A Plague of Suicide, A World of Alienation

As the rate of self-killing spikes, it's time to rediscover those local bonds that we lost so long ago.

We are plagued by an epidemic of self-killings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on June 7 noting the rise of suicide rates in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases visible across age, gender, race, and ethnicity. In North Dakota, the rate jumped more than 57 percent.

This news was bookended between the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. This is the new, ever-more isolated America, resolutely proud in its autonomy and liberty, but simultaneously “insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone,” to quote Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen. There is no silver bullet to stem the tide of suicides, though medical professionals consistently remind us that intimate interpersonal relationships and a clear life purpose reduce depression. A strong local identity, with a deep sense of rootedness, is one thing that fosters both.

For many, such a proposal is counterintuitive: traditional local identity is often eschewed by the progressive elite as insular, backward, and restraining. In a current popular hit, Alice Merton defiantly asserts, “I’ve got no roots.” Or consider the widely hailed 2017 film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The movie recounts the tale of a small-town mother (Frances McDormand) who aggressively targets the local police force that’s failed to find the man who raped her and her daughter. The police officers are portrayed as sluggish, incompetent, racist, and bigoted—a not-so-subtle commentary on Ferguson, Missouri, and its 2014 race riots.

The film is not only an indictment of the supposed ineptitude of Missouri police, but small-town life and its values writ large. It derides the “everyone knows everyone else’s business” paradigm of gossip intrinsic to these communities, as the town’s inhabitants all know the chief of police, played by Woody Harrelson, has cancer. Another alleged weakness is the loyalty town residents feel towards each other—thus does the local dentist try to remove a tooth from the mother without anesthesia as payback for her public attacks on the police chief. Members of the community are generally depicted as lazy, stupid, and comically stubborn in their backwardness.

Suicide is also front-and-center in this story. After coughing up blood on McDormand’s character and being carted away on a stretcher, the police chief determines to make the most of his final days. He takes his family out into the countryside, helps his daughters go fishing, and then sneaks off with his wife to some secluded place for a little marital intimacy. Later that night, he walks into his barn, puts a bag over his head, and shoots himself. His letter to his unsuspecting wife, written tenderly and lovingly, explains that he wanted to spare her a slow, agonizing death. Though she may hate him, he hopes she’ll come to see that this was the best thing. Similar heartfelt epistles are given to other prominent characters. The movie’s point seems clear enough: taking your life can be a beautiful testament of love and self-sacrifice. With tropes like this, should we be surprised suicide’s pull is growing?

Contemporary progressive society embraces a utilitarian paradigm that prizes pleasure and the avoidance of pain, as well as a social media celebrity culture that lets us present ourselves with a glossy finish. We don’t want our worst moments to be remembered or even seen. We cringe at the thought of being old, weak, senile, or, perhaps worst of all, dependent. The final missive of Woody Harrelson’s character suggests that one ceases to be truly oneself when one is dying. How jejune and banal. A far more inspiring and ultimately human vision is to recognize that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” our bodies and blood brimming with beauty and purpose from “life’s first cry to final breath.” There is an sober profundity to human existence, even in its most weakened and suffering state.

What “Three Billboards” does get right is how our nation’s ills—the opioid epidemic, depressed and dying local economies, environmental degradation—have left many of her citizens feeling like strangers in their hometowns. Yet the filmmakers would have us believe that insular, tradition-based American community is a cause of much of this. How far we’ve come from Maybury. The truth is that the urban and suburban communities on which coastal elites experiment with their progressive agenda are not solutions to the evils of the small town or neighborhood. Indeed, as is the case of Washington, D.C., gentrification leaves many of the same old problems for a city’s poorer population.

The Washington Metropolitan Area, or WMA, a once sleepy constellation of southern communities transformed by the unprecedented expansion of the federal government, suffers much of the same atomization and loneliness projected upon Podunk, America. One such sign of this is manifested in the gentrification of the District of Columbia, where historic black communities have been priced away, while local political pressure is applied on their churches for resisting expanded bike lanes and playing noisy music on Sundays. Many blacks still take special pride in their hometown of D.C., though they are increasingly disconnected from it.

What of the implicit accusation that the lack of anonymity in insular neighborhoods and towns amounts to an undesired intrusion into one’s personal life? Though evading being talked about is attractive, such anonymity is soul-crushing in its fostering of loneliness, depression, and disconnection. Relationships of convenience, which are the default for many Americans, have only a veneer of authentic human experience. Alternatively, knowing people and families—and being known—over the course of years and even generations offers tremendous gifts. Being known gives us roots, a sense of place and purpose. It is embarrassing for others to know our trials and needs, but it can also be life-giving, as neighbors offer their time and energy to help. In such places, there is a deeper sense that we share a common identity tethered to tradition, a life and place worth preserving. It can even serve an important social function as a check on our sinful behaviors—nobody wants to get a reputation as a serial philanderer.

When we don’t know our neighbors, preferring to “bowl alone,” we lose our sense of self, and are more tempted by the darker angels of our nature whispering in our ears that our lives are meaningless and not worth the effort. We’re also less sympathetic to the plights of our neighbors, perhaps a reason why significant percentages of Americans don’t care whether their fellow citizens abort their babies in the womb or euthanize their elderly or disabled relations. As “Three Billboards” unintentionally makes clear, the more isolated we are, the more powerful becomes what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death.”

Unsurprisingly, the film also attacks the role of small-town religious faith—one of the strongest tools man possesses to combat nihilism and suicidal tendencies—as representative of provincial backwardness. In an especially baffling scene, the mother confronts the local Catholic priest. She compares the priesthood to the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles, whose members can be targeted via guilt by association by the LAPD. Every priest, the mother argues, is complicit in the Church’s child abuse crisis. The producers of this film must have failed their introductory logic course—by this reasoning, every public school teacher is culpable whenever one of them sleeps with a student; every businessman is culpable whenever one of them commits fraud.

At the end of G.K. Chesterton’s comic apocalyptic novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, one of the main characters considers his native London neighborhood, which he has fought and shed blood to defend. He declares, “There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as He must surely love anything that is itself and unreplaceable. But even for that I do not care. If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”

This is the kind of zealous, almost irrational love for our home and local identity that gives our lives grounding and purpose. We take pride in our streets, our schools, our sanctuaries, every garden, grocer, and garbage can, because they are ours, a place and history we intimately share with others. In a strange irony, the deeper we invest in our communities, the more compassion and empathy we develop for all humanity, including those across the political aisle, a trend my fellow TAC writer Gracy Olmstead has observed in her own town. Fighting depression and suicide will require a multi-faceted effort uniting sociology, psychology, and spirituality. Yet alongside these we should not forget the value of local identity and mediating institutions. For the more we love our communities, the more we see ourselves as inseparably united with them.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion for TAC.

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18 Responses to A Plague of Suicide, A World of Alienation

  1. Houstonian says:

    This is exactly why I have a contrarian view of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I regard him as a man who was a mere voyeur of the rootedness and specificity he personally lacked. Everybody wants to extoll this guy as “someone we need more of.” I doubt his orphaned 11-year-old is feeling that way.

  2. mrscracker says:

    You know I totally agree about the isolation & disconnectedness of modern life but I think I saw data showing suicide rates were approximately the same back in 1950.

    The reasons behind suicide may vary but I think it’s something we’ve struggled with for a very long time.

  3. mrscracker says:

    Houstonian says:

    “This is exactly why I have a contrarian view of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I regard him as a man who was a mere voyeur of the rootedness and specificity he personally lacked. Everybody wants to extoll this guy as “someone we need more of.” I doubt his orphaned 11-year-old is feeling that way.”
    ***************
    Well, in all charity I don’t think we should speak of the dead that way. Absolutely no one knows what was going through Mr. Bourdain’s mind at the time he took his life & how much consent he could give to his actions.

    We can talk about the gravity of sin objectively, but we can’t know to what degree there was consent.

    It is fair to note how much pain is caused to those left behind. I have a friend trying to recover from the suicides of her father & only sibling. She’s in very bad shape.

    If showing the overall tragic effects of suicide on children & families left behind would influence suicidal people away from self harm, that would be a positive thing. But I don’t think we should do that individually. It doesn’t seem respectful or charitable.

  4. Phillip says:

    I am having a hard time digesting what is written here. I am currently cursing this local town I’ve been a part of for the past 7 years. I hate my job, I hate the traffic, and hate the isolationism of a bunch of state workers and government employees who are selfishly narcissistic to their core. The average price of a vehicle in this crappy town is probably north of $40k, while everyone counts the days for their pension and drop payment and when they can permanently screw off on selfish vacations to their beach houses, and 2nd homes. I get no pleasure from working my tail off for a group of people who take it all, and leave me the scraps, for when I am doing all of the work for them. It’s the unfairness and selfishness that I witness every day that actually brings me to the brink of my own self-crisis. I lost my 15-yr-old son to suicide four years ago, and I’m angry about it. My anger is not soothed by what I see all around me as I have described here.

  5. Casey Chalk says:

    @Phillip,

    I don’t usually comment on the TAC articles I write but I feel compelled to write something to you. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your son, and your own struggles and crisis. Growing up in NoVA, I’ve known a number of folks who have committed suicide, perhaps in part due to the isolation and greedy competition endemic to this region, among many other factors. I actually lost an aunt to suicide in the 1980s — she lived in Stafford. When I read your note, I knew there was little I could substantively offer but my deepest sympathy, as well as my prayers. I hope you can find the friendships, community, and sense of purpose that can help soften that very understandable anger. There are a lot of good people in the DC area, sometimes you just have to work a bit to find them! best regards, casey

  6. Jon says:

    What is held to be a solution to a perceived rising pandemic of suicide is no answer whatsoever but the grasping onto an ideology no matter the reality. Being lectured to about the merits of small town life is no balm for the wounded, the broken, and loved ones left behind after a suicide.

    I lived in both small towns and large cities and found them wanting. Isolation abounds in both no matter the preponderance of church congregations and other so-called support groups such as twelve-step programs. In the small town when one is walking alone along Main street, he or she is looked upon as an intruder, an invader,a stranger and a suspect or an accessory to a crime which never was committed. When walking into a diner, the customer may receive stares from the regulars — looks of suspicion and alarm as if to say, “you don’t belong here.” And this is true even if said customer knows the diner’s proprietor and is welcomed by him. I found this to be the case in the small town as well as in neighborhoods of major cities.

    Alienation pervades all matter of human settlement. This blog constitutes a false narrative that falls around my ears as background noise having no bearing to reality.

  7. mrscracker says:

    Phillip ,
    I’m so, so sorry for your loss.
    I’ll say a prayer for you today. God bless you.

  8. S says:

    There is no connection to other humans that is full or sufficient by itself. Connection to other humans needs to be supplemented with connection to nature and the divine. Its the spiritual hollowness at the heart of the modern industrial society that is responsible for this.

  9. Bushfatigue says:

    I live in the now-large town I grew up in, but still have a large network of family, friends and organizations that has been stabilizing and really helped me deal with life’s ups and downs.
    Suicide has a lot of causes, but the atomization of society, the growing income inequality, the isolation, the pressure to make ends meet, even poor health and fitness, likely play a significant role.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/05/the-deadliness-of-income-inequality/256976/
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-14/u-s-suicide-rate-up-30-since-start-of-21st-century-cdc-data
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/well/prescription-drugs-depression-suicide.html

  10. TACLover says:

    Casey,

    I think it a woeful oversight that you didn’t not engage with the crux of the mother’s argument to the Catholic priest which is the question of why crips and bloods can be guilty of association but the church cannot.

    It’s a question that goes right to the heart of coverups. The me too movement has burst the dams on the kind of guilt by association that was criminally, legally extended to bloods and crips but that never effected those covering up sex abuse in the church or in the halls of power.

  11. TR says:

    I’ve lived in “cold” small towns and “warm” small towns. Ditto big cities.

    And not all priests, but those who thought the church was right to protect its institutional reputation instead of worrying about the victims were guilty.

    Your logic may be ok, but your moral theology is wanting.

  12. Mont D. Law says:

    Sadly no.
    Your theory is not backed by any evidence at all.

    In 1950 male suicide rates were 21.2/100,000. Female rates were 5.6/100,000.

    In 2000, for males it was 17.7 & for women it was 4.1.

    Now, since 2000 the rates have gone up a bunch. But in 2015 they were only slightly higher than the were in 1950.

    So whatever is causing this it is something that 2015 & 1950 have in common. And that 2000 doesn’t have.

    Nothing on your list fits that description.

  13. I Don’t Matter says:

    Casey, you may want to take a look at Dreher’s example: he regularly engages with commenters.

    On the substance: anyone suggesting some simple neat ideological cause for this problem is full of it. No one really knows why suicides are increasing, we simply don’t have enough data and insight. There may be no discernible causes whatsoever, sometimes rare events just randomly flare up. True randomness often doesn’t look random.

  14. Asmilwho says:

    In days when young men are THREE TIMES more likely to kill themselves than young women, American Conservative chooses to show a picture of an attractive young girl at the head of the article

  15. sara says:

    I agree with Jon:

    Alienation pervades all matter of human settlement. This blog constitutes a false narrative that falls around my ears as background noise having no bearing to reality.

    Suicide rates have gone up the most in rural counties, not in large cities.

    http://www.intheforefront.org/resources/suicide-data/

    The states having the worst problems are Wyoming, Alaska and Montana – not exactly places known for huge, “alienating” cities. The “bottom” in suicides are Washington DC, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland.

    https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6345a10.htm

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  16. Anondustrious says:

    This article is pretty bilgy. People in “communities” commit suicide. The thing to remember is when you, or they, are thinking about suicide, or that it’s impossible to live this way.., it’s the depression talking. The depression is an erroneous or inaccurate way of thinking; it’s never the definition of a person. So you/they shouldn’t follow that line of thought in those moments. Also it’s important to recognize at those times to call a help center to help you get your mind out of that way of thinking. The US suicide prevention lifeline is 1800-273-8255

  17. Anondustrious says:

    I wanted to say: Don’t – trust – those thoughts. Know the thoughts that can’t be trusted.

    I hope that doesn’t sound flippant or simplified.

  18. Stephen Gosling says:

    The problem, of course, is the society created by Capitalism. The obsession with being a success and making a profit is the ethos that destroys a humane existence and polity, Private Property yes. Advanced Capitalism based on non-conservative worldviews no. Free Markets in their present form wll destroy the American Republic.

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