Never in my life have I read the local obituaries as closely as I do now that I'm as old as I am, but I'm still shocked. Of course, few obits would likely announce suicide. Maybe I'm surprised about the numbers because I don't know the truth, and maybe I don't know the truth because people don't say it aloud, especially in a small town with a profoundly religion-based code of conduct.
Just finished Hamlet again, and Act V's opening silliness always has to be explained to kids--college or high school: Claudius and Gertrude cut a deal with the church for Laetes, her brother, a deal that allowed his sister Ophelia to be buried honorably despite the fact that she'd taken her own life. But the church had insisted that not all of the rites ordinarily given to someone of her class and standing could be granted, given her having committed suicide. Laetes is incensed, Hamlet jumps in--and we've got action.
Kids today have trouble believing that not all that long ago the mortal coil of those who took their own lives might have to find burial somewhere other than the community cemetary. Suicide implied despair, and despair meant no hope; someone who took his or her own life therefore illustrated to all the world that he or she was faith-less. Thus, no "Christian" burial.
Here in the Christian West, there is no tradition of suicide. I remember once visiting at Christian school in Tokyo, Japan, where the school's playground ended at a train track. Our guide told us that it wasn't always a pleasant place because more than a few suicides happened right there when people simply threw themselves in the path of a commuter train. It happened too often, he said, in part because Japanese culture was less negatively predisposed to suicide, it being sometimes a very honorable way out of dishonor.
Douthat argues that the number of suicides is shocking but not as surprising as we might think, given the fact that people today are, he says (and I believe him) all too frequently disassociated from society's abiding institutions, like family and church and work. Freedom from social attachments can be a glorious thing, but freedom often means estrangement from community.
I love this machine I'm typing on right now, but it has already altered our lives in many ways, some good, some not, and some still beyond our imagining. It's perfectly silly to blame www for the ghastly rise in suicide in this country; after all, the upswing is most notable in men between the ages of 30 and 55, a segment of the population not necessarily associated with slavish computer use. But it's somehow undeniable that people find their communities in this machine, or perhaps think they do.
But do they? I don't know.
The death of Tim Bosma, a Canadian man murdered, it seems, simply for his truck, has galvanized people from my denominational background like nothing else has for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand. Last week's horrors were not limited to Ancaster, Ontario, after all; all across North America similarly disturbing things happened. But somehow this death made me--and others--feel attached to the horror and sadness of a young wife and mother, a thousand miles away, who happened to be Christian Reformed.
But then politics divide where tragedy unites. Maybe that's the key to understanding why hundreds of Christian Reformed churches, yesterday, sang "In Christ Alone" as an emblem of solidarity with Sharlene Bosma--a broadly shared sense of real tragedy.
Douthat says he believes the rise in suicide is attributable to its opposite, societal loneliness, alienation that is itself sometimes self-inflicted when people shrug off responsibility to others and willfully forget its own stories.
Yesterday, I spent some time reading The Best of the Reformed Journal, a collection of essays from a now defunct periodical of the Christian Reformed Church. The contributions were penned by my denomination's most liberal commentators and theologians in the '50s and early '60s, most of the writers WWII vets. Those essays, even though they're from progressives, share a rhetoric that is simply absent today in my world--a rhetoric of inclusion that's almost offensive in its tribalism, a rhetoric that gloried in the state of mind and heart and soul of what B. J. Haan used to call "our people." I don't think anyone talks that way anymore. "Our people" is really just me and mine.
Freedom is a wonder, a joy; but separation required by freedom creates its own punishments. It's difficult not to argue, as Douthat does, that loneliness, also on the rise by the way, doesn't play a significant role in our alarming suicide rate.
In our amazingly "connected" world, some powerful connections are simply not being made. The result, more often than I like to believe, is, in fact, despair.
Astounding numbers. Shocking, really. But somehow, sadly enough, believable.