American Suicide

American Suicide

Several years ago, there was a mediocre movie made by M. Night Shyamalan, called The Happening.

It was a horror-thriller sort of film, involving hundreds of senseless murders.

Yet the twist in The Happening was that the linked-together killings were committed not by a psychopath or super villain.

They were suicides.

In the movie, some unseen force—in the air or in the water—was causing Americans to self-delete in catastrophic numbers.

And that’s precisely what is happening now–though less dramatically.

AMERICAN HAPPENING

We are in the midst of an American Happening.

And I don’t say that because of Anthony Bourdain (though I was a fan), Kate Spade, or the many other celebrities who have tragically claimed their lives in recent months.

It’s a cold, hard fact–and not just for famous people.

As the New York Times reports (here):

Between 1999 and 2016 [American suicides] increased 25 percent

And

In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

THE QUESTION THAT NEEDS ASKING

Why?

Depression, yes, but what else accounts for it?

To be honest, I don’t know.  I’m not trained to answer complicated questions on depression, mental health, and shifting trends in sociology.

But come on: 25 percent!?

With the caveat that my knowledge on this topic is very limited, the following are some very tentative thoughts—Not “13 Reasons Why” (though I have written on that previously), but something.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

  1. The dark side of “social” media.

It’s not hard to name the biggest social change between 1999 and 2016. It may be the biggest technological shift since electricity: the advent of the internet, and social media.

And despite all its vaunted benefits, for some young people especially, there is no doubt that the smartphone–complete with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat Apps–has become a suicide machine.  It is a way to compare “my life” to the filtered version of “theirs.” It is a way to get addicted to porn and drown silently in shame.  And for some young people especially, it is a way to bully, retaliate, and take so-called “mean girl” antics to a whole new level.

Is it any wonder, then, that suicides for girls aged 10 to 14 have tripled since 1999?

If there is a lesson here, it is to think carefully about how and when kids are allowed to utilize such “tools”—and about what boundaries we ourselves need (I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone).  

  1. Secularization and the sanctity of life.

In Christian history, the stigma surrounding suicide was massive (and not always helpful).

Given that, it bears reminding that self-murder was not always frowned upon by ancient Greeks or certain Eastern cultures.

In some ways, the shift to secularism is a reversion to pre-Christian ways of thinking. Here, the body (this “meat-suit” as it often [gnostically] referred to) may be done with as one pleases.  It seems unsurprising, then, that suicides would increase.

In the Latin phrase inscribed upon some pagan tombs: Non fui, non sum, non curo. “I was not; I am not; I care not.”

  1. Opioids and other addictions.

The time from 1999 to 2016 is also the period in which opioid addiction went from “problem” to “pandemic.”

And as with all addictions, I imagine feelings of shame and utter helpfulness can lead some to end their lives.  Consider how many of the recent celebrity suicides involved people battling addiction (Bourdain was very open about his past struggles with heroin).

It is all the more shocking then that such dangerous opioids—getting more powerful every year as drug companies rush to outdo one another–are so widely available. 

  1. The aftershocks of war.

For the USA, 1999 to 2016 was also a time of almost non-stop war, even if folks like me (like the vast majority of Americans) were allowed to go blissfully on as if little had changed except the added TSA security.

The soldiers weren’t so lucky.

And in terms of suicides, such conflicts have been decimating.

I spoke to a former Navy SEAL recently who told me he’d lost two friends in a week. “The enemy doesn’t kill us nearly as effectively as we do.”

There are probably many reasons for this: PTSD; traumatic brain injury; lack of brotherhood or sisterhood upon returning home; a public that hardly noticed they were fighting; the inability to win a war against an “idea.”

Whatever the case, we must do a better job of reaching out to veterans; and in thinking carefully before galloping off to wars without sufficient consideration for the human costs both on and off the battlefield.

  1. “Contagion” and crowd dynamics. 

In the words of one parent (here), after a year in which his child’s school endured an unbelievable six(!) teen suicides, there is an element of “contagion” at work with instances of self-harm. As he writes:

Suicide–even those of strangers–poisons the air my young sons breathe. You can’t quarantine it. Every episode of self-deletion compounds our sense of collective despair, making further episodes more likely. I’m watching it happen in my own community.

Malcolm Gladwell sees the same phenomenon at work in school shootings. A generation ago they never happened; yet with each ensuing occurrence the “threshold” lowers till the next becomes almost a foregone conclusion.  In short, it’s tough to close Pandora’s box; The Happening is not just science fiction.

  1. Erasing Hell.

Historically speaking, it is hardly disputable that one reason that some deeply hurting individuals said “No” to suicide was the fear that such an act would consign them to the fires of hell. (It was, for instance, a “mortal sin” in Catholic tradition.)

So while the Bible doesn’t teach this claim explicitly, there is no doubt that an “erasing” of the fear of Hell within modernity has also (for some people) erased a reason to keep living in extreme duress. (And I don’t say that as one who “uses” Hell as a cheap scare-tactic.)

7. Affluenza

One would think that wealth would make us happier and less-prone to suicide. Not so.  As Time Magazine noted (here) in 2012:

all else being equal, suicide risks are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, a morbid demonstration of the folly of trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

As one might expect, they are also high in times of unemployment, yet an additional

twist comes when you look at low income individuals who live in high income areas. According to the study, they face greater suicide risk than those living in low-income areas. The study’s authors call it a “behavioral response to unfavorable interpersonal income comparisons.”

  1. “The satan”

Even in Christian circles, to bring up the devil is something you don’t do at dinner parties.

“Old Scratch” is, as Walter Wink puts it: “a scandal” and “a bone in the throat of modernity” (See here for a prior post on the topic).

It bears noting, however, that the Hebrew word for Satan (ha satan) is not a name, but a title and a job description: “The accuser.”

“The satan” is the one who—often through a nagging inner voice—brings accusations:

“You’re worthless. Everyone would be better off if you weren’t here.”

And like every other factor on this numbered list, such “reasons” are ultimately bad ones—even while they can seem crushing.

So whether you believe in the devil or not, it’s imperative that you stop listening to him.

CONCLUSION 

In the end, I don’t know all the reasons for this American Happening. And many more could undoubtedly be listed.

But I do know this: we need you.

So if you’re struggling with depression or suicidal ideations, I hope you’ll tell someone (email me if nothing else), cause it’s time this mediocre movie got a whole lot better.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255


 

The title for this post was taken from Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of the topic (see here).

Winking at the Devil

Winking at the Devil

Every story needs a villain.

And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.

In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan.  This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming.  As 1 John writes:

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).

Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.

As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight.  And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties.  As he goes on:

Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.

As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.

REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”

In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”

STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.

STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.

TWO DANGERS

In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:

hitler

Or as Beck writes:

            We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.

A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.

Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”

Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.

Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.

Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.

Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”

LOVE IS AN EXORCISM

Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.

It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.

What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies.  In his words:

The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.

What’s more:

The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”

CONCLUSION

In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.

Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.

If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:

  • Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers.(here)
    • An academic work, but very readable with vivid prose and applications.
  • Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. (here)
    • An easy-to-read popularizing of some of Wink’s ideas.