Saturday, April 22, 2006

a certain sickness

UPDATE: This post has received some very thoughtful comments. Check them out by clicking the time stamp link.

I'm going to sound like a cold, cold bastard for saying this, but I have little patience or sympathy for people who want to kill themselves* (the friends and relatives of those people? that's another matter).

Nutty folks like Yang Bong Ho-- the dude whose image has probably circled the world because he's got a large knife jutting out of his stomach as he kneels on rain-soaked marble-- make Korea look bad. I side with all Koreans who view him with embarrassment; I can't relate to those Koreans who view him with sympathy.

The fact that Yang didn't even stick the knife in very deep makes me think he knew damn well he wasn't really going to kill himself.

But there's a larger issue here, a certain sickness: the Korean inclination toward theatrical public self-abuse. Whether it's finger-slicing or self-immolation or half-assed seppuku with a kitchen knife, some Koreans have a flair for the dramatic. What truly interests me is that, in those cases where the self-abusers appear to be committing suicide, they rarely die. That suggests an awareness, on some level, of the histrionic dimension of the public act. This isn't Christ on the cross, folks: this is people looking for media attention, and succeeding. The sickness isn't insanity, per se: it's terminal drama-queeniness.

To be fair, American TV, especially if you consider the local news in all fifty states, regularly showcases our own home-grown nuts: people who shoot five or six coworkers, then crawl into a hidey-hole to spend a few hours talking with police about whether they want to live or die. Sometimes these standoffs end with the shooter shooting himself (and it's almost always a "he"). Quite a contrast to how such dramas end here in Korea.

I think the percentage of public suicides in America is probably higher than it is in Korea, mainly because the American crazies are truly fucked in the head and sincerely ready to die, either by their own hand or in a hail of police gunfire. Korean "crazies" could learn a thing or two from their American brethren about how to do it right, how to commit to the act.

Next time, sink the knife all the way in, Mr. Yang. Otherwise, it's only cheap theater. When I look at that picture, which shows a knife that's barely penetrated the rectus abdominis, I'm not impressed.

*I'd do my best to help such a person if I could, but I'd be lying if I told you I could sympathize with them. Most people kill themselves because they've concluded that they have no other alternative. This conclusion is almost always wrong; my sympathy is reserved for people who are terminally ill and living lives of extreme pain-- people who truly have no hope. I reserve suicide as an option for myself in such circumstances. In the meantime, I'm heartened whenever I hear stories of people who have gone through a suicidal period and then "snapped out of it" somehow. I respect the courage and effort it takes to perform such a feat.



Jelly said...

I hear what you're saying Kevin. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - the drama that goes on here in protesting something.
Lighting yourself afire seems to have so much more flare (yah, pun) that chopping off a digit or sticking a knife barely in you. Suicide attempt? How about drama attempt?

In high school, after my good friend's 3rd weak attempt at suicide we had a talk. I wasn't meaning to "dare" her into anything - but I noted she lived on the 18th floor of an apartment building. Instad of slashing her wrists with broken bit of mirror - why didn't she just jump out the window? Better yet, why didn't she just recognize what we all knew -- that she was having trouble and needed some help, and GET help?

At 16 years of age I can understand suicide as a protest to life's unfairness, or your inability to cope. At Mr. Yang's age, well, I just don't get it. If he had shoved the knife in all the way (is that so hard?) would anything have changed -- or would it just be viewed as it might be back in North America - as one fucked up soul "trying" to put an end to his problems "in the name of" some other shit?

It seems like some kind of sad martyr attempt. I try to be empathetic, but rarely hear stories that are outright tragic. Other than, as you mentioned, terminal or such cases, I think suicide is so lame.

Jelly said...

By the way, as you surely know, seppuku is meant to get the job done. With a wakizashi (short sword) or tanto (knife) the person should "plunge it into his abdomen, making first a left-to-right cut and then a second slightly upward stroke to spill out the intestines."
C'mon Mr. Yang, where's your GUTS?

Nathan B. said...

I'm not sure why the issues of suicide and theatricality are brought together, here: the picture clearly shows something that was nothing more than a short-term publicity stunt. There was no suicide attempt.
As a formerly-depressed person, I can say that a person can be driven to suicide at any age. Chronic emotional pain to the nth degree is often worse than physical pain because the individual may have trouble making sense of it. In that sense, there is no difference between the terminally ill patient and the depressive who thinks there is no way out: they are both in great pain. Furthermore, clinically depressed people usually have some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain. (My personal theory is that we choose the composition of that balance to some degree: if I choose to think happy thoughts, I will be more happy, and will have better brain chemistry; but for many it's too late for a simple "positive thinking" experiment to help them.)

I once had the experience of taking a 4am telephone call from a classmate who was rattling a bottle of pills in her hand and threatening to do herself in. I didn't really know this classmate, so I was surprised. First, I listened to her, and assured her that she would feel better. I told her that there would be another man for her (she had broken up with her boyfriend). Then, I had her close up the bottle and put it away. After that, we planned her next day together. Finally, I encouraged her to see her doctor. A few days later, I told her that I didn't have the wherewithal to be her counsellor, but I told her her doctor could do more for her than I could. And I left it at that. She's still alive. I didn't have to be either callous or over-the-top in giving up my own energy and time to someone I didn't really know, someone who was going to need professional help.

I'm not saying we all need to form a big group hug and undergo therapy together, but I do think we should be careful about being needlessly callous. The whole "suicide is so lame" mantra is usually only spoken by those who have never walked in the moccasins of utter darkness. I also think it functions as a kind of guilt trip on those who are thinking of suicide--which I don't think is a good way to approach things. Of course, sometimes Dr. Phil-style "tough love" is best, but it doesn't work for everyone.

In my own case, a combination of twice-weekly professional help, and some great friends helped me pull through my own rough period some years ago, and I'll always be very grateful to them.

Brian said...


If I can put on my pop-psychology hat for a moment, I think it's the han of every Korean person that triggers this sort of self-abuse. BY harming themselves in such a manner, it brings a close psychological bond with their anscestors, people who suffered real hardship and injustice.

There's a psych thesis in there somewhere... let me tell you.


Jelly said...

I agree, what I said seems callous- but I didn't mean "suicide is lame" to be a brusque pssshhh-aw. However, it IS lame. I understand being depressed, and have had my own bouts over the years. Sometimes I think most of the people on Earth currently are, and surely just about everyone has gone through a depression at one point or another. With my friend, way back when, that was her 3rd attempt - and I apologized for sounding so blunt. The point was, I wanted her to know that I understood she was in trouble, and likewise I wanted her to understand how other people were being affected. We ended up having a long talk about things, and she did end up getting help and getting through.
But the havoc suicide causes for the friends and family - even after a loved one makes an attempt -- it makes me want to be callous.
Way back when I was in highschool it was like depression was some kind of secret shame. These days though, it's so chic to have a shrink and be on meds. (Maybe not so much in Korea, but,...)
What about Mr. Yang? Is he depressed or just cuckoo? Or is he a hero, bringing attention to whatever cause is biting his ass?

Jelly said...

Oh yah, and this post made me dream of seppuku - and I realized the helping hand in the photo of Mr. Yang would have been holding a sword, were this a proper "quasi-Japanese manner" of killing yourself.
Buddy would have chopped off Mr. Yang's head. That would have been pretty dramatic, eh?

Kevin said...


I think that you, Jelly, Brian, and I are all in agreement that we're looking at a "drama attempt" and not a suicide attempt. Jelly said it more directly than I did in my meandering post, but my point of view is the same as hers and yours with regard to the act we see in the photo.

Regarding callousness: I hope I'd made clear in my post that I would do what I could for a suicidal person, so I think we're in agreement at least as regards how to act toward someone who is currently suicidal. It wouldn't be a time to reveal exasperation or impatience, nor a time to rail about how selfish suicide is, as extreme acts go.

I've known my own darkness-- not enough to want to kill myself, but I've come close. I can, on an intellectual level, understand what you're saying about the suicidal mindset. But I'm also a stubborn asshole who refuses to give up hope in any situation if hope is there to be found, so on an emotional level, I can't relate.

And I certainly don't knock the fact that suicidal people often need outside help. However, there's this: we make choices, even when we're in a suicidal mood. We are still responsible for our actions. The help we might receive during our period of darkness is no help at all if we aren't, at some basic level, willing to choose to live.

Perhaps I need to work on my empathy. Maybe I've been in Korea too long, because many Korean men think like I do: when someone's in trouble, you don't respond with comforting words, but with scolding and guilt trips! Ha ha!

The other issue, the cosmetic one you bring up, is easily answered. I wove the issues of suicide and theatricality together because the theater was about the portrayal of suicide. Mr. Yang wasn't kneeling on those stone steps with a bouquet in front of him, chanting Hare Krishna mantras, though he could have done so.

It should be noted, too, that many suicides, even when not public, have an element of drama to them. A given suicide is, more often than not, a communicative gesture: there's an aspect of "I want my body to be found so that people will know!" Very few people take a gun, trudge deep into the wilderness, and quietly do themselves in-- no note, no nothing.

In your own case, Nathan, I admire the fact that you chose to seek help for your depression and that you've come out stronger for it. Believe me, I'm happy to have you around, and the world is a better place because you're here. That, to me, is a more eloquent argument against suicide than anything we might say or write.


PS: You know what truly pissed me off? The suicide attempt in the Taegu subway system a couple years ago, where the dude trying to immolate himself lived while hundreds of others died. That man's case is an extreme example of suicide's selfishness. And in his case, I do not consider it a good thing that he lived. He should have perished in his own flames.

Nathan B. said...

A thoughtful comment, Kevin, and thanks for your kind words!

Nomad said...


Posts like this are exactly why your blog is on my "must read" list. I was going to put down "must read every day" but lately, I've been a bit lax in that department.
I'm not going to jump (no pun intended) into the suicide discussion because I have some pretty strong views on that subject and I may come across as sounding rather callous.

hardyandtiny said...

oh well, there he is.

dogbert said...

Has anyone seen this reported in Korea? I have searched several Korean-language news websites using the string "양봉호", but get nothing.

Kevin said...


I haven't tried-- my Korean's not good enough to scan the news-- but it's a good question that I hope you'll re-ask on more prominent blogs than this one (if you haven't already). I'd be curious to know, too.