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Blue Whales and False Mercy

The culture of death not only continues unabated on its tragic path, but is actually growing in its variety of forms, glamor and promotion.  Suicide rates among the young are increasing, as are deaths from opioid overdoses.  Internet “games” of self-harm are proliferating and doctors, historically practitioners of the healing arts, are now allowed to assist a person in killing himself in at least five jurisdictions.  One author reflects [1] that “[t]he opioid epidemic and the 30-year high suicide rate are sister symptoms of the hopelessness that pervades America’s communities…” citing the loss of connectedness at multiple levels as the primary factor.

The idea behind such acts is that escape, sometimes permanently, is the solution to the suffering which, like it or not, is a natural part of the course of human events.  Seemingly lost in such attitudes is the dignity of each human person, even in his suffering.  The culture of life, as reflected in these pages previously [2], holds that suffering is a poignant reminder of our connection with the transcendent.  It calls us out of ourselves whether we are experiencing the suffering, or giving aide to someone else who suffers.  Either way, it connects us with one another.  Concretely, these connections are borne out in a profound manner when a person chooses to engage, tolerate and share his experiences [3] rather than escape suffering through suicide.  Yet, the specter of escapism [4] holds a growing fascination for many in our culture, particularly the young.  Interest in the objectively absurd “Blue Whale Challenge [5]” (which consists of 50 daily tasks of self-harm, sleep deprivation, social isolation and eventually suicide) likely reflects a larger problem of societal disintegration where the normal familial, communal or religious attachments are being replaced by nameless, faceless (and possibly robotic) “curators [6].”

What’s Wrong With Escaping Misery?

Life can be incredibly difficult, whether one is navigating the social minefield of adolescence, coping with family problems in middle age, or facing prolonged and painful chronic illness in the twilight years.  One study [7] examining the motives of those seeking escape through suicide concluded the following:

People want to end a state of psychological or physical anxiety … The victims simply want to go. They don’t mean to change things.  The common denominator of all cases examined here is pain or stress – physical, mental or emotional. The [suicidal person] wants to stop hurting. 

And in that effort to stop the hurt, people are tempted to take the fastest, easiest course.  As understandable as the desire to alleviate pain and suffering may be, the “solution” of suicide inevitably creates more distress for those loved ones who are left behind.  At a broader level too, the causes of the pain and suffering are not addressed: “the rising rate of suicide, drug abuse, and depression can all be traced to increased social fragmentation.”

Psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty [8] suggests that these problems are symptoms of the increasingly-common experience of despair, rooted in loneliness, meaninglessness and hopelessness.  Sadly, these causes seem at risk of being exacerbated in our youth who are now being called the iGen generation, in part because they are lost in their phones and tablets, stunted in their potential [9] to grow in emotional and social maturity, and disconnected from the real world of loving relationships and meaningful activity.

Anecdotal research suggests that these youth are spending more time at home and less actual time with peers, but that this is not translating into closer relationships with parents or more diligence in their schoolwork.  Instead, it is translating into isolation.

Hope:  Connecting With People, Reality And True Mercy

The antidote for misery, despair and fragmentation is the virtue of hope.  And the fruit of hope is relational; happiness hinges on connectedness.  Some may have a gift of faith such that they experience hope through their relationship with the Transcendent, but most of us are going to find meaning and encouragement in our relationships with others.  The power of genuine communities of persons engaging in regular fellowship is enormous, whether it is within one’s family, school or place of worship.  It is essential, however, that these relationships be authentic: based in reality, and involve human contact, not just digital connections.  Studies of teens confirm that the amount of screen time [10] is correlated with a teen’s level of depression [11], with more screen time linked to less happiness.

Authentic connections can be difficult, as they call us to look beyond our own needs and be more attentive to others.  This calling can be especially difficult for young people many of whom may have never learned the joys of this process.  Certainly, this level of self-sacrifice can seem daunting, especially if one already feels as though he or she is suffering and has little to give.  Yet, each person is created uniquely, with his or her own gifts, which only he or she can convey—a singularity which makes every act against life all the more tragic.