Suicide Is Painless
By Jason Lim
The mind often makes bizarre associations. When suddenly presented with shocking news, it instinctively links it with some other piece of information dormant in your subconscious that seems totally unrelated on the surface.
When I first heard about the shocking news of former President Roh Moo-hyun's suicide, my mind brought up two images that had nothing to do with each other. One was the memory of me reading ― as part of an 11th grade summer reading assignment ― about the death of a railway worker in the very first scene of Tolstoy's ``Anna Karenina'' that foreshadows Anna's eventual suicide by throwing herself under a train.
The second wasn't exactly an image. It was a tune that started gently whistling in my head, with the whirring of a helicopter rotor as a prelude. It drove me crazy for about a half a day before I finally figured out that it was ``Suicide is Painless," the theme song to M.A.S.H., the popular movie and mini-series that was based on a team of doctors and staff stationed at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea.
When I looked up the lyrics to ``Suicide is Painless," I thought I understood why my mind so aptly made the immediate association between Roh's suicide and this song.
Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see.
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.
I try to find a way to make
All our little joys relate
Without that ever-present hate
But now I know that it's too late, and
The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say.
The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
And to another give my seat
For that's the only painless feat.
The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger...watch it grin, but...
A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that is key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied 'Oh why ask me?'
There is always the danger of trying to burden a song with more meaning that it could bear. However, reading these lyrics gave me the same eerie feeling that I felt reading Roh's last letter to his family.
There is the same sense of hollow defeat, overwhelming fatigue, and unbearable desire to forever escape from a life that felt more and more like a morning fog that would not dissipate. There is the same sense of futility over his ability to stop the pain that's growing. He sounded like a man who was lost and could no longer hear the siren call of destiny beckoning him.
I think he experienced a profound betrayal at the end. It wasn't a personal betrayal by someone against anyone else. I think he felt betrayed by the self-realization that he was no longer the primary author of his own life and has never really been for a long time. Countless others, including his family, associates, supporters, enemies, media, etc., had been co-authoring his life all along without his full knowledge and consent. He wasn't his own master, and has never really been. For a born maverick like Roh, such realization must have been too much to bear.
The inherently literary nature of Roh's life and death is probably why Tolstoy's ``Anna Karenina" also popped into my mind along with the M.A.S.H. song. The song was almost like a literary device that helped me understand Roh's suicide as ultimately a desperate attempt by him to retake his rightful position as the author of his own life.
Until toward the end, Roh's life had been the perfect Horatio Alger story of political rags-to-riches. But perhaps he finally found himself too weak to fight off the suffocating weight of the meaning, significance and symbolism that others have put on it. Or perhaps he was too tired to have too many co-authors to his life's narrative and thought that death was the only sure way that he could take control over how his story would end. It could have been his last defiant act of the creative writing of his own life. In a way, he wanted his public narrative of life to once again return to being a private narrative with a final, irrevocable ending.
Unfortunately, his wish to have the final creative control over his life will not be respected. Already, many would-be-authors are penning their own versions. Some will idolize him. Others will crucify him. Still others will deify him, propelling him to prophet-status. What's certain is that they won't leave him to rest in peace. And what's also certain is that history has shown that prophet making is a divisive, bloody and often self-destructive endeavor.
At the end of the day, let's remember that this was a suicide. It was a private act made by a private man about his private life driven by his private demons. Allow him to finally escape the burden of his public narrative. Allow him to rest in peace.
Jason Lim is the managing editor of the Korea Policy Review published at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He can be reached at email@example.com.