within your colon alone are living at least 1012 billion organisms, or roughly a thousand times the number of people on the planet. Stop your metabolic processes, and you stop theirs.
4. Rejection is a sign of progress.
Pick any scientific field, and you'll find that those snubbed by their communities, left feeling alone and despised, were often those on the forefront. Mendel presented his treatise on pea genetics and died virtually unknown - and the idea of the predictable inheritance of genetic traits only achieved wide acceptance eighty years later. Don't conflate feeling outside those around you with being worse than them.
5. Pick a leaf, and it's all your own.
If you live in the right climate, take a walk down a leafy street this fall. Those leaves, triggered by a sequence of amino acids in DNA and growing in a startling combination of symmetry and individuality (much, that is, like you), face the sun for a time and then fall away. You can assume that the leaf you see let go of a branch and fall towards the ground has never been considered by any being but yourself. Catch it in your hand - or, even better, keep walking until one falls into your reach naturally - and it will have spent its whole time on the planet without ever touching the ground, only because of you.