By Will Falk
I tried to kill myself a year ago.
In the year since, I quit my job as a public defender, spent weeks in group therapy, went on Phish tour, tried to kill myself again, searched every corner of my soul and began writing earnestly.
Sometimes, I think writing has kept me alive. Writing my poetry and essays allows me to fill my world with a meaning that is under attack.
The world is burning at an ever-faster pace. We are at war. Many of us may be imprisoned, tortured, raped and ultimately killed. Before I tried to kill myself, I let myself wander too far with clogged ears deaf to the friends – both human and non-human – that fill this world with meaning.
Armed with my experiences, I know that art can – and must be – a weapon used in defense of the world. Art can help us listen to what the natural world is telling us. Art can also give us the strong hearts we are going to need to face and stop the horrors that stand before us.
Why did I try to kill myself?
I still cannot answer that for sure. I was tired, for one. Tired of banging my head against the so-called criminal justice system trying to keep my clients out of prison. Tired of working twelve-hour days, day after day, seeing no tangible fruits of my labor. Tired of feeling guilty for never feeling like I had done a good enough job for my clients.
I was doing nothing to physically help natural communities. I lived in Milwaukee, WI and made the 60 mile round trip in my grey 2001 Jeep Cherokee to Kenosha, WI and back everyday pumping countless pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I woke up to read about expanding mining operations across northern Wisconsin morning after morning. I kept thinking that no matter how many people I keep out of jail today, it will not matter if we cannot breathe Wisconsin’s air in 30 years.
I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I rarely had time or money to socialize. I was dating a woman across the country in San Diego and hurting her because I was choosing my work over visits to see her.
In my depression-tinged view of the world, I saw no way out of a life of misery. Doing little more than rubber stamping the convictions of mostly African-Americans Chican@s, and Indigenous peoples, I decided that the best thing I could do for the world was to return my body to the soil.
At least the worms could benefit from my flesh, I thought.
Maybe the truest reason I tried to kill myself was I lost touch with a sense of wonder and awe in the world. As an attorney, I was trained to see the world in a framework of pragmatic rhetorical concepts. There were no truths only what you could prove. There was no justice only what you could convince a jury to believe. There was no magic only a universe made up of rational, scientific objects that could be used to advance my particular goals in the world.
For a long time, I convinced myself that this view of the world was correct and that I was redeeming myself by working on behalf of the powerless. Everything in my world was an existential choice bereft of any deep meaning. I chose to help those less fortunate than myself because I felt it was the right thing to do. But, outside of that, I had no argument that this was, indeed, the right thing to do.
Do you see how I was starving myself?
Let me put this another way:
One of my favorite writers, the environmental essayist Derrick Jensen, wrote in his book The Culture of Make Believe, “We have a need for enchantment that is as deep and devoted as our need for food and water.”
What happens when we do not get food and water? We become physically ill and die. What happens when we lose our sense of enchantment? We become mentally ill and die.
Many of my personal favorite poets are Native Americans coming from societies who have lived in balance with the natural world for 12,500 years. They also come from communities who have long resisted the dominant culture. These poets possess a beautiful ability to express a sense of wonder with the natural world in a language as simple as it is deep. I think their work reflects Jensen’s words about our need for enchantment.
Simon J. Ortiz, an Acoma poet, writes in his poem “Many Farms Notes” “What would you say that the main them/of your poetry is? To put it as simply as possible,/I say it this way: to recognize/the relationships I share with everything.”
When I was suicidal, I felt alone. I forgot that there was a whole world out there struggling for life. Ortiz helped me to remember that.
Lance Henson, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier and poet, writes in his poem “lines from a revolutionary text II,” “i have seen you/gathering the tiniest things/so they could not be taken/from your hands.”
When I was suicidal, I was being crushed under the weight of the world’s largest problems. Henson reminded me to gather things within my reach and to protect them so they could not be taken from my hands.
Through reading poets like Ortiz and Henson and through struggling to write my own lines, I have learned how poetry is a process that helps me recognize beauty all around me. I want to be clear: I am not saying that the poet creates the beauty or creates meaning. The natural world in all its glory existed before humans ever came to scratch symbols on dead trees. The poet does not create meaning, but can leave signposts for those searching for meaning.
I wrote earlier that we are at war. This is not an overstatement. Corporations are poisoning the soil, the air, and the water. Governments are using police and soldiers to protect them. And, a recent study documents a world-wide surge in the murders of environmental activists.
It has been said that, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” After my experiences trying to kill myself, I know the power art can have when you’re at war – whether you’re at war with yourself or with a powerful enemy.
Think of the drum and fife corps on a Civil War battlefield. The rhythms provided by these artists were necessary for infantry so their formations stayed intact in the face of rifle and cannon fire. The music was also an important way commands were communicated over the din of battle.
But, there was another role the music played. It gave soldiers courage as they faced death. Songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie” and “Nelly Bly” were often played as attackers approached enemy lines in battle. It is no wonder that America’s bloodiest war was also one of its most musical.
I have written before that one of the best ways to combat depression is through action. I learned this after two suicide attempts. I am doing much better and am engaged in several actions in an attempt to save what is left of our choking world.
I know that depression is always lingering in the grey corners of my mind. It can reach out and surround me in its suffocating fog if I become complacent. The fog can be seductive. It can be silencing. It tries to drown the beauty of the world with numbness.
Depression also accompanies war. It can be as powerful a weapon in the hands of the dominant culture as the guns they will turn on us as we become more and more effective. And, we absolutely must become more effective. If the destruction of enchantment does not kill us, the loss of soil, air, and water surely will.
Guns will be turned on us, despair will be shot at us, and as we face death, we are going to need artists in the field beside us helping us to bolster our hearts.
Will Falk says
I want to thank all the kids at the International Travelers House on 6th Ave for all the free breakfasts, free coffee, and free laughs while I wrote this. I especially want to thank Meg for remembering.
John Lawrence says
Student loan debt is causing a lot of people to commit suicide. It is like a huge crushing weight that many see no way of getting off them for the rest of their lives. There is a whole community out there of those in the same boat. The college-university-degree obsession is part of the oppressive machinery of the military-industrial-educational complex. It’s best to escape this whole paradigm and construct alternative lifestyles either through art or writing or example for those who do not want to participate in this system.
In most of the rest of the world a college education is free as it was essentially when I went to UCSD in the late sixties. There was a $73. a quarter “incidental fee” and that was it. No tuition and I was paid a stipend as a research assistant that paid my monthly bills. Thanks to Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement since then tuitions have skyrocketed leading many students, like you Will, to the verge of despair. Keep on making it real in your life and do what’s necessary to keep your spirit whole.
Will Falk says
Thank you very much, John. I am learning about moving away from the shadow of the dominant paradigm. I think you are right that we must construct these competing lifestyles as part of the resistance.
Chuck Falk says
First, as your uncle, I am extremely relieved to know that neither suicide attempt was completed. That would have been more devastating to me than all the medical issues I face on a daily basis. Second, you obviously know what your calling is and am glad your writing and activism is a way of bringing you and countless others some peace. Finally, while I don’t have your expertise or understand all of the problems facing the United States of America that you have a passion for, I am always going to be there for you the best I can.
Take care and God Bless!!
Jim Bliesner says
See if these help. Did for me.
Cathy Fitzgerald says
I was very moved by your post – Derrick’s work has also helped me move pass the deep despair I often see at the ecocide and to understand the related social wrongs that thread through our daily lives, which so many seem to be oblivious to. In a small way I try to move artfully along with a small eco art forest action project – turning a small conifer plantation into a forest so I know enchantment is so important (I previously worked in science)…so thank you for your insights too. I was re-reading the other day about the potential of eco-poetry and it might be of interest to you.
Jonathan Bate in The Song of the Earth (2000) explores the eco-social potential of poetry by examining Heidegger and Ricoeur. It might sound a bit heavy but he explores how ecopoetic forms that are not descriptive but rooted in experience of the Earth, remind us how we dwell in the Earth, and that such work has an important role to counter narratives, concepts and technologies which more often ‘enframe’ the Earth for humanity’s consumption and exploitation. and these ideas are in his chapter ‘What are poets for?”
Thank you for appropriate despair and poetry Will, best wishes!
Will Falk says
Thank you very much, Cathy! I have been thinking about eco-poetics a lot lately. Have you ever read Neil Evernden’s The Natural Alien. He makes a case that environmentalists would do well to learn lessons from the Romantic poets and then the phenomenologist philosophers like Heidegger who work to promote the value of subjective experience.
I think it’s all part of the necessary war to undermine Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” No, I am a series of relationships with everything therefore I am.
I think the best poets have long known this to be true.
Thank you very much for reading my piece and leaving such a thoughtful reply. I will find Jonathan Bate’s work!
Thank you for writing that beautiful honest piece
Joe Bryak says
When I was at my most frazzled about debts, a friend (even more in debt than myself, and with a family depending on him) got me out of it by repeating, almost like a mantra, “They can’t eat you.”
That’s it: They can’t eat you. Somehow this really worked for me.
Also lean on music. It’ll get you through anything! Cheers and maintain, jo
Will Falk says
“They can’t eat you.”
Absolutely, Joe. My version of this was student loan debt can’t kill you. And once I realized that the debt was more of an idea than a physical force intruding on my body, they were much easier to deal with.
Sergio De La Pava’s, A Naked Singularity (University of Chicago Press) a novel about a public defender and much, much more might be of interest to you. The author originally self-published. Awarded 2013 Pen prize for first work.
A very original and engaging roller coaster ride of a novel.
Will Falk says
thanks for the tip, Lowell. I have not heard of De La Pava’s work.
Jordan Merritt says
I’m glad you are still around, buddy! The humans of the world need you more than the worms do.
mel freilicher says
Will, it was great meeting you at the fundraiser for City Works Press. Your passion and commitment are as evident in this piece as they were in our conversation. Those are rare qualities, buddy. So glad you didn’t get lost in the sense of futility which is always a danger for anyone who actually gets what a crucial period this is–for the existence of our species and of the planet.
Will Falk says
Thank you very much for your kind words, Mel. It was a treat to get to hear you read on Saturday night. And, of course, thanks a lot for the ride home!
Aunt Clare says
Thank you for writing, Will! You have so much to share. Your journey is an inspiration.
Will Falk says
Thank you very much for reading, Aunt Clare!
Jim & Erma says
Come to the Sacred Headwaters for more inspiration…the world will benefit by your journey to the ‘hot spots’. Thanks again for ‘where we share our hopes together’ from the camp on the Morice River….one of the tributaries of the Skeena River, which is one of the three great wild salmon rivers making up the Sacred Headwater watersheds-all threatened by Earth’s economic engine ruining water quality. See Samaqan Water Stories : Loveman’s Trapline
lance henson says
hang in there brother…
Thanks for writing this piece, Will. I tried to commit suicide just a little over one year ago. I am a disabled former English professor (and proud law school drop-out.) I felt at the time there was no other way to escape from the horror of my life, which involved not only a lifetime of continuous victimization through domestic violence, rape, incest, and exploitation, but the many, many incidents of re-victimization I experienced at the hands of law enforcement, my own attorneys, psychotherapists, and even the director of a shelter for battered women once I tried to “get out.” My abuser had alienated me from my children, my (equally abusive) family, and many of my former friends, and I was too sick (and too disgusted with myself) to keep working contract jobs at large financial corporations, so I faced losing my home as well as everything else I had worked for all my life. Currently, I am being sued by the hospital where I was taken and put on life support, then involuntarily committed to the psych ward once I was out of the ICU, and also by some attorneys who took all my money but refused to even help me to get a protective order. I’m still in my house — who knows for how long — and have a relationship with my children, but both these facts are only true for as long as I continue to have an “amicable” relationship with the pedophile/child pornographer/rapist to whom I’ve been married for 17 years. However, now that I’ve survived the first year since my suicide attempt, and have had the chance to think about what that really meant, and to get a little stronger, I’ve had a very important realization that may actually serve to give meaning to a life that up to now has seemed to consist mostly of meaningless suffering and pointless struggle. It is this, and I believe it is true for you, as well: we’re just not as afraid to die as most other people. I wasn’t afraid to die to end my own suffering, and I would be even less afraid to put my life at risk if I thought doing so might help to alleviate the sufferings of others. My suicide attempt was a desperate bid for freedom, to actually take back my life, if only by exercising my own agency to determine when and how it ended. In the last year, of course, I’ve had to endure being labeled as a mentally ill, irresponsible coward, but I reject that narrative completely. Our society not only drives some people to their supposedly “self-inflicted” deaths, but insists on blaming them for it — and punishing them if they happen to survive. There is no more heinous crime against our society than announcing that you will no longer tolerate its abuses and insanity, so not surprisingly you get labeled as insane and locked up until you recant, if you try. I don’t deny that I was “mentally ill” when I tried to kill myself, but it wasn’t because of “bad genes” or a “personality disorder” that I got to that point. I did it because I can no longer tolerate the kind of world in which I have been forced to live. Having survived, I realize that the world is no better (and no worse) for my attempt, but perhaps I can take the same courage and resolve that made it possible, and do something that may have a real impact, however small. Rather than just being another casualty of patriarchy and capitalism, I’d like to fight back and sell my life a little more dearly. To conclude: I found your story inspiring, so thank you. No one who has had any contact with our judicial system in any capacity should have the slightest difficulty understanding how it might drive someone to end his or her life, but it has meant something to me that you are still here and still fighting.