A recent analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the suicide rate in the U.S. increased dramatically from 2008 to 2010. CBS News reports that the rate has jumped by almost 50 percent for people in their 50s since 1999. During the same time period there was a 60 percent rise for women between ages 60 and 64.
This comes at a time when the suicide rate among current and former military personnel has skyrocketed, prompting President Barack Obama to describe it as an "epidemic." CNN reported in September that as many as 22 veterans take their lives every day.
As disturbing as these statistics are, the reality is probably worse than they suggest. Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates, has publicly stated that the statistics are "vastly underreported."
Experts point to the 2008 economic downturn to explain this disturbing trend. But while there certainly seems to be a correlation, people do not take their lives because they've lost a job or even because they've lost their retirement savings. They take their lives because they've lost their hope. We are in the midst of an epidemic of hopelessness.
Hopelessness is not primarily an economic condition. It is a spiritual one. It is not caused by instability in the stock market but by despair in the soul. And the conditions are right for hopelessness to spread across Western society.
Aldous Huxley, best known for his novel "Brave New World," once wrote, "Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape ... is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul." Seeing the same reality, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, after achieving enormous popularity and amassing great wealth, went through a long period of despair. He asked, "Why do I live?" The answer he got, while lacking the technical terms employed by today's specialists in the physical sciences, is for all intents and purposes the same answer: "In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of those mutations of form you will understand why you live on the earth."
The world Tolstoy described — the same world described in updated language by Stephen Hawking and others — is a purely material world, a world void of spirit and therefore void of God. In such a world hopelessness is pandemic for its residents are, as St. Paul put it, "without hope and without God in the world."
In a world like this — where meaning is not resident but transient — hopelessness spreads faster than a cold virus in a kindergarten classroom. People who don't even know they've caught it nevertheless suffer its devastating consequences. It's true they don't say to themselves, "I live in an existentially meaningless world." What they say is, "I just can't take it anymore."
Page 2 of 2 - A significant reversal of the trend toward despair will not happen because of an upturn in the economy but because of a return to God and a realistically spiritual worldview. For if we are spiritual beings - as Jesus taught and the great religious teachers and philosophers believed - then ignoring the spiritual will have serious consequences, chief of which is despair.
Recognizing and accepting the fact that we are spiritual beings living in a spiritual world is the only lasting cure for hopelessness. Life must have meaning; slogans and catchphrases, which are the currency of communication in a meaningless world, will never do.
Jesus invited us into a world ruled by a good and loving God, and is prepared to help us learn how to live and thrive in it. We enter this world through our confidence in him, which the Bible calls faith. And those who enter it leave hopelessness at the door.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Mich. Read more at shaynelooper.com.