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The tragic reality that cries for attention

Christians must be alert to America’s suicide culture

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The tragic reality that cries for attention
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A recent report by the CDC indicates that the number of suicides in the United States increased by 2.6 percent between 2021 and 2022. That means that nearly 50,000 Americans died by their own hand last year, a record number.

Albert Camus began his work The Myth of Sisyphus by stating that one particular question was the most fundamental of all in philosophy: Why should one not commit suicide? One could only answer other questions concerning logic or categories once the prior question—Why should I carry on living?—had already been settled. Only someone who had decided that life was worth living could go on to these other issues. The question that these statistics raises therefore is why so many have decided Camus’s question in the negative.

One striking fact is that the number of suicides among men is roughly four times that among women. As the report states, men make up 50 percent of the population but account for 80 percent of deaths by suicide. The highest risk group here are men 75 years and older. No doubt each individual has their own reason for committing such an act but the disproportionate number of men, and the overall increase of all such deaths, seem to suggest that significant things are happening in our culture.

Two obvious things within Western society suggest themselves, at least as likely contributors to this overall trend. First, the modern obsession with youth dooms us all to the law of diminishing returns. It sets us all up for inevitable failure and potential despair. If life is indeed best lived by the young, then as age steals all of the trappings of youth, we are left bereft. Sad attempts to cling to the potency of our early years, whether through plastic surgery, clothing choices, or Viagra, are mere confirmations of this underlying (and apparently in some circumstances lethal) culture.

The emphasis upon individual fulfillment is an increasingly heavy burden to bear.

Second, the emphasis upon individual fulfillment is also an increasingly heavy burden to bear. It militates against meaningful personal connections. It teaches us that dependencies upon and obligations towards others are inhibiting burdens upon who we really are. But that comes with consequences. There is a reason why the mainstream media never profiles elderly swingers. If they exist at all they are sad and pathetic. If the late Hugh Hefner, with all his money and possessions, could not avoid such a fate, what chance has anyone else? And the by-product of this individualism is a world of old and lonely people who are either pursuing some youthful possibility that has gone forever or who intuitively think of themselves as intrinsically worthless. And it is but a small step as one ages to move from seeing others as burdens on you to thinking of yourself as a burden upon others. In such circumstances it is easy to see why Camus’s question might be very hard to answer.

Whatever the specific reasons behind each individual suicide, it is a national tragedy that so many people, especially older men, feel that life is not worth living. Something is deeply awry in such a society. The question now is how we can address this. Clearly, at the national level there is need for action on mental health. But the bigger problem is cultural and not one that can be solved by the medical industry through provision of better drugs or counseling. It involves the cultivation of what it means to be human, how we are to understand our relationship towards each other, and how generations are to relate to and value each other.

That means we need community. Real community, not the thin, faux community of the web but that of real human interaction and relationships. And that is the responsibility of us all. This CDC report exposes a tragic reality that we as Christians must seek to overcome. And we can only do that in communities that take the sacrificial call of the gospel seriously.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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