A man I knew professionally died yesterday. While I find it difficult to believe, he evidently committed suicide.
I say I find it difficult to believe not because I knew him so well that I know suicide was not in his nature. That is not true. I did not know him that well. I worked with him for about 10 years, spoke to him on the phone several times a year and usually met for lunch or drinks each fall at an industry symposium we both attended. Our primary commonality was our small niche of an extremely large industry. Most of our knowledge about each other revolved around that niche and our careers.
I had lunch with him last fall. It was a beautiful San Francisco day. A little chilly but the sky was a brilliant blue, showing the city off at its best. His long-term girlfriend had traveled with him, as she did almost every year, and they were staying for the weekend. My husband was due in the next day and we had a long weekend planned as well. Our lunch conversation was both work and personal-related. He told me about how his new corporate owner was working out, what had changed and what seemed to be staying the same. He also offered up critical comments about certain competitors of mine, something I am always eager to hear. I suggested people and markets he should contact on business that I could not handle. Primarily though, we talked about the weekend ahead and what each couple planned to do. It was relaxing lunch, not between two old friends, but certainly between two old acquaintances.
My impression of this gentleman was just that. He was a gentleman and a gentle spirit, coming across as soft-spoken, well mannered and almost courtly. He seemed, if not ecstatically happy with his life, at least content. He appeared to have strong personal relationships and seemed rooted in his community.
I am having a great deal of difficulty connecting the impression of the man I knew to a person who could commit suicide. I am not close enough that I will likely ever fully know or understand why he did this. I don’t really want to know the details. It would feel like I was intruding on others private pain. While I am surprised and saddened, I realize by the end of this week the news will have receded from my active thoughts. There will be others though, his girlfriend, his family and his close friends who will mourn their loss for a very long time.
Even though my acquaintance was casual, superficial, I never imagined this man in pain. His death reminds me that we never know another person as well as we think we do. We never know ourselves as well as we think we do.
I can honestly say that thoughts of killing myself have never crossed my mind. Even through the roughest times of my life, I never considered this even a remotely potential possibility. The concept is beyond my comprehension. Or, is it?
Do all humans have a switch in their brain, one they are not even aware of until they find themselves reaching out and contemplating pulling that switch? Is there a specific line for all of us, hard-coded in our DNA perhaps? A line that once crossed suddenly makes the idea of taking your own life move from the fantastic and impossible to the feasible and possible. Am I just not aware of my switch because I have never come close to crossing that line? Can I continue to exist, smug in the knowledge that I will never consider this option? Or, is a little humility in order? Is this a case of “there but for the grace of god go I?”
I am not really looking for answers to my questions. Some self-knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I just know I feel terrible sorrow for my acquaintance and for all those who loved him that he left behind.