In the New Yorker Larissa MacFarquhar tells the story of a Buddhist priest in Japan who conducts workshops for people who want to kill themselves:
Nemoto … tells attendees to imagine they’ve been given a diagnosis of cancer and have three months to live. He instructs them to write down what they want to do in those three months. Then he tells them to imagine they have one month left; then a week; then ten minutes. Most people start crying in the course of this exercise, Nemoto among them.
One man who came to a workshop had been talking to Nemoto for years about wanting to die. He was thirty-eight years old and had been institutionalized in a mental hospital off and on for a decade. During the writing exercise, he just sat and wept. When Nemoto came around to check on him, his paper was blank. The man explained that he had nothing to say in response to the questions because he had never considered them. All he had ever thought about was wanting to die; he had never thought about what he might want to do with his life. But if he had never really lived, how could he want to die? This insight proved oddly liberating. The man returned to his job as a machinist in a factory. Previously, he had been so averse to human company that he had been able to function only in certain limited capacities, but now he was able to speak to people, and he got a promotion.
We should all sit and think for a while about a man who made it to the age of thirty-eight without ever once considering, or being prompted by anyone else to consider, what value or purpose a human life — his own human life — might have. Perhaps this says much about him; perhaps it also says something about the cultural and familial environment in which he was raised.
MacFarquhar’s story is largely about Nemoto and his attempts to help suicidal people — attempts that were emotionally draining for him until he stopped trying to deal with people online and insisted that anyone who wanted his assistance needed to come to his remote temple and meet him face-to-face. The story ends with this remarkable Zen-like anecdote, one susceptible to more than one interpretation:
Once, a man walked for five hours to get to Nemoto’s temple. The walk was a heroic journey for this man, because he had been living as a hikiko-mori, and now suddenly he was outside in the sun, sweating and feeling his body move. As he walked, he thought about what he was going to say. It had been so long since he had really spoken to anyone, and now he was going to be expected to explain his most intimate feelings to a stranger. He sweated and thought as he walked, and when at last, after five hours, he arrived at the temple he announced that he had achieved understanding and no longer needed Nemoto’s help. He turned around and walked back home.