Death has had a lot of press lately. Especially suicide. When two celebrities’ lives are taken away in such short order, it’s not surprising that the world wants to talk about it.
And for good reasons. As much as suicide has been blamed on poverty among minorities, and even bullying, the troubling but stubborn fact is that it’s not that simple. The highest rate of suicide today is among middle-aged white people, but it is growing in other age groups as well. Suicides rates in 2014 were the highest in three decades, where 13 out of every 100,000 people murdered themselves. That’s a 24% increase from 1999. 2006 – 2016 saw a staggering 70% increase in suicide rates among white children. It is a significant problem.
A big media news story about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade argued that the problem is a lack of funding for psychiatric health at the federal level. In other words, it’s Trump’s fault. But the notion of funding seems shallow when considering two celebrities whose net worth are $16 million and $200 million respectively. It seems we are grasping at straws.
Sociologists point to increasing isolation and weakness in building real and lasting relationships caused by technology and social media. This argument certainly has some merit but fails to answer the question of why we allow technology to do this to us. We are not passive recipients of technology. We choose to replace real, face-to-face human relationships with digital ones. Why?
But let’s shift gears to a different kind of death for a moment. Have you ever heard the words “brave,” “courageous,” “bold,” or “beautiful” applied to somebody choosing to end their own life? I have. Do you remember Brittany Maynard? Brittany had a devastating form of stage 4 brain cancer, and she took to the media to make her case for euthanasia, a self-inflicted, so-called “good death.” And the talking heads on TV couldn’t get over themselves talking about how great it was that she did that. There are numerous other examples.
I can almost hear the objections. “It’s not the same thing.” Suicide laws for terminally ill are for people whose pain is unbearable and whose dignity of life is gone. And yet anyone who has struggled with depression, or knows someone who has, knows what unbearable pain it is and what little dignity is there.
Our world tells us that on the one hand, we are supposed to be proud of the courageous terminally ill patient who ends her own life, but shocked and saddened when a mentally ill patient does the same thing.
There is still another example of using words like “brave,” “strong,” “determined,” and “beautiful” to the intentional ending of human life. Abortion. And maybe some today think it is brave for the parents to shirk their responsibility by ending the life entrusted to them. But what is it for the one who dies? It’s certainly not brave, strong, or beautiful. To her, it must look a lot like murder.
So hearing all these things, how can we be surprised when people who are under unbearable pain choose to be “brave” and “courageous” and end their own life?
But all this does not speak to the question behind the question. Why is there such emptiness and pain in our world that people want to die? Sometimes it is mental illness. Sometimes it is diseases like cancer. Sometimes it is circumstances and situations in life in this world. But every time, it is spiritual.
Our world values emotional happiness maybe above all other forms of happiness. We think that happens when we have high self-confidence. “You be you.” Or, “Born this way,” as the great modern philosopher Lady Gaga puts it. And now almost 50 years after the hedonistic revolution of the 1960s, emotional health is at an all time low. This grand social experiment which was supposed to free us from the stifling structures of God and morality has failed to increase happiness. As quickly as the time-honored stabilizing force of Faith and Christian community leaves our culture, a general lack of meaning takes its place.
And that begins to hit at what our biggest problem is. Our world tells us there is no God, that there is nothing beyond, and that suffering and pain is meaningless. The voices of our culture tell us there is no sin, that you create your own truth, and that as long as you mean well you can’t do anything wrong. But all of that “freedom” leaves us enslaved to the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.
But happiness must be linked to something that matters. Happiness consists of living for a higher purpose. Happiness is finding true meaning for life outside of ourselves. Happiness is Jesus. In Christ, we know that sin is real, but Jesus and His forgiveness are real too. In Christ, we know that whatever happens in this life, we literally can’t lose. He has already won the victory! We are free to find our identity and meaning for our lives somewhere outside of us. Christ sets us free from needing to be our own God. Christ sets us free from ourselves, and only then can we truly be happy.