We are living in an age when suicide has become epidemic. In recent years, more people worldwide have died by suicide than by individual murders, gang violence, terrorist attacks and wars combined. What’s going on?
Pain and suffering play a significant role in suicidal thoughts and intentions. Prolonged physical pain from disease or injury is especially discouraging when the victim sees no end in sight. Emotional pain is also life-threatening. Major depression can be excruciating. Or pain may be rooted in losses of loved ones through death, divorce or other endings. The loss of a career or a financial disaster is wrenching. Some of these circumstances call out for medical treatment, psychotherapy or other forms of intervention. But these kinds of crises have been around a long time, and therefore probably don’t explain the rising tide of suicides in recent decades.
People who have survived a suicide attempt almost always say that life had become meaningless. And many psychologists and others talk about an overall crisis in meaning in contemporary life. The idea that finding meaning is crucial to well-being is not new. Over 100 years ago, philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote, “If you know the why, you can live any how.” And Victor Frankel, who survived the Nazi Holocaust and authored the book "Man’s Search for Meaning," asserted that in the horrendous, inhumane environment of concentration camps, only those who could hold on to some sense of meaning had any chance of survival.
My sense is that capturing or recapturing the experience that life has meaning, purpose and vitality is not a matter of contemplating philosophical, psychological or even religious questions, and thereby arriving at “the meaning of life.” Those kinds of thoughts and conversations can be interesting and helpful, but I would take my 4-year-old granddaughter as my model for how to live life to the fullest. I doubt that she has wrestled with these matters. Instead, she is so wrapped up in learning, exploring, playing, laughing and loving that daily life is simply overflowing with purpose and meaning.
But what about we older folks who have long since eaten of the tree of knowledge and been kicked out of the Garden of Eden of our childhood innocence? Blessedly, many of us have found fulfillment through exploring, learning, enjoying and loving in the contexts of family, friends, work and faith. But suicide statistics tell us that for some of us, these rivers of life sometimes seem to dry up completely. What then? Let’s look at some perspectives that might shed some light on how to find something to hold on to.
Traditional psychotherapists agree with the ancient command “know thyself.” Psychotherapy may help me understand myself more deeply by looking within, understanding dreams and engaging with the therapist. These processes can help clear out the blockages that may be keeping me from moving forward. Humanistic and existential psychologists tell us that we must explore the big questions of life in order to arrive at our own personal meanings. On the other hand, behavioral psychologists recommend “dereflection.” That means to stop thinking about things so much and get out there, engage in life and take action.
A meaningful life in the Jewish and Christian traditions flows naturally from worshiping and obeying God, deepening faith and serving humankind. Practices based in Eastern traditions such as meditation and yoga emphasize the goal of what one writer describes as “losing your mind and coming to your senses.” Suffering results from being distracted from the present moment and always looking for the next thing. Practitioners have reported that after a while, they can at least some of the time return to the vitality of childhood spontaneity and the joy of living each moment.
The perspectives and suggestions I have mentioned may be helpful, perhaps suggesting a new direction or revisiting commitments from the past that have been forgotten for a while.
Also, I have written before about the pervasive loneliness that haunts contemporary life. In spite of ever-present social media and other technologies, the intimate one-on-one and small group intimacies our ancestors took for granted are largely lacking for most of us. So a powerful antidote to meaningless, depression and loneliness requires finding the courage to reach out and connect with others who also might be lonely, but may need us to take the initiative.
One last suggestion for coping with dark times: Try adopting a short-term view by asking what might bring some small pleasure, fulfillment or connection right now, today.