Shakespeare and Suicide

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.



Most of us have heard the phrase “To be or not to be” at some point during our lives. Many of us may have used this phrase without understanding the context. Shakespeare, who wrote these words in 1603, understood that people struggle with thoughts of suicide. Not much has changed for humanity in 400+ years. Oh yes, our trappings have changed, but not our hearts, not our struggles, not the core of who we are.

If people were honest, which they very often are not, most people would admit to having had suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives. To be alive means to feel things. All the things. And for those that feel deeply, sometimes those feelings lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. The saying goes that we cannot feel love without feeling hate. We cannot feel joy without feeling sadness. We cannot feel hope without feeling despair. One coin. Two sides. Both are relevant. Why then do we shroud some feelings in shame, stigma, silence? Our feelings are nothing more than a gauge on the dashboard of our cars. They are there to tell us something. It is up to us what we decided to do with our feelings.

Perhaps we can modify Shakespeare’s words to “To change, or not to change, that is the question.” We can change the conversation about our feelings. We can admit that at times we have felt the deep despair that drives suicidal thoughts. We can admit that we feel angry, hurt, betrayed, sad, broken. We certainly don’t get mad at ourselves or others if they are having a “good” emotion. Why should any emotion be labeled as good or bad? Emotions just are. They don’t define us. But they so often drive us. If we can learn to use our emotions as an indicator, much like the gauge on the dashboard, then we can decide what to do. We can decide what and who and how to be.

We have the power to control where we put our focus. We get to decide whether we want to change or not change.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, my guess is that if, at this moment, things were different in your world, those thoughts would not be haunting you. When working with suicidal thoughts, I ask the question, “If things were different, would you still want to die? The answer is always no. Suicidal thoughts are driven by the belief that things will never change. When we can step out of ourselves and look at the course of our lives, we can see that there have been seasons, times in our lives when things were different. Sometimes the seasons are long and difficult. Sometimes they are not. I am not discounting difficulties or minimizing despair. Rather, I am asserting that eventually, things will change. I am holding out hope that a permanent solution is not the answer to a temporary state of being.

Our thoughts can be like a needle on the record that gets stuck in a groove; it plays the same note over and over again. Our thoughts get stuck where they have been stuck before. Our thoughts get stuck on repeat. I believe we have the power to pick up the needle and move it. I believe we have the capacity to play a new song.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please, talk to someone. Reach out to a trusted friend, a professional, or a helpline. Your life matters.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline —1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741

Veteran’s Crisis Line — 1-800-273-8255 press 1

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