Looking for life

A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates … found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. — Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers, Patricia Cohen, New York Times, February 19, 2008

sleeping-pillsHealthy, successful men and women are killing themselves, and no one knows why. These are people in the midst of good careers, an age group that collectively takes home more dough than the GDP of some nations. Great houses, great cars, great entertainment systems, great kids just heading out into the world to make it on their own.

To the casual observer, they have achieved every measure of success. But it doesn’t seem to be enough.

These are the Baby Boomers, my generation, the post-war horde born with every possible advantage in a time of American greatness. A generation of enormous promise convinced they could bring about world peace and prosperity. “Tune in, turn on, drop out” was their motto, a rejection of everything their parents stood for.

But then came Viet Nam, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. A great many Boomers gave in to cynicism. They blazed their own spiritual and ethical trails looking for answers; most found dead ends instead of enlightenment.

Perhaps because of the aching void in their lives, most abandoned simplicity and humility for unfettered consumerism. This generation has amassed historic amounts of personal debt. Big mortgages, huge car loans, profligate spending, kids going to the most expensive colleges — money, they have learned, makes the world go round.

Are there any hints here to a cause for an increase in midlife suicides?

On my 50th birthday it occurred to me that I would probably not live as long as I already had. For the first time, dying became personal — it wasn’t just something that happened to other people. How many more years do I have left, I wondered?

Death has always been a black terror. Even with our recent insights into the human genome, we have not discovered the secret to arresting the aging process. It will be a very long time before the last Baby Boomer is lowered into the ground, but for most of us, the wait will be shorter than we think.

Is it possible that the death of so many dreams, the yawning emptiness of so many souls, the futility of a life built on acquisition and consumption, the loud tick-tock of the clock counting down towards zero have all driven Boomers into despair? What happens to a generation when it stops believing in itself? What happens when it loses hope?

Depression is often the driving force behind suicide, and doctors are diagnosing depression at historic rates. I’ve experienced depression myself and how it warps and twists reality. Depression kills hope. It whispers insidious lies to the soul: “They’ll be better off without you.”

If depression speaks words of death, where do we find words of life?

After this a lot of [Jesus’] disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him. Then Jesus gave the Twelve their chance: “Do you also want to leave?” Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:66-69, The Message

What did Peter mean?

Jesus’ teachings had become harder and harder to accept. The dreams of those who had been looking for a conquering king had been dashed by a teacher more interested in prayer and faith than freeing an oppressed nation from Roman chains.

But the twelve disciples seemed to have caught something the crowds had missed. They had gained an insight into Jesus that intrigued them, a glimpse of something much more important than political revolution, even in the midst of a corrupt and unjust oppression by Roman thugs.

Life had seemed okay before Jesus. Now, a year later, they looked back and realized how empty everything had been, how pointless all their striving and scheming to snatch the gold ring had been compared to… this.

“You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’re committed to you,” said Peter, and the rest nodded their agreement.

What did he mean “real life, eternal life”?

I think he was saying, for the first time everything makes sense. For the first time I think I understand what God wants from me. For the first time I feel as if I have a purpose, and it’s a good purpose. I feel alive. I was a drone, throwing nets out into the sea, hauling in fish, selling them for a few measly coins, patching my nets and doing it all again the next day. It’s a living, sure, but it isn’t living, if you know what I mean.

I think Peter was saying that God had allowed him to glimpse something eternal, and in that glimpse Peter had seen a spot where he, a rather ordinary fisherman, fit into God’s great puzzle. Fit perfectly.

Peter found a plan that goes on beyond death, a plan that isn’t afraid of death because death has become a doorway, not a wall.

Peter and the other eleven had found someone who had shown them God as they had never known Him before. And now life was good. their hearts were filled, they wanted to live. Really LIVE!

The contrast is profound. In an age of health, wealth and comfort, Boomers are losing hope in everything they have ever believed in, everything they have worked so hard to achieve. They are losing interest in life.

They’ve won the gold ring, but they still haven’t discovered life. Real life. Meaningful life. Eternal life. The sort of life that gave hope to a motley band of Jewish nobodies.

Now more than ever, we need to hear the words that Peter heard, words that convinced these twelve disciples that Jesus was the very heart and soul of life.

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  1. Yes. I’m realizing lately that Jesus’ way and consumerism are pretty much opposites. We’re simply not called to worry about being comfortable. We’re called to sacrifice. But it’s hard to remember and keep that perspective in a society that encourages everyone to worry about their own happiness first.

    I had no idea that suicides among baby boomers were on the rise. But I love your treatment of the subject. His Way is hard, but it’s the way of hope, of purpose, of life.

  2. You’re right on target, Charlie. When we get to a certain age, we realize how brief a time we have here on planet earth. It’s also hard to watch grandparents, parents, and gasp – our generation die.

    We act like we’ll be here forever, but eventually get a wake-up call, whether it be a health issue or a loved one’s death. The question of where we’ll spend eternity suddenly becomes very real.

    Those who have rejected God’s plan of salvation begin to realize the futility of life. Money, success, and even family ties do not fill the emptiness inside. I once heard an Olympic champion say in an interview, “I stood on the podium with the crowd cheering and a medal. All I could think of was is this what I trained for all my life?”

    The only one who can meet the deepest longings of our heart and will always be there for us is the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the true remedy for hopelessness and despair.

  3. You know, I was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian church, and I had strong faith. We sent to church every Sunday, but we typically didn’t say grace before meals unless my grandmother was around. So, that tells you a little about how deep it went in my house.

    I became very active in a Christian organization in college, where we all prepared and presented devotionals by flipping around in the Bible. We prayed together.

    My question to everyone saying, “Those who reject God’s plan of salvation…” would be this — what if you just don’t believe and can’t force yourself to believe? Are there other non-religious) things that you don’t believe exist? Santa Claus? Easter Bunny?

    To some people, God and/or Christ and the plan of salvation are no more real than those figures. As much as they would like to believe, they can’t. The Bible says that God despises the lukewarm more than any other, but how can one help not believing?

    I think the decline of belief in an afterlife has led to this increase in suicide. I don’t go through a full week without nearly having a panic attack at the thought that one day my body will just shut off like a light bulb.

    I wish I could believe that something’s coming after that, but how can I make myself? Won’t God see through that and my salvation won’t “take” right?

    This is the difficulty that I face, and I fear what the children of my generation will turn out when they were not raised in church. Because, although I may not have the faith I once had, I was brought up in church and so had a basic moral compass ingrained in me. Where will children these days get this?

  4. Hi Mark –

    Your post touched my heart with its honesty and cry for reality. No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (or the tooth fairy). None of them died for my sins.

    The best way I can answer you is to share my own faith. I believe because I’ve seen the evidence the Word of God is true. The chances of every prophetic word about the Messiah being fulfilled in one man are about a gazillion to one. Yet, ALL of them were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

    I look with wonder at the complexity of creation and see the hand of God. Still, all these things would only give me a mental faith. Jesus said that God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in truth. It’s not a matter of connecting all the dots, or feeling some emotion. It’s about taking the evidence and saying, “Okay, I don’t understand everything about this, but I see these facts. I’m going to act on this knowledge and take Jesus at his word.”

    That’s what I did. I took Jesus at his word. It was reliable. And you know something, I found peace. And joy. Problem free? No. Trouble comes to all. But in the midst of suffering, he’s held my hand, answered countless prayers, and comforted my heart.

    Believing is a decision not an emotion. Search the Scriptures. The Gospel of John is a good place to start. Read it like you’ve never read it before. Ask God to speak to you and help you understand. My prayers are with you.

  5. Jesus made an interesting statement about this problem, that is not given sufficient attention. It’s in John 7:17. “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” It’s a significant observation about epistomology — how we know what we know or think that we know. It may appear overly simplistic or simply wrongheaded. But experience has shown me that Jesus is never simplistic or wrongheaded.

    The risk involved in following Jesus advice here is that we might find out later that we had expended energy in vain attempting to do what God has revealed through Jesus that he wants us to do. Maybe we will even wind up looking like fools for all of the wasted effort. But really, how great is that risk, compared with all of the other risks we regularly run?

    Our problem, it seems to me, is that we generally want to know ahead of time that a program or plan is going to work out well before we move ahead on it. We want to see the connection, in this case, between doing what God wants and an increase in our confidence level in Jesus as teacher. We hate to take any kind of chance or, as Kierkegaard said, to take a “leap of faith.” But suppose we were to give this one a try, just on the basis that Jesus seems in general to be a good guy and probably not inclined to lead us astray.

    How would we proceed? Just as you say, Charlie: by searching the Scriptures. And the Gospel of John would indeed be a good place to start. The Sermon on the Mount would probably be helpful, too. In fact, the Scriptures are loaded with this kind of information. So, what are we afraid of?

  6. P.S. My apologies to Susan. I attributed to Charlie what Susan had said in her post. Anyway, it sounds like we’re all on the same page.

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