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Divergent Interpretations of the Same Statistics: Differing Suggestions from Christianity and Sociology

May 20, 2013

Statistics often present a sobering mirror of our society and the problems that people face. A friend of mine recently sent me an interesting New York Times article by Ross Douthat entitled, “All the Lonely People.”  Douthat notes that since 2000, the suicide rate among men aged 35-54 in the United States has increased 30% while the rate for men in their 50’s increased 50%.  This is indeed a disturbing trend.  Douthat cites University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox who perceives a link between the rise in suicides and weakened social ties as well as economic difficulties.

rublev_15cWhile sociological interpretations about the environment have their place and certainly seem true, they cannot hope to provide the whole explanation. Yes, we all know that we have outwardly observable lives as social beings within financial limitations, but we also have inner lives as well. Looking at only the external, seemingly objective aspect of the problem, we can hardly expect to find more than a surface solution, especially when even that outward description of reality is incomplete, leaving out the most important person in human life and death, namely, the person of God. I suspect that the real root causes of suicide may be found not so much in a lack of quality relationships or the absence of a good economic situation, but in the health of the subjective, interior life, that is, the quality of our thoughts and how we view the relationships we already have.  Suicide, like every other behavior, springs first from the most private world of our innermost thoughts.  If one entertains and foments negative thoughts about self, which includes all the things and people attached or not attached to the self, then despair and hopelessness can certainly set in.  If one views relationships as a quid pro quo contract, we become stuck in the rut of measuring the behavior of others rather than focusing on changing our own negative thoughts or actions.  In an earlier post “The Blessing and Bane of Expectations” I wrote, “Sometimes, patients list aims over which they have little control, such as changing someone else’s behavior.  In such cases, therapists encourage them to rework the goals that they set for others into behavioral goals for themselves.  In dealing with this particular issue, the ancient fathers have a similar approach, alongside recalling Divine Providence, ancient monastics also advise the faithful to use self-reproach as a basic interpretive principle in order to avoid judging others who sin as well as to prevent agitation, anger, and pride.  For example, when Saint Dorotheos would notice a brother failing in some way to lead a Christian life, he would say to himself, ‘Woe is me, him today and surely me tomorrow. Instead of expecting others to be different, we expect ourselves to be no better, but even worse, if we fail to repent. And so repent we do.”  If our lives are focused on imitating Christ by loving others there is little room for self-centered thoughts about how much others love us in return. If Christ is our chief treasure, acquiring thirty pieces of silver for our own selfish desires is no longer a trade that interests us.

With all due respect to the interpretations of learned sociologists, I would like to point out that some of the most joyful people I have encountered are hermits and others who have very little human contact and certainly not much money.  Yet, their lives are fabulously rich and exude a gentle tranquility that can only come from a vibrant interior life built on the ancient ascetical practices of prayer and self-sacrificial love that lead to communion with God.  In another post on “Loneliness and Monasticism” I recalled the words of Saint Herman when he was asked if he ever became lonely.  He replied, “No, I am not alone there. God is there, as God is everywhere.” His answer suggests not only a qualitative difference in sensitivity to God’s presence on the part of the old monk, but also the fulfillment of a deeper purpose in the Saint’s presence on a cold, lonely island off the Gulf of Alaska. Referring to Christ’s frequent retreats into the wilderness, Saint John Chrysostom wrote, “For what purpose does He go up into the mountain? To teach us, that loneliness and solitude are good, when we use them to pray to God.” (Commentary on Matthew, 50.1 PG 58.503, [translation mine]).

Loneliness, depression, and despair are not caused by life’s circumstances.  Rather, it is the meaning to which we assign life’s events that may lead to these unfortunate states. This is the Good News of the Gospel.  Even though the ups and downs of daily life are often quite beyond our control, the manner in which we view the turbulent seas of everyday life are in our control.  If we are experiencing difficulty with loneliness and despair, we have spiritual tools by which these feelings may be overcome through God’s grace and our own effort.  There may be circumstances when a trusted counselor may be helpful in reassigning meaning to the circumstances of life.  In last week’s post on the Resurrection of Christ, I quoted Elder Porphyrios.  Let us strive to make his words the context in which we give meaning to every circumstance in life. “Now there is no more chaos, no more death, no more slaying, no more Hell. Now everything is joy, thanks to the resurrection of our Christ. Human nature is resurrected with Him. Now we too can rise again that we might live with Him eternally … What bliss is contained in the Resurrection! In every sorrow, with every failure, in anything that causes you pain, collect yourself for half a minute and slowly say this hymn. Then, you will see that the most important thing in your life and in the life of the entire universe has already been accomplished with the resurrection of Christ. It is our salvation. And then, you realize that all our setbacks are so insignificant, that you don’t need to allow them to spoil your mood.”

The ultimate problem is not friends or money, but the presence or absence of a living connection with Christ through whom every Christian soul who genuinely follows Him is already victorious.

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