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Panorama: 18th December 2005






Saju Chackalackal



Venerable Mother Theresa, the icon of Christian commitment and service that the secular world has ever accepted, recognised and acclaimed, had consciously let herself die.  Is this a suicide of its own kind?

A person, who commits suicide in the normal course of life, is the one who has been able to realise the worth of being a human person in this world, of course, in relation to a certain ‘thing’ or, better, a certain ‘person’ or ‘persons’.  Unfortunately, for this kind of people, their worth depends solely on such a relation, so much so that the impossibility of perpetuating such a relation in concrete life blocks their vision, and shatters the meaning of their lives.  Most of them, either on the spur of the moment or after much thought on the pros and cons of their situations, decide to give up their lives: they commit suicide.  They are, in a way, convinced of the impossibility of realising the dignity and worth they had envisaged.  This is a tragedy.

There is, however, another positive dimension to suicide: that which is hinted at, though contrary to his thesis, by the philosopher of the absurd, Albert Camus.  He held that both the total self-gift and the forgetfulness of the self, which are kernel to commitment in any facet of life, are equal to suicide.  Indeed, I would say that he is right in making this pronouncement.  Basically, suicide, according to him, is “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” 

A gift becomes a real gift, only when the person who gives it away realises the worth of the thing gifted.  To the extent it is precious to and valuable for the giver the gift becomes more and more precious, or it assumes extra worth.  If so, we can think of self-giving only in the case of a person who could realise his or her self-worth in his or her own existential situation.  It is, again, an integral part of this process of discerning one’s own worth that he or she relates to a particular person or a group of persons, or certain things.

It is, however, obvious that the depth of this inter-personal realisation in one’s own life, and the acceptance of the same by others would be very much dependent on the ultimate point of reference, the Other, which consciously or unconsciously influences their actions.  The focus on a particular person, secular or sacred, or on a group of persons, especially those who are deprived of their humanity, would certainly add more vitality and dynamism to this process.  Indeed, it is here that a person of realisation understands and accepts the meaning of his or her life: as a relational existence, an existence that becomes worthy of living in relation to the Other and others.

The realisation of one’s own worth, that it is worth living, and that it is worthy of giving away for the sake of others – for their service and uplift, and ultimately for their liberation – can infuse one with the courage and strength that are necessary to make a decision to commit suicide.  But, a suicide with a difference: the self-worth that has been recognised by the persons is not destroyed, but restored. Even the physical impossibility of realising the envisaged goal is not disheartening for them, but encourages them to go ahead and optimistically sacrifice what they are for that ultimate cause.

Mother Theresa, a beacon light in a world of selfishness and self-worship, is a person who had realised her own self-worth.  Her realisation can be said to be unique in the sense that it was two-dimensional: she could realise the worth of her life in relation to both Jesus Christ, whom she accepted as her Lord, and the oppressed and unwanted masses, whom she could recognise as her neighbour in need.  Once she realised her own worth, and what she could become with that (may be, if she had remained in her own country of birth, or remained within the religious congregation to which she originally belonged, she could have become a political head or the mother superior.  For, she was a born leader and a winner, indeed!) she decided to give it away as a gift for others, for those who were in dire need.  It was her bold decision, involving her entire life, to sacrifice her own self.  This, in the opinion of Camus, was a crucial but suicidal decision.

Suicide, of course, but with a difference!   The suicide that Camus is speaking about is an absurd phenomenon in human life: it is unimportant as far as any individual or group is concerned and, certainly, leads us nowhere.  However, the suicide that Mother Theresa committed years before she was physically dead (an absurd reasoning, indeed!) was an important and a vital decision she had made about her life, as it was instrumental in giving direction to herself and to many others in the course of time.  Her bold decision to gift herself entirely for the Other, through the others, was not to end in absurdity.  It was instrumental in opening up the avenues for a more creative and stimulating life vibrant with meaning and fulfilment, thus unfolding the intelligence of living with a supra-sensible life vision.  She was a woman who realised the absurdity of living for the present moment and its pleasures.  She was also aware of the fact that this world and its riches are not the ends in themselves, rather that they could be the means for a better morrow, both in a secular and religious sense.

So, she committed suicide!  Her suicide was a hopeful (indeed, filled with hope) act as she had a Christian life vision throughout her life.  It was a hope that she shared with Jesus Christ, who could infuse suffering and death with meaning and direction by sacrificing himself for others (kenosis), and thus rising from the dead on the third day. Mother Theresa was sure of his personal example and teaching that by breaking and sharing one’s life for the Other and others one is gaining life in hundredfold.  She was convinced of the fact that “a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies; if it does die, then it produces many grains” (John 12:24).

In giving up her own life, she had the hope that she would win it, again, at the end. Her life was infused with the hope that by dying (her death being the result of her own decision, and thus suicide) with Jesus Christ for the sake of her neighbour, she would, along with her neighbours, rise with him.  It was this hope-infused belief that gave direction and vitality to her life. 

It is a unique kind of suicide.  For, this kind of suicide not only brings in meaning and purpose in the life of the person who decides to commit suicide, it makes the life of many others more meaningful and purposeful, thus becoming the leaven in a world of meaninglessness and absurdity.  Not only the men and women who flocked around her to be her associates (both the sisters and brothers of the Missionaries of Charity and her benefactors around the world) in the humanitarian services that she had undertaken for the sake of the less-fortunate people, but also the entire populace (her beneficiaries) that had received some kind of service, shared her optimistic orientation and divine life vision.  Thus, in and through a series of suicidal decisions throughout her life she spent herself for others, and made herself available for the uplift of humanity.

It was this realisation that gave a direction to her life and activities.  It was this that opened her eyes to see the less-fortunate people in the streets of Calcutta, and to dedicate her entire life for their uplift, of course, within the limited framework of structures, ecclesial, cultural and political.  Here, the absurd and ridiculous phenomenon of suicide – self-gift and forgetfulness of the self in relation to the Other and others – becomes the most reasonable and intelligent practical decision one could ever arrive at.  For, it gave life to herself and to many others in their dire needs, of course, in an integral manner.  Mother Theresa could convince the whole humanity that one’s life is worth living, especially when it is shared and spent for the Other and others.

Therefore, the epithet given to her as “the Mother” (during the telecast of Mother Theresa’s funeral service commentators of the Dooradarsan – India’s national TV channel – were referring to her as the Mother of the Nation, and the Mother of Humanity) is certainly an apt one.  Mother is the eternal symbol of total self-giving and the forgetfulness of the self.  For, the reality of mother is always associated with the life-giving process, which presupposes a continued readiness on her part to be spent for the emerging new life.  In this process, the universally acclaimed reality of love is also involved. To love, if it is genuine and guileless, is to suicide.  Real love is possible only when the involved parties realise their self-worth, knowing that they have something to share with each other, and are ready to give it up in a holistic manner for the sake of the one whom he or she loves.  In other words, there is a call for total self-giving between the parties involved in love, a self-giving that ultimately involves the death of each one’s ego, and an enlivening of both of them through their mutual self-giving.  Mother is an epitome of love.  Indeed, Mother Theresa’s life was instrumental to enliven not only the people of our country, but the entire humanity, and, thus, earning the noblest title, the Mother.

Imbibing this optimistic Christian life vision enables us to be ever happy and enthusiastic to commit ourselves for the Other and others so that our lives become worth living, and worthy of being called Christian.  It is integral to this vision that we be able to recognise and respect the lives of many a people who also partake in and practise this great ideal of life, and constantly and consciously suicide their lives.  Let us hope that the Church as a whole – and each and every faithful therein – realises, cherishes and takes pride in the worth of being the follower of Jesus Christ, who is the archetype of the enlivening suicide, treading in whose footsteps Mother Theresa could find the ultimate meaning of her life.  The pathway for any other Christian is not different: to live a meaningful life by dying every moment, and by embracing a meaningful death by living for the Other and others, thus to enliven life in its totality, and to enhance humanity as a whole by enabling to live and fulfil its ultimate goal in life-giving kenosis.

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