A recently published article by behavioral scientist, Clay Routledge, points out an alarming increase (25 percent) in suicides over the last 19 years, which applies across ethnic and racial lines. The question that plagues him is why? This is not the first time this exact issue has been raised.
The year 1880 was witness to a similar upturn in suicides in Europe, so much so that scientist, Emile Durkheim, spent years doing research to answer the identical question Dr. Routledge asks in 2018.
Durkheim’s task was not an easy one. The decision to end one’s life is profoundly personal. I imagine if one were able to interview each person right before their fateful moment, each individual would point to their own particular circumstances. Nonetheless, I think we can confidently speculate that a crisis in a person’s financial, romantic, or family life would be commonplace.
Durkheim believed that he could find an answer on a sociological level by carefully examining the data. Amazingly, he was able to establish that religion played a huge role but not in the way you might think. The greatest number of suicides per capita occurred in primarily Protestant nations, while the lowest rates were in the predominantly Catholic countries.
His data revealed that the stark differences in the suicide rate was not a product of theological differences but rather a function of the greater integration of Catholics into their familial and institutional structures. Catholics experienced a greater sense of comfort from being in their group and a diminished sense of alienation.
In the end, Durkheim published his groundbreaking masterpiece, “Suicide.” In it, he lays out what he calls “social facts.” Social facts are sociological building blocks that scientists can allude to as they observe and categorize our behavior on a societal level. He claims it consists of two elements. First, it comprises a way of acting, thinking and feeling that is imposed from the outside. As a result, we develop habits that conform to the demands of society. Second, there are consequences for not abiding by these social “norms.” The net result of Durkheim’s thorough analysis was so revolutionary that it is recognized as the beginning of sociology.
Routledge sees the current dramatic uptick in suicides as part of a crisis in meaningfulness. He believes that recent changes in American society have led to a greater sense of detachment and a concurrent weaker sense of belonging, all of which has led to what he terms “an existential crisis.”
Routledge explains that this sense of detachment is contributing to an increasingly acerbic political climate. When presented with ideas that threaten our already held beliefs, we respond not with openness but with an increased bias. He points out that by cementing our previously held beliefs, we somehow find the belonging and comfort we so desperately yearn for.
At the core of our despair is our deep-seated realization that “we and everyone we care about will age, become frailer and die. We recognize that life is uncertain. Life has forced us to finally and fundamentally appreciate that pain and sorrow are part of our destiny. Inevitably we ask the age old question: What is the point of it all?” Routledge further laments the fact that the old pillars of emotional support, the neighborhood, the family, and religion are all on the decline. This has left a void in our hearts with the unsurprising feeling that life is meaningless.
This observation is nothing new. Philosopher, author, nihilist and existentialist, Albert Camus, believed that all we could do is realize that the game of life is absurd. From an objective standpoint, Camus asserts that life has no “meaning” but suggests that we should look at it differently. He gives the example of the myth of Sisyphus—a man who is cursed by the gods to endlessly roll a rock up a hill, only to have it fall down once it reaches the top. Even Sisyphus, argues Camus, can decide to find meaning in rolling the rock up the hill and actually take joy in it, despite its absurdity.
The issue addressed here is not the most important philosophical question ever asked: what is the meaning of life? The question asked here is how we, as a species, are coping with the brute fact of our morality and find meaning in our lives. An examination of Routledge and Camus point out a critical distinction on where we can find relief to soften our vision of our inevitable demise. Routledge laments the disintegration of outside forces in providing the very comfort we need while Camus believes we can choose to find meaning in whatever we want. We can, for example, dedicate ourselves to accomplishing goals, fulfilling desires, obtaining or promoting virtues and in that way find the soothing meaning that we so desperately seek.
I once again refer to one of my favorite authors, Viktor Frankl, who said it best in his 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” when he observed: “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
All of us, at one time or another, experience suffering at the hands of life’s twists and turns. Although despair would seem like a logical response, Frankl would disagree: “There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains its meaning literally to the end.” For Frankl, life’s meaning can be found in dedicating one’s life to the wellbeing of others. In 2018, that sentiment is needed more than ever.