Increased Alienation and Desperation

This is perhaps the most disturbing graphic I’ve seen in a long time:

The CDC reported last week that:

  • Nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in the U.S. in 2016.
  • Suicide rates went up more than 30% in half of the states since 1999.

There’s something wrong in America. Sure, there’s plenty right, too. But when tens of thousands of our fellow Americans decide to take their own lives, then there’s definitely something seriously wrong.

I wouldn’t attempt to address the reasons for this tragedy in a blog post. There’s no way I could do it justice. So my comments will be personal. And only personal.

Not all suicides are the same. Some are the product of intense end-of-life pain or a hopeless medical condition. One can never be sure how one would respond in such a situation, but it’s not beyond the pale to think I’d end my life in certain circumstances rather than to lie in bed in excruciating pain or be wheeled into a nursing home to “live out” my remaining days.

But most suicides are the other kind. Most are the product of extreme loneliness, alienation, and desperation. Feelings of failure or unworthiness. An unimaginable emptiness within. Most are proceeded by a premature death of the soul. An extinguishment of one’s spirit. The loss of hope. The sense that one has utterly and completely failed.

Last week Anthony Bourdain took his own life. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew him somewhat through his work. This New Yorker piece on Bourdain is worth another read. As was obvious to anyone who watched his shows, Bourdain was incredibly talented. A fabulous story teller. And authentic. Far more honest than the typical public figure. I liked him. A lot. There was something about him that connected with my psyche and soul.

When I think of Tony and the tens of thousands of fellow Americans who find themselves in such a place, to the point of taking the final act, tears pour out of my tired, dry eyes. When I think of children who are left behind when their father or mother end it all, a terrifying feeling dashes across my consciousness. When I think of a parent having to bury a child who died that way, a more painful legacy is impossible to imagine.

Yet I feel helpless in the face of this human tragedy for there is nothing obvious anyone can do to avert even a single such death. But perhaps there could be. Someday. With someone I know. Someone I love. Or perhaps with a stranger.

If that day comes I hope I am sensitive enough to spot it and wise enough to respond well. I hope in the moment I can convey a compelling reason for living. I hope I can stir a dormant soul. If there is a god, I hope he or she reaches through me in that moment.

In the meantime, I remind myself to treat each encounter with another human being, no matter how routine or mundane it might seem, as an act that pierces the loneliness that is the human condition. I remind myself to look into people’s eyes. To be kind. To never assume the other person isn’t, at that very moment, feeling entirely alone in the world.

Will it help them if I act this way? Perhaps not. But it most surely will help me.

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