IT WAS not surprising, watching "60 Minutes" Sunday night, to learn that Andy Rooney had never heard of Kurt Cobain or the band Nirvana. It was not surprising that Mr. Rooney, who has made a career as a camera-friendly curmudgeon, took issue with ripped jeans and was perplexed by grunge.
And it was not even surprising that, speaking of Mr. Cobain's suicide at the age of 27, Mr. Rooney brought to the issue of youthful despair a mixture of sarcasm and contempt. After all, that has long been the attitude their elders have brought to the pain of those far younger than they: in Mr. Rooney's words, "What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a Depression, World War II or Vietnam?"
No, not surprising, but worth noting because in 1994 that sort of attitude is as dated and foolish as believing that cancer is contagious.
Suicide remains the great mystery. Often we can never know precisely why: why for Vincent Foster one day became more unendurable than the ones before, why Mr. Cobain balked at one last sunset. Some people kill themselves because they have troubles they cannot surmount; others are already sick and don't want to get any sicker. Many are old; some are young. Of those last, we are fond of saying that they had their whole lives ahead of them.
"A lot of people would like to have the years left that he threw away," Mr. Rooney said of Kurt Cobain. He went on to ridicule the young, many of whom found enlightenment of a kind through Nirvana's music. "What's all this nonsense about how terrible life is?" he asked, and he added, speaking rhetorically to a young woman who had wept at the suicide, "I'd love to relieve the pain you're going through by switching my age for yours."
I wouldn't. I wouldn't be 17 again on a bet. I've known a number of young women of about that age who seemingly had everything to live for and yet who somehow wanted to die. Or perhaps not to die so much as to rest. You could lecture them about their future and their good health and fine homes and nice schools, and they would understand the rightness of the position but not, for the life of them, feel it in their souls. They would tell you that they felt always as if they carried a backpack full of bricks. And some of them can figure out only one way to put that pack down.
Why would I tax those young women with the foolishness of their feelings and lord over them the lessons I've learned? Why would anyone facetiously advise them and their counterparts, as Mr. Rooney did, to "wipe the tears from your eyes, dear"? What they feel is real, and no amount of caviling about youth wasted on the young will change that, or save some of them from pills or razor blades. I can't understand why this is the one kind of pain we want to deny or denigrate, or why we would imagine that the young are immune from it any more than they are immune from AIDS or pneumonia.
In Newsweek William Styron wrote of an evening with friends some years ago that passed uneventfully for all but him; he remembers it vividly because between pasta and conversation he obsessed about killing himself.
He writes of "a pain that is all but indescribable, and therefore to everyone but the sufferer almost meaningless." That pain was not ameliorated by his best-selling books or his Pulitzer. Good fortune does not preclude inner darkness, whether the good fortune of youth or of accomplishment.
Mr. Rooney said Mr. Cobain's suicide made him angry. It makes me angry, too, not because I want his wasted years -- such things are not transferable -- but because Mr. Cobain had a 2-year-old daughter who will grow up fatherless. Suicide often seems selfish and senseless to the survivors. It often feels inevitable and necessary to its practitioners. It's a waste, but not an indulgence.
"Why?" people say afterward. Mr. Styron's dinner companions noticed nothing amiss the night he remembers as black as a hole. He had hidden the pain well. Young people who feel an inner agony, in Mr. Styron's words, as "exquisite as any imaginable physical pain," often do not reveal themselves because they suspect that some adult will scoff and say that what they feel is "nonsense," that they have no "real problems." Sunday evening, some adult did just that, and on national television too.
Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.