The Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report for 2014 shows that men aged 40-44 are the demographic group with the highest rate of suicide, nearly four times that of women the same age; for those aged 45-54, the rate is roughly three times higher for men than women. New data from the Office of National Statistics confirm those findings. And although the statistics aren’t always straightforward (there may be under-reporting of female suicides), things aren’t getting better: while the male rate fell for most of the past decade, since 2012 it has been back on the rise.
“I feel I am lost now,” he said, “and it’s too late to change things. I am surplus to society’s requirement, like one of those lone male deer that performs no function at all and gets forced from the herd because of it.”
After him I bumped into more men, all seemingly versions of the same. The divorced ones were all miserable, most of them lamenting the terrible downturn their lives had taken – no house (gone to the ex), no kids (gone to the ex), no future (what’s the point?).
A friend of mine, Henry, 50, who divorced seven years ago, considers himself as part of a group he refers to as “remaindered men”. “It is the sense that we colluded in the process of making ourselves surplus to requirement,” he explains. “We married capable women who took over every aspect of life. They ran the household, the children, the social life. For a while it seems a good meal ticket to be on, but in the end the horrible logic of the process results in us being without any kind of a role at all and not much self-confidence to find another one within the existing framework.
“We are caught between the old model of being the breadwinner and the new model of being the co-washer-upper and feeder, and the truth is we never really mastered either of these roles – old or new – and this has led to a profound sense of crisis in men. Unless you really are able to look back at what happened, you can’t move on.
Sam adds, in his e-mail to me:
You know, you don’t want to complain. We don’t have it bad like Dante had it bad, or like the American colonists had it bad, or like the people ripped off farms an shoved into factories in the Industrial Revolution. Still, while the difference to me is that while these people had it HARDER, the modern predicament is less SIMPLE. People don’t know what to do. Even though the average cubicle guy is not getting eaten by a wolf or shot up in a pillbox, he just doesn’t know what to do or how to move forward in a very real sense. Dante shows us, doesn’t he, that while that stuff might be important, it’s ultimately a more internal kind of thing.
Yes, that’s exactly it. The story I tell in How Dante Can Save Your Life is my personal story, of how reading Dante guided me toward making sense of the mid-life impasse to which I had come. But if I’ve succeeded — and you’ll find out when the book is published on April 14 — I will have shown readers how Dante offers a pattern that everyone can apply to their own situation, no matter where they are in life.
The pattern is, most basically, this:
1. Unflinchingly honest reflection on the past;
2. Sincere effort to change one’s life to avoid falling into those past errors;
3. Moving towards an ideal pattern of life marked by love, humility, and serenity in the face of suffering (because suffering is the human condition).
The key concepts to get from Dante are:
1. You cannot change the world, but you can change your own heart.
2. The passions — especially anger — will blind you to your own power to change. You can only overcome the passions through asceticism (that is, through self-denial).
3. There is a reality beyond what you can immediately sense. God exists, and He is love. He does not promise to deliver us from suffering, but he promises to show us how, and to help us, redeem our suffering through love. But He can do nothing for us without our letting go of our egos and trusting Him.
4. The hidden order of the world is one of Harmony. We are not made to do the same thing, to have the same things, to live the same way. We are made to dwell in Harmony with God, the natural order, and each other. Seek harmony, and you will find happiness.
That, more of less, is the lesson Dante has to teach. Sam is right: what makes our own struggles today harder is that we find it harder to believe that there is a point to anything, that our struggles have any deeper meaning, or that suffering can be redeemed, as opposed to escaped or denied. Dante, who suffered terribly, knew better. He never regained what had been taken from him, but the taking cracked the hardness of his heart, and opened the door to a lane that led him out of the dark wood. I so strongly believe that he can help others as he helped me that I’m frustrated to have to wait one more month before this book is published!
Anyway, I think that Sam touches on the core of suffering today: the fear, and perhaps the conviction, that it is meaningless. And if suffering is meaningless, there is no hope — which makes it that much more difficult to bear.
(UPDATE 5:15 CDT: We are still having problems with the server. Several of you have reported problems with the blog revealing the email addresses of other commenters. For the sake of your security, I am disabling all comments on my this and other recent blog posts until we get this sorted it. So sorry!)