A prayer for fewer unhappy endingsAs a new year also represents a clean slate, to a certain degree, I took a moment recently to contemplate what has taken place in 2012, and also what will be remembered and what forgotten. Certain words immediately sprang to mind such as “hatred,” “rage,” “generational war,” “mudslinging” and “corruption.” But the word that left me with the strongest sinking feeling was “suicide.” This year has been full of stories about suicides, such as the case of a teenager in Daegu who took his own life due to school bullying, and that of a unionist who hanged himself despite being reinstated by Hanjin Heavy Industries following a yearlong protest.
The suicide rate in Korea, one of the world’s highest, is rising and remains a major concern. As many as 40 Koreans take their own lives every day on average, and a recent survey shows that one in four teenagers have thought of taking their own life at some point. In fact, South Korea surpassed Japan by registering the highest suicide rate among OECD members this year.
Many students kill themselves to escape school bullying and violence and pressure from their academic performance and grades. Meanwhile, a bakery shop owner ended his own life after his business all but collapsed due to the rising competition from a large franchise bakery branch that opened nearby. In another high-profile case this year, an employee of a state corporation killed himself because he was found to be corrupt.
On TV dramas, scenes of teens traumatized by their friend’s suicide or characters standing on cliffs or building ledges contemplating jumping off are no longer unusual. From their confessions on talk shows, one has to wonder if there are any entertainers or celebrities who have not at some point been tempted to take their own lives. Despite broadcasting guidelines, reports of suicides are commonplace. The media has become a purveyor of suicidal acts.
What is it about suicide that is so arresting? Two weeks ago, the Press Arbitration Commission sponsored a symposium to discuss “a philosophical approach to suicide,” a debate that Commission Chairman Kwon Seong said was aimed at raising awareness of the issue.
Inspired by her Buddhist beliefs, Han Ja-kyoung, a professor of philosophy at Ewha Womans University, adopted a philosophical approach to the issue and said the growing spate of suicide cases stem from a lack of respect for the value of life. Suicide is increasingly seen as easy as real-world problems stack up to end pain and suffering. But according to Buddhist scripture, people who kill themselves will have it tougher next time around when they are reincarnated. This transitions suicide from being a means of escape as a bridge to greater suffering and even more of an unbearable existence.
Kim Sung-kee, professor of Confucian and Oriental Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, said Confucianism, which does not believe in the afterlife, puts its faith in adopting honorable values to give life more meaning. In ancient times, nobility often devoted their lives to altruistic or honorable pursuits. This gave people a reason to live, or at least made martyrdom more popular than suicide.
Then again, Confucianism sees suicide as being morally acceptable when it is justified. As such, cases could be made for the teenager protesting student violence, the small shopkeeper fighting against the intimidation of big business or the proletarian worker enraged at being abused by his bosses. The challenge is not to turn too many of the dead into martyrs for political or social interests.
This is because a deeper reading of Confucianism shows that what it actually teaches us is to live, rather than die, well. Choi Ik-hyun, a neo-Confucian scholar and freedom fighter who starved himself to death in Daemado, also known in Japan as Tsushima Island, “rather than eat anything that grows from Japanese land,” could be said to have given himself an honorable death. But suicide simply born of rage and frustration is hardly noble.
I reread the suicide notes of the teenager in Daegu and the unionist at Hanjin Heavy Industries. Their words were full of despair and hopelessness. Our society failed to protect a scared child from the dangers of physical and psychological abuse, and it couldn’t save a worker who sank into an abyss of debt by helping them gain a decent month’s paycheck. Once stigmatized as a loser or delinquent in Korea, there is no escape.
It may not provide much comfort, but at least society showed itself capable of more inspiring words this year, such as “empathy,” “sympathy,” “tolerance” and “benevolence.” Those of us who have become too self-absorbed and forgotten those feelings of compassion may want to spend some time considering this. If we revive the warm side of our nature, won’t our lives be less exacting?
People warn that next year will be even tougher than this one. To save ourselves and our society, perhaps we should turn our eyes and hearts toward our neighbors and help them when they are tempted to give up the good fight.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Sunny