A Depressing Problem in Modern Society

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For a variety of reasons I won’t rehearse, here, the topic of suicide has been in the air.  To state the obvious, it’s not a pleasant topic but, rather, evokes the mood of a conversation at some family gathering that reduces the tone of voice to whispers.  When a dark topic arises among people who are close — illness, divorce, crime, or, yes, suicide — the conversation isn’t enjoyable, but it feels necessary, and we want to check on each other’s thoughts, for our sakes and for theirs.

As a starting point for my opinion, I’ll take Andrew Klavan’s suggestion as if it was the latest thought expressed in our family-gathering huddle:

This is what I believe. The over-prescription of anti-depressants represents a trend in scientific thinking away from a true understanding of human life as a spiritual matter, and toward the idea that we are walking chemistry sets that can be adjusted to taste. I think this trend is utterly mistaken, the idea completely wrong.

Klavan and I have had not-dissimilar experiences, it appears, and I also at one point made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to attempt to medicate myself into being able to accept my life.  The idea of becoming dependent on some prescribed chemical for something psychological seemed like a fruitless distraction.  A distraction because, like turning up the car radio so as not to hear some worrying noise, it would merely cover up what was wrong; one shouldn’t take a painkiller if it will make it impossible to find the cause of the pain.  Fruitless because the underlying problem had to do with meaning and purpose, and pretending that a drug could make those problems go away would, if anything, confirm them; the drug wouldn’t supply meaning, so if it alleviated the effects of having none, then it could only mean that meaning is an illusion and, therefore, not meaningful.

Frankly, I was skeptical that such medication would work, and if I was going to spend time experimenting with solutions, the one that entailed actually fixing my life and finding purpose was the first one I wanted to try.

Also frankly, I’m skeptical that non-chemical therapies will do the trick unless they open the door to God.  Not long ago, I read somebody’s lamentation that, for all his comfort and periodically mystical feelings, he couldn’t feel God’s presence and fully trust in the purpose that His presence brings.  Not knowing the man, I can only speculate, but I wonder if the material comfort was part of the problem.  Material discomfort seems more apt to draw us toward the divine because it amplifies the need and draws our attention to the irreducible problems that we simply have to accept as part of our meaning.

Similarly, I wonder if some among us smuggle a sort of meaning into our lives through the pursuit of success.  This isn’t to malign that pursuit; that’s not the direction I’m headed at all.  Rather, I wonder if some people who struggle with meaninglessness take the fact that they could become more successful at something as evidence that meaning can exist, but just requires some more work.

After each suicide of somebody who is famous or of whom it can otherwise be said that he or she “has it all,” an image comes to mind of a seeker who has climbed a mountain and found nothing.  Not even a beautiful view.  Having reached a height that seems to have nothing beyond, they’ve found the drab fog to be just as thick as at the bottom.  Such a discovery must mean either that there really is no meaning or that the seeker has no idea how to find it.  In our secular age, the person may even have made it part of his or her identity to reject the most obvious possibilities.

Pondering what to do in the absence of medication, all those years ago, I set two interlocking principles that a true and stable meaning would probably require:  One, it must be available to anybody; a source of meaning without relevance to the full spectrum of humanity is either a sales pitch or solipsism.  Two, a stable source of meaning must not ultimately rely on success at anything other than the finding of meaning, itself; chance and the actions of other people are implicit to every material success, and meaning must transcend both, in part because otherwise it wouldn’t be available to everybody.

Among the most notable features of these pillars, as I’ve found them upon inspection, is how at odds they are with the drives and supposed truths of modern society.  We aren’t fostering a belief system or way of life that contributes to meaning.  If anything, we’re making it more difficult to develop for our neighbors and our children, and that’s a problem.



  • Rhett Hardwick

    I am wondering, if like so many things, there is simply more reporting. I recall that shortly after graduation, I saw a lawyer jump out a window. This caught my attention, so I watched the obituary columns. It reported only that he died “suddenly”. I understood this to be newspaper code for suicide. Much like the current code of “teens”, it didn’t convey much. I think it was not “news”, and reporting it was a greater than necessary embarrassment to the family. I will never forget watching a dog sniffing at the wet spot on the sidewalk.

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