Is intelligence a double-edged sword?

Ernest Hemingway has always intrigued me. He once said, in one of my favourite quotes, that “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know“.

Hemingway himself was an incredibly intelligent and accomplished writer who was also surrounded by equally brilliant minds during a period of artistic and intellectual thriving. He took his own life in 1961 with a shotgun.

Suicide is sadly not an uncommon way for people like Hemingway to die.*

On Tuesday I was walking through the main foyer of the University of Auckland Business School when I heard two sequential loud thumps. Thinking that someone had fallen over and dropped their books, I was horrified to discover, a few seconds later, a young man slumped at the bottom of the steps in a crimson pool of his own blood.

A student had climbed across the railing of the 6th floor and fallen to his death some 15 meters below.

Two images are etched into my mind: the first of the body – his exposed pale back (with patches of red pigmentation towards his lower side), a sports shoe lying stranded a meter away from his body, the way the blood was literally pouring out and the eerie way his body was shivering (which I later found out to be due to his fractured body trying to pull together every muscle to make his lungs breathe) – and the second of the blood on my boyfriend’s hands after rushing to his aid and taking instructions from the ambulance staff on the phone in the minutes before the paramedics arrived.

It was that physical proximity of being there that has fueled a never-ending stream of unanswered questions: who was he, and why did he do it?

It all felt horribly ironic because it was only a few minuters earlier that I had been talking about the suspected suicide of Greg King on the car. I remember thinking what a failure it is for society that suicide prevention and support for mental health was not more prominent in the wider community, and particularly amongst young people and men who are the most at risk.

Over the last few days, I have heard numerous stories about other suicide incidents in Auckland. Like the student on Tuesday, many were top students. Many of them were people who had been much admired by others, and who carried numerous achievements and accomplishments to their name.

Yet that outward perception of success and achievement is not always carried home. Objectivity often plays little or no part in self perception – it doesn’t matter how great of a life everyone else thinks you lead, it can still be a living nightmare.

Some people attribute the correlation between intelligence and depression as being due to higher expectations. A small shortcoming can feel like absolute failure. Other people think that intelligent people view the world differently and see more or beyond what the average person would see. These ‘intelligent’ people are not necessarily the ones who are the most book smart, but often are those who read widely or are creative in the way they think. They see the defects and the dark side of humanity, and they see consequences and meaning behind the shallow surface. It is often said that intelligent people tend to be very cynical.

But I think a common thread between many of these people is a feeling of isolation and of being alone, whatever the underlying problem may be. There are too many questions and not enough answers, but I just hope that we wake up to the reality of what the numbers sadly mean for our societies.

* (although Hemingway’s own death had been preceded by also very unfortunate circumstances)


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