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A world of hurt

Suicide leaves an unfilled space, and a pain that remains

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You matter. You matter to those who love you, those who depend on you, those who work with you. Simply by being born you clear a space for yourself in the world that can’t be filled by anyone else. What’s more, you occupy a space in the mind of God—the ultimate definition of “mattering.”

That seems self-evident, but sometimes it takes faith to believe it, and when faith falters and hope fails, mattering itself becomes a burden—even an intolerable burden.

Celebrity suicides have spotlighted the sharp rise, over the last decade, of Americans killing themselves. It’s not the highest rate ever: Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show ups and downs over the last 65 years. For white men in their prime (ages 15-44), the suicide rate has grown steadily from 1950. But for older men it went down, marginally for 45- to 64-year-olds and significantly for ages 65 and older. Perhaps this means that the future (what remains of it) looks brighter for these than it did for their fathers and grandfathers, who struggled through the Great Depression and fought a devastating war.

Suicide rates for middle-aged women have risen by almost 35 percent in the last 15 years, but again, they were almost as high in 1950 as today. Younger women have experienced an increase since 2000, but their suicide rate was higher in 1970. What’s most revealing, and most alarming, about the CDC statistics shows up in the 15-24 age group: since 1950, rates have almost tripled for boys and doubled for girls.

No one can fully understand another’s despair, but to make your problems bigger than yourself is a form of idolatry.

Why? Just about every commentator blames social causes for the current spike. Family and community breakdown, economic stress, social-media pressure, political chaos, a sense that no one is in charge—all these reasons, and more personal ones, factor in. I would add one more: the schizophrenic way we talk about suicide.

Among the pre-Christian pagans, death by one’s own hand was seen as an honorable way out. Cleopatra ended her colorful life with a snakebite in preference to the humiliation of a victory parade through the streets of Rome. Socrates welcomed the hemlock when it was forced on him. Court officials and army officers were expected to pick up the knife if they felt responsible for any calamity. It made a neat end to a messy situation, and possibly better luck in the afterlife. Or better yet, obliteration. Clinging to a miserable existence was a mentality fit only for slaves.

To the pagan mind, circumstances destroyed the person. To God’s mind, they shape the person. Christ ennobled suffering and secured eternal life by dying like a slave and rising as a King. As Christianity took hold, the Western world gradually stopped honoring suicide, even (mistakenly) classifying it as a mortal sin and denying Christian burial to those who succumbed.

But in these strange days, the remnants of Christian morality rub shoulders with latter-day paganism. It’s terribly sad when a celebrity like Robin Williams kills himself but, on the other hand, he’s now “free.” We publish guidelines on suicide prevention but vote for legalizing doctors to help the process along. We weep over suicidal kids but breathlessly watch TV series that justify suicidal kids. We insist on defining our own worth and wonder why some people define themselves as worthless.

I know, and have heard from, parents whose children took the step they couldn’t retrace. Maybe you’re one of them, or maybe you’re walking near that line yourself. No one can fully understand another’s despair, but to make your problems bigger than yourself is a form of idolatry. And like all idols, it’s false. You can’t erase yourself from the world—that space you occupied remains, painful as a toothache. Nor can you erase yourself from God’s mind, or His grace.

The despair that leads to suicide is a sin, at any age, but Christ (who was tempted in all ways as we are) forgives sinners. If you loved someone who professed that name and yet crossed that line, take heart. They matter, because Christ matters, and so do you.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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