The Sunset Limited: A Conversation Between Two Strangers About the Meaning of Life

The Sunset Limited, written by acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy, is described as a novel in dramatic form. The story begins on a New York subway platform when White, a middle-aged professor, attempts to jump in front of a train called ‘The Sunset Limited’. He is unsuccessful, as Black, an ex-con and an ex-addict, physically restrains him, saving him from certain death. In Black’s run-down subway apartment, the two strangers have a conversation. They explore their past and the events that have shaped their understanding of life. It is a story of contrasts as basic as black and white. They are opposites and their words reflect the gap in their values and the meaning they attach to life. 

The professor enjoyed a privileged life, a life of relative ease. He received a broad education and was encouraged in his pursuit of an academic career. He read widely and found inspiration in great works of art and literature. He maintained the importance of education. It could not be overstated, as education makes the world personal. He had confidence in humanity and believed ‘the future rested with mankind and their ability to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good.’ In his world view there was no place for supernatural beliefs.

Despite his sharp intellect and personal achievements, the professor descended into despair. When we meet him, he is in the grip of suicidal depression. Life has ceased to have any meaning and he sees death as the only answer. He believes death will bring permanent relief from the cynicism and self-hatred that possesses him.

The professor’s existence is defined by profound loss.

1. A loss of faith in humanity

“The things I believed in don’t exist anymore. It’s foolish to pretend that they do. Western Civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau, but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.”

The professor has lost all faith in the ability of man to transcend his fallen or feral nature. He cites Dachau as a turning point in his own thinking. Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany was the first Nazi concentration camp and served as a model for later concentration camps. It became known as a death camp where countless thousands of Jews died from malnutrition, disease and overwork or were executed. In addition to Jews, the camp’s prisoners included members of other groups Hitler considered unfit for the new Germany, including artists, intellectuals, the physically and mentally handicapped and homosexuals.

The professor believes Dachau, which made a mockery of human values, is symbolic of the death of Western Civilisation. From his perspective, man is incapable of putting his self interest aside and pursuing the greater good. He is the creator of his own hell and lacks the passion and goodwill to strive for what would better all mankind. From his reading of history, he cannot ignore the obvious, the cataloging of a litany of atrocities, a saga of greed and folly. 

2. A loss of connection with the people in his life

Psychology Today describes loneliness as ‘the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.’

The professor’s social connections are fragile. He has no one in his life, no one to confide in. His narcissism has driven them all away. When Black asks the professor whether he has any friends, he says,

“I have a friend at the university. Not a close friend. We have lunch from time to time.”

The professor has a ‘best friend’ who he is not close to. Not the sort of person you would confide in when you are thinking of ending your life. 

Black asks the professor about his family. The professor says his father was a government lawyer but died of cancer. When asked to explain the circumstances, the professor admits that he stayed away, even though his mother wanted him to come home. Black, who has no family, is incongruous. He summarises what he has heard.

“Your daddy is layin on his deathbed dyin of cancer. Your mama settin there with him. Holdin his hand. He in all kinds of pain. And they ask you to come see him one last time fore he dies, and you tell em no. You aint comin. Please tell me I got some part of this wrong.”

The professor rides the subway every day, but he has no time for his ‘brothers and sisters’ on the train. He tries not to think about his fellow commuters and has even less reason to talk to them. They annoy him with their irritating behaviour, and he often curses them under his breath. Black wonders whether his attitude partly explains the shape he has managed to get himself in. The professor responds,

“It’s just symptomatic of the larger issues. I don’t like people.”

3. A loss of desire to go on living

“You give up the world line by line. Stoically. And then one day you realize that your courage is farcical. It doesn’t mean anything. You’ve become an accomplice in your own annihilation and there is nothing you can do about it. Everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. And finally, there is only one door left.”

The professor views death as darkness and nothingness. He longs for the solitude of death, the silence, the blackness, the aloneness, the peace. He does not want other people around in the ‘afterlife.’ That, he says, would be ‘the ultimate horror.’ 

Unlike the professor, who regards his life as futile, Black has reason to feel optimistic. He accepts his troubled past which cannot be denied. It was there he witnessed the violence of human nature. It became a way of life. Black was convicted of murder and served time. He was nearly murdered himself in a violent altercation in prison. He was cut bad and required 280 stitches. He says,

“I woke up in the infirmary. They had done operated on me. My spleen was cut open. Liver. I don’t know what all. I come pretty close to dyin…  I was hurtin. I didn’t know you could hurt that bad.”

But lying near death Black hears God speak to him. Black might have wondered ‘Why now?’ but God knows when we are likely to be receptive. He chooses to speak to us when we are vulnerable and broken. God’s word is a creative word, personal, and targeted. It gets right to the heart of the matter. The voice says,

“If it was not for the grace of God you would not be here.”

God’s word is transformative, propelling us towards hope and goodness. Black realises he is not alone in the world. God is watching over him. There is a way forward. His life can mean something.

Black’s life is empowered by an unshakable hope.

1. A hope that change will be welcomed

Change is inevitable but not all change is good. It is often when we are at our lowest point that we are open to change, when we reason that anything must be better than this. Change often provides a new beginning, a way forward.

Banished to the infirmary, bruised, beaten, and stitched up, Black is unable to conceive of a future. It is enough to contend with the pain. What he hears changes his perspective on life. The healing is internal. It is knowing he is loved.

When Black is released from prison, he uses his apartment as a safe haven for the thieves and junkies who live in the neighbourhood. He thinks they may benefit from having someone around who understands their lostness, their longing, their desperation. He is not there to judge. He is there to help, to be a sign that change is possible, that you can live differently.

In talking to the professor, Black asks a lot of questions to tease out what he is thinking, why he considers suicide the best option. Black believes that the professor is not a lost cause, that he could embrace change, that he could refocus and move forward.

2. A hope that diversity will be celebrated

Black and the professor are complete opposites. They are different racially, socially, and intellectually. Black has encountered God while the professor is dismissive of religion. Black has a murder conviction while the professor considers himself law abiding. Black lived in a dysfunctional family while the professor’s life was ordered. Black has learnt humility while the professor is arrogant and self-absorbed.

Diversity brings a richness to life. Differences in race, religion, wealth and status make us what we are. They define our experience of life. They determine our perspective. They facilitate our growth and understanding. Some people find diversity threatening, challenging their sense of well-being.

Black has so much to offer the professor, a wisdom born of suffering and adversity. But the professor has shut the door to all contrary thoughts. His mind is made up. He knows where he is going.

3. A hope that life will be respected

Black is appalled that the professor has so little regard for anyone else. A life turned inward has no capacity to understand what other people are experiencing. The professor has no time for anyone else. He really does not care. His thoughts shape his world, they are his world and they have declared that his life is not worth living.

Black tries to break into this world by offering himself. Black speaks about his complicated past, about life in prison, about that eventful encounter. He offers hospitality, a place to sit, a chance to reflect, a meal to enjoy. He offers friendship, the freedom to say what you think, to express gratitude for new insights, to act in a charitable way.

But the professor is unreachable, hiding behind his superior intellect. He has his answers and remains dismissive of Black’s lived experience. He does not buy into religious claptrap and words from above. It is all meaningless.

Black has a lot to teach us about suicide prevention. It is about being watchful, alert, fearless, determined, understanding, thoughtful, responsive, honest, charitable, persistent, and respectful. Sometimes it can be difficult to accept that we are not responsible for someone else’s choices.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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