A man I’ve known for a long time uttered that awful phrase a couple of years ago, after he had almost succeeded in killing himself.
Alas, many suicides choose quicker and surer methods. Thousands of Britons kill themselves every year.
The method he chose was bizarre: he stopped eating. By the time his brother realised what was happening and took him to hospital, the man had lost half his weight. It was touch and go for two months, but the doctors managed to save him.
Three quarters of suicides are men. Those aged 45 to 49 are at the highest risk, but suicide is also responsible for the greatest number of deaths among younger men, edging out cancer and car crashes.
In this area, as in so many others, women are treading the path to equality: suicides in girls aged 10 to 24 have soared by 83 per cent in six years. Boys in the same age group registered a mere 25 per cent increase, so the lines are converging.
Statistics are helpful in answering questions beginning with “How many…”, but they aren’t much use in answering queries introduced by “Why…”
Such answers are kindly provided by psychologists, professional or amateur. They explain that the problem is caused by mental illness.
Alas, like so many concepts whose definition is expanding ad infinitum (such as rape, racism, art, hate crime, music), mental illness is now defined more broadly than ever before – too broadly to have any claim to rigour.
Most commentators ascribe such elasticity to advances in diagnostic techniques. Old naysayers like me are more likely to bemoan the modern tendency to medicalise phenomena that used to have non-medical explanations.
It doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Doctors continue to dispense antidepressants like Smarties, and, even if some (most?) patients only think they need them, the situation is bad enough.
Some 70 million such prescriptions are written in the UK every year, and over 25 million Americans have been on antidepressants for two years or longer. Whether real or merely perceived, the problem is dire.
What causes this supposed pandemic of emotional instability? Writing in today’s Times, a psychologist explains helpfully that it’s the British tendency to keep it all inside that’s to blame.
If so, this proclivity isn’t new. The British have always had the good taste and manners not to pester others with their problems. And no one has ever accused Americans of being too reticent, and yet the problem is even worse there.
No, suicidal depression isn’t caused by keeping it all inside. The problem is that too many modern people have too little to keep inside, other than envy, a sense of being hard done by, wounded pride and other unenviable emotions.
If life is seen in purely philistine, materialist terms, it becomes a game with few winners and a whole throng of losers. Many people feel that life has defaulted on its promise of success, thereby forfeiting its meaning, such as it is.
Modernity discourages, indeed mocks, questions about the purpose of life. The prevailing dogma is that life is its own purpose, which defies elementary logic. That’s like believing that nature somehow created itself, which belief is also mandatory for anyone seeking social acceptance.
Yet derision doesn’t make such questions go away. When my granddaughter was 10 or so, she asked her mother if everyone would eventually die. On hearing the truthful answer, she asked: “So life means nothing then?”
Questions in that vein are ontologically unavoidable: they are an inseparable part of being human. Yet the answers have to be metaphysical because the questions are.
In the distant past, before Jesus Christ became a superstar, life was seen as a gift presented by a donor. One had to show gratitude by getting close to that donor morally, by observing his laws, and intellectually, by making his plans intelligible. That gave life a specific and universal purpose: becoming at one with God.
Since that end is unachievable within our three-score and ten, the concept of life everlasting was a logical necessity. There was no happy end to one’s life. If it was happy, it wasn’t the end.
That worldview reduced quotidian injustices and deprivations to trivialities, annoying as they might have been. Man was conditioned to think beyond – his problems, his body, his very material existence. The meaning of this life was to him outside this life.
If a time machine miraculously dragged, say, Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471) away from writing his book De imitatione Christi and transported him to Britain, circa 2020, he’d shudder with incomprehension, soon replaced by revulsion.
He’s see widespread prosperity beyond his wildest imaginings – not that he had many imaginings about prosperity – accompanied by what to him would be incomprehensible despair. People would become melancholy (depressed, in today’s parlance) and suicidal over silly incidentals, such as getting sacked or having investments go sour.
Some would kill themselves over bereavement, which too would look as odd to Kempis. Don’t they know that, just as there is death in life, so there is life in death?
No, they don’t. They have been indoctrinated to examine every little quirk of their psychology, a word Kempis would find baffling (it was coined some two centuries after he died). As ordered, they look inside themselves for answers – and, to their despair, find nothing but themselves there.
What is hell, he’d ask, if not being abandoned to nothing but oneself? These people have consigned themselves to life in hell – a nice, comfortable hell, but hell nonetheless. No wonder they want to kill themselves.
This doesn’t mean that materialism inevitably leads to mental disorders and suicidal feelings. It doesn’t. Many people are perfectly satisfied with a life of philistine bliss and don’t mind seeing existence as accumulation of assets.
But in many others despair and despondency set it. Paraclete, the great comforter, isn’t there to comfort them, but, even though they don’t realise it, they need him badly.
What Dostoevsky called ‘accursed questions’ keep buzzing in their minds; sometimes the buzz becomes constant and intolerable, like a kind of spiritual tinnitus. Yet no answers are harmonised with the noise, and there is only one way to turn it off.