I have served in ministry over fifty years. For the first forty years I never experienced a suicide in my parishes, university ministries, seminary teaching, or within my extended family and friends. In the last decade, something has gone horribly wrong. Suicide has risen dramatically, and it strikes many houses. Suicide in military personnel is a major problem for the Armed Services. Suicide in teenagers and college-age people has risen dramatically.
You may remember lines from the theme of the long-running TV series M.A.S.H. “Suicide is painless; it brings on many changes.” It’s a lie. Nothing is painless about suicide; the circles of pain ripple out from immediate family to friends, like when you throw a stone into a pond. It is grueling, endless pain. Ask someone who has had the experience.
We discussed this problem in our parish. Some folks emphasize that our times are full of stress, exacerbated for many people by the restrictions and fears caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people have no refuge. Life has crashed in on them in ways they cannot cope with.
When you no longer believe that humanity is made in the image of God, then you are “the ghost in the machine.” This means that your body and mind are separate from one another; it is also used to describe the idea that your body is a biological machine whereas your mind is a spiritual entity. The main point is the alienation it describes. We are strangers to ourselves. We are apart from, rather than a part of, nature. We are estranged from potential wholeness.
For people living with the pain of a divided self, it may not be possible to imagine what healing would look like. If nothing outside your limited self gives your life meaning, how would you ever know what a whole life looks like? Such nihilism cannot but lead to despair, which literally means the absence of hope.
Again, our culture purveys so much falsity that many people cannot determine any truth that makes sense to them. Social media may be useful, but their downside is the ceaseless information they crank out, much of which is useless and distracts you from being centered.
Our deacon – who counsels in a military setting – suggests that a key problem leading to suicide is the unrealistic expectations people have for their lives. For a long time, we coddled people, tried to give them a safe world. But in so doing, we also gave them a sense of entitlement and that may lead to unrealistic expectations.
Many of our members think that loss of faith and religious commitment leaves people vulnerable. Faith communities can be a resource in times of stress and trial. Faith is a source of meaning. When you view your life in a larger context, you experience hope, and hope gives you vision for the future. Without it the outlook may be bleak but, of course, faith is no guarantee. People with long and short histories in religious communities, sadly, commit suicide.
None of these reasons is intended to overlook or deny the fact that clinical depression is rampant in our society and can be a major cause of suicide.
All lives are precious, and the loss of each person affects us all, especially through such a tragic end. Suicide is a societal ill we all need to address openly through conversations with friends and family, counselors and religious leaders.