Following the recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and travel show host Anthony Bourdain, there has been much in the media about the alarming increase in suicides in the United States, especially in the 45-64 age group. Considering that both Spade, 55, and Bourdain, 61, seemed to have had everything going for them, materialistically, at least, the media has been searching for answers
In a USA Today report, Maria Oquendo, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted as saying the trend among middle-aged adults is puzzling because people in that age group are more financially secure and have more experience in solving life’s problems. She further stated that the opioid epidemic doesn’t explain it all.
At least two reports referred to a popular book, Lost Connections, in which author Johann Hari opines that the suicide rate is up because modern living has resulted in people being isolated from friends and relatives, which leads to loneliness and depression. Hari, who has battled depression himself, states that such depression is most often viewed as a chemical imbalance in the brain and treated with medication.
I believe the answer to the “puzzle” is obvious, but since mainstream science and medicine refuse to recognize the strong evidence suggesting that consciousness survives death, it is never considered. The root cause of many suicides is most likely an existential one – a failure to find any real meaning in life. A Time Magazine report by Belinda Luscombe points out that happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments, quoting Bourdain, “What do you do after your dreams come true?”
In his popular 1969 book, The Immortalist, humanist philosopher Alan Harrington expressed it this way: “An unfortunate awareness has overtaken our species. Masses of men and women everywhere no longer believe that they have even the slightest chance of living beyond the grave. The unbeliever pronounces a death sentence on himself. For millions this can be not merely disconcerting but a disastrous perception.”
As Harrington viewed it, when people are deprived of rebirth vision, they “suffer recurring spells of detachment, with either violence or apathy to follow.” Harrington, an atheist himself, saw mass-atheism as responsible for most, if not all, of society’s ills, including misplaced sexual energy. “Orgies, husband and wife swaps, and the like, more popular than ever among groups of quite ordinary people, represent a mass assault on the mortal barrier,” he wrote.
“The state of anxiety, the feeling of powerlessness and insignificance, and especially the doubt concerning one’s future after death, represent a state of mind which is practically unbearable for anybody,” wrote Erich Fromm, another humanist philosopher.
As Carl Jung, a pioneer of psychology and psychiatry, saw it, critical rationalism eliminated the idea of life after death. He noted that most of his patients were non-believers, those who had lost their faith. They were neurotics. “They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking,” he wrote. “Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning.”
Jung, who had a convincing near-death experience in 1944, went on to counter the mainstream view by saying that “a man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.” He added that the man who does not grasp the idea of life after death despairs as he “marches toward nothingness,” while the person who believes that he will survive death, though he may be uncertain, “follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death.”
Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl referred to it as “mass neurotic syndrome” – the result of an “existential vacuum,” a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness. The more one seeks pleasure, Frankl observed, the more it eludes him. “Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect, or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree in which it is made a goal in itself.” A human being, he continued, is not one in pursuit of happiness, but one in search of a reason to become happy. Self-actualization, he further proclaimed, is possible only as a side effect of self-transcendence.
Even Sigmund Freud, who was not spiritually inclined, was concerned that one’s attitude toward death has a bearing on his or her psychological health. “Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude toward death, we are once more living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due?” he asked. “Would it not be better to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it, and to yield a little more prominence to that unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully repressed?”
The non-believer will immediately interpret all that to suggest that we should live for the afterlife and not for today. However, that is not what Jung and Freud were saying. William James, another pioneer in psychiatry, may have summed it up best when he said,
“The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.”
Jung, Freud, James, and Frankl were not suggesting that we live for the afterlife, only that we keep the larger picture in mind as we go about our daily activities. Otherwise, we risk succumbing to the Epicurean motto, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” while striving to be one with our toys and eventually wondering what to do after we accumulate enough toys.
I think Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century Italian philosopher, hit the nail squarely on the head when he wrote that men first feel necessity, then look for utility, followed by comfort, then pleasure, and finally luxury, after which they finally go mad – when “each man is thinking of his own private interests.” In that pursuit of pleasure and luxury, there is a certain social disconnection, which involves moral, intellectual, and spiritual decline.
“Despair over the earthly or over something earthly is really despair about the eternal and over oneself, in so far as it is despair,” existentialist Søren Kierkegaard offered, referring to the person in despair as a philistine. “Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial, being equally in despair whether things go well or ill,” he continued, going on to say that many philistines don’t actually realize they are in despair, or if they do realize it they don’t understand what they are in despair about. Neither do their psychiatrists, the politicians, or the journalists.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.