Review Summary: Make tiny changes to Earth.
As creatures of story, we understand the need for endings. Without them, life would have no meaning. Despite this, endings still have the power to crash through our lives like wayward comets. And when confronted with an ending that doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve built, we can be thrown into a tailspin. Endings are the high price we pay for meaning; to have the meaning stolen away too leaves us breathless, panicked, stranded in a foreign place where we cannot find the exit.
This week, Scott Hutchison’s body washed up on the banks of Port Edgar outside Edinburgh. It’s too early to know the cause of death for sure, but it seems likely that he took his own life. The Frightened Rabbit frontman had sung about his depression ever since the band’s debut Sing the Greys
, going so far as to discuss his thoughts toward suicide, a theme hauntingly prescient in the track ‘Floating in the Forth’ from the band’s sophomore The Midnight Organ Fight
It’s been just over a decade since that album’s release, and until a few days ago, Scott was still here. And now that he’s not, many of his listeners will be thinking, in the midst of their grief, what the fuc
k now? A look at some of the comments on this very site suggest as much. Scott’s willingness to sing so frankly and so beautifully about his depression and anxiety gave a lifeline to those who were suffering in similar ways. His confessions were constellations, a patchwork of stars that lit a path back to life in the presence of so much darkness. But this lifeline, it seems, was contingent on Scott’s existence on this planet Earth.
I get that. With Scott taken in these circumstances, the story that depression can be beaten, or even that it can be domesticated - the black dog trained and leashed and made possible to live with - that story gets overturned and destroyed like a fishing boat in a thunderstorm. And we’re left floundering for a life raft in a wide and engulfing nothingness.
But look: Scott was alive for ten years
after The Midnight Organ Fight, and he’d been struggling with depression long before that. If we listen to the comments just on these boards, we can see he was able to use that time, tortured as so much of it must have been, to drag a number of people back from the brink. He may have saved more people from an early death than the vast majority of people will in a full life, and he did that in the vice-like grip of a mental illness. That is astonishing. Armed with this knowledge, we can replace the old narrative with a new one. We can focus not on how he died, but on how he stayed alive.
I believe a lot of his ability to carry his backbreaking burden for as long as he did can be attributed to his impact on others. The interviews he gave reveal that his depression was at his worst when he was at home with little to do, and at its least intrusive when he was performing. His final twitter posts showed how he seemed to absorb the pain of others as if into his bloodstream. Seeing how much he was able to alleviate the pain of others, by pure virtue of being courageous enough to lay his depression bare, must have alleviated his own pain in turn. At the very least, it could have provided him a sense of meaning and purpose, the absence of which is a huge contributor to our modern life’s pandemic of depression.
Why Scott chose now to turn away from life, I don’t know. Maybe the pain was too much to bear, a possibility so achingly sad that it feels unbearable to contemplate. Yet we should contemplate it. Whenever there is a high-profile suicide, people are quick to talk about the importance of talking. But talking only helps when there is someone willing to listen. And I mean really listen. We need to begin highlighting this other side of the conversation. All of us will have felt what it’s like to be talking to someone who is clearly preoccupied by other things. Imagine feeling that same sense of rejection when, in the words of writer Matt Haig, your head is on fire and no one can see the flames.
I’m guilty of it. I’ll be speaking to my sister and thinking of the Very Important Things I’ve got to do when, in comparison with the literally world-altering nightmare she’s going through, it’s Totally Meaningless Sh
it. Perhaps I inflate the importance of my trivial worries because they’re easier to bear than the pain of meeting my sister in her hell, even for a moment. Such is the danger with empathy. Empathy is often touted as the ultimate good, but when not accompanied by compassion, it can be outright dangerous. To deal with the negative feelings empathy allows us to feel, we minimise them (‘Oh come on, life’s not that bad’) or run from them (‘You know you can talk to me at any time. Oh, right now? Now’s not so good, actually…’).
Still, empathy has a vital role to play. Whereas empathy without compassion is too hot for the listener, compassion without empathy is too cold for the sufferer, and as Scott said, we need human heat. The well-meaning friend who really wants you to get better because he cares about you, who says all the right things and from whom you feel genuine warmth, he alone is unlikely to pull you out from under the heavy dark. Without true empathy via contemplation or shared experience, the alienation (in the ‘I’m living on another planet with a population of 1’ sense of the word) remains. The last thing any sufferer of depression wants is for anyone else to suffer as they do, yet at the same time, knowing and feeling
that you are not alone in your pain can be of huge solace.
This is why Scott’s words could be so life-affirming. Through his knife-sharp lyrics and his strained, thickly Scottish cries, he helped so many to see that they were not alone in their pain. We are a social animal, dependent on connection from the moment of birth, so to feel as if cut off from the rest of humanity - and not just cut off but wounded - that sh
it must be both terrifying and harrowing. Without Scott, so many would have been left to wander the world feeling forever like martians with cotton wool lodged in their skulls. But he was
here, and he didn’t just survive his depression for all those years, he used it to help others who suffered in the same way.
So to the people who feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath them, I ask you to think not of why Scott chose now to leave, but of what kept him saving suicide for another year, and another, and another. The man said it himself: he wanted to make tiny changes to Earth. He did. By bravely choosing to speak honestly about your depression, your anxiety, your loneliness, and by properly listening to others do the same, you can carry on his legacy and make those changes too. You don’t need to be a gifted songwriter or have a huge audience; your illness and your voice are enough. Scott has given you that chance to ease another’s pain, and if you take it, you can give someone else that chance, and over time, these tiny changes will grow and grow and grow until they take on the appearance of stars: tiny only from the vantage point of your short, precious life.