Philosophical Trends in Our Suicidal Culture
The suicide rate is up and life expectancy is down. What are the broader causes?
While the recent string of celebrity suicides brings media attention, the greater concern is that the suicidal epidemic has affected the culture at large. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that suicides across the nation have increased 30% since 1999 in half of the U.S. states. More than half (54%) of those who died by suicide had no known mental health condition. Perhaps the group that is worst off is veterans — roughly 20 veterans commit suicide every day, albeit for often very different reasons than those in the general population. And the overall situation is so bad that the U.S. may have just experienced a third straight year of decline in life expectancy.
So what’s happening?
The significance of these events leads to a deeper analysis our culture, our communities and our prospects for the future. Many factors lead to each individual suicide, including depression, drugs or a loss of meaning and purpose. Each lost life is due to its own unique challenges. But some philosophical concepts have undoubtedly invaded the modern mind. Men and women of the past faced harrowing wars, hunger and loss, yet they possessed a resilience that eludes our modern culture. Why? There are no simple answers, but at least part of it is that our ancestors believed in a duty to their families and to God while our modern culture has rejected these concepts in favor of extreme individualism and materialism.
According to the philosophy of individualism, personal interests supersede moral responsibilities to family or God. This philosophy has produced a narcissistic culture that prioritizes self-focus above any other communal value.
Consider modern psychology’s chief questions:
“How does that make you feel?”
“Is this decision helping you become your best self?”
“How is this achieving your goals?”
Or the theme of the vast majority of advertisements:
“You deserve it.”
Individualistic thinking limits our perspective by considering only the personal effects of our decisions. It does not consider the communal effects of our decisions. Rather than ending personal pain in silence, a suicide magnifies that pain to others. While suicide feels like a solitary act that only affects the person committing it, in reality, it is a communal act that affects everyone else.
Additionally, in a constantly changing world, individualism seeks power and control. Post-modern individualists argue, “I didn’t choose to be born. I didn’t choose my gender. I didn’t choose my parents. I didn’t choose my health issues. I am a result of millions of years of accidents, so why does my life matter? Why do I have to suffer through all this?” And the ultimate act of power and selfish control is taking your own life.
The other philosophy, materialism, believes that the material world (only the things you can see, touch and feel) exists as the only reality. It denies an afterlife or judgement, believing instead that humans, like all of nature, simply go back to the dust.
Yet in a philosophy without God, morality or consequences, life’s only purpose remains to amass fame, fortune and pleasure exemplified by the phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Consider the unrestricted pursuit of experiential pleasure in our culture, from sexual experimentation, drugs and alcohol to other experiences like eating Tide pods, Netflix binging and bunny yoga. While some of these experiences certainly qualify as more harmful than others, the point remains that materialism prizes the excess of pleasure. It’s not good enough to sleep with your spouse, you must sleep with many different people. It’s not good enough to just watch a movie, you must watch 10 movies in a row. It’s not good enough to just have a glass of wine, you must have all kinds of beverages and be carted home by a benevolent friend for an “experience” you won’t even remember. It’s not good enough to simply exercise, you must exercise with animals crawling on you for a “new experience.”
When a society can no longer find happiness with the simple things of life, but instead requires lavish entertainment, parties and pleasures to distract and sustain itself, it’s called “decadence.” Yet decadence ultimately proves itself to be empty. When a person has reached the end of the individualist and materialist pursuits, what’s left? Nothing but disillusionment. And that’s the problem.
No human can exist without purpose, meaning or hope. The hope from outside of us must shine brighter than the darkness within us. That hope is found in God. Our culture needs this vision for life. We need duty as our metric for success: duty to our families, to our friends and to our God.
The Pilgrims came to this country amidst grave danger, uncertainty and difficulties. Many died on the Mayflower and half died the first winter. They knew that coming to America would not make their lives easier or happier, but rather it would give freedom to their children and grandchildren. They saw their lives as “stepping stones” to the next generation. If we embrace this generational perspective for our lives, it will refocus our vision away from ourselves and toward planting seeds for the future — seeds that we may never personally harvest. Yet in doing so, we will live sacrificial lives that honor our Creator and leave a legacy for those who follow us. We will give hope to a culture drowning in darkness.
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicide, please reach out for help to the National Suicide Hotline.