Let’s begin with a story. It’s midweek, and I’m pressed against the window of my bus–nauseated in the heat, caught in the high-pollution throes of midday Medellín. I’m on my way to teach my second class of the day, after an interim in which I struggled to keep from crying while I waited on breakfast to cook. You’re just tired, M. I told myself. You’re just hungry, too. The body needs so much maintenance even on good days… and my last few had not been good days. Everywhere I went, my heart had been hurting with something painful I’d been told the week prior, something steadily undoing the knots on a great body of facts and observations I’d stitched into a story that had given me hope.
So there I was on the bus, tired and heavyhearted but with food in my belly, when the vehicle halted at an intersection where a group of Venezuelan youth were on break from their labours, squeegees propped to one side. One had a little jar of Nutella and a bag of bread, and at first I thought he was hoarding both–for how intensely he dipped one slice, trying to gather up as much of the spread as he could while the others waited their turn.
Fair enough, I thought. Life is hard. Take all you can get.
But once he’d retrieved his well-laden slice, he stretched across the concrete, whistling for a young man, half asleep on his perch in the shade, to take it. The first had gone to all that effort, sheltering the bread and the jar from the waiting rest, to make sure his drowsing mate got his fair share. And of course, the reminder in this episode hit home at once: what you have matters less than what you do with it. But how extraordinary, too, that such stories play out every day in the secular world–a world where there is no magical multiplying of fishes and loaves; where for most of us the miracle must exist in the sacrifice of what little we have, if it’s to exist at all.
Now, in a truly satisfying tale, my heart would have been uplifted by this scene. But it wasn’t. If anything, I felt profound discomfort at the sight of so much perseverance in far harder circumstances than my own. I’ve written before about the uncomfortable question of what makes a life worth living, what makes life of value… because I don’t see intrinsic value in the struggle. For me, all of life’s value is constructed, and routinely needs to be constructed largely through our stories. And so I look at scenes like this one and I wonder to myself, could I do it? Could I keep going if that was all I had?
And I don’t know. I well and truly don’t.
The “Bad” Secular Humanist, Religion, and Suicide
I’ve written about the cyclicality of suicidal ideation in my life, and how defeating that behaviour pattern is. I wish I were otherwise. I cling to the joyous parts of my existence with tremendous gratitude every time I survive the periods when everything hurts too much to think clearly. But in those low periods I’m especially frustrated by a sense of failure to be a “good” secular person. To be relentless proof that a frank acknowledgment of our indifferent cosmos is conducive to human thriving.
And yes, that’s silly, I know. It’s not just that I have bipolar-II’s significantly high suicidal-attempt and -completion rates to contend with; or that, statistically, bisexual female persons such as myself have scored higher for suicidal attempts than other orientation demographics. And it’s not just that I’m living alone in a non-native country, where the promise of improved community comes and agonizingly goes. (After all, solitary older male persons have it harder).
It’s also the fact that ties between religious belief and improved mental health for persons with mood disorders are dubious at best. In a 2016 study titled “Religion as a risk factor for suicide attempt and suicide ideation among depressed patients”, authors articulated surprise in finding a strong correlation between religious affiliation and suicide attempts, and no correlation whatsoever between religious frequency/importance and the same. Quite wisely, far from suggesting that their results were definitive, the authors also made clear that this data belonged to a full and muddy spectrum of positive, negative, and neutral relations between religion and mental health. Specifically:
The relationship between religion and suicide risk has been an important research question from the earliest days of suicide research.(Durkheim 1897/2010) Over the past ten years, research on this question has produced mixed results. Some studies have reported that rates of suicide attempt and suicidal ideation are lower among persons who have a religious affiliation, (REFERENCE REMOVED, Kukoyi, Shuaib et al. 2010, Dervic, Carballo et al. 2011, Kralovec, Fartacek et al. 2012, Spencer, Ray et al. 2012, Carli, Mandelli et al. 2014) those who attend religious services more frequently,(Kaslow, Price et al. 2004, Blackmore, Munce et al. 2008, Rasic, Belik et al. 2009, Robins and Fiske 2009, Taliaferro, Rienzo et al. 2009, Sisask, Varnik et al. 2010, Rasic, Kisely et al. 2011, Rasic, Robinson et al. 2011, Taylor, Chatters et al. 2011, Caribe, Nunez et al. 2012, Hoffman and Marsiglia 2012, Langille, Asbridge et al. 2012, Nkansah-Amankra, Diedhiou et al. 2012, Robinson, Bolton et al. 2012, Rushing, Corsentino et al. 2013) and those who say religion is important in their lives.(Albert, Rabkin et al. 2005, Rasic, Kisely et al. 2011) However, these findings exist alongside a large number of studies finding no relationship between religion and suicide risk,(Nonnemaker, McNeely et al. 2003, Birkholz, Gibson et al. 2004, Tran Thi Thanh, Tran et al. 2006, Zhang, Jia et al. 2006, Huguelet, Mohr et al. 2007, Chatters, Taylor et al. 2011, Young, Riordan et al. 2011, Hamdan, Melhem et al. 2012, Le, Nguyen et al. 2012, Stroppa and Moreira-Almeida 2013) and a few studies suggesting religious characteristics can sometimes be a risk factor.(Zhang and Xu 2007, Mihaljevic, Aukst-Margetic et al. 2012, Stratta, Capanna et al. 2012, Xie, Chen et al. 2012, Zhao, Yang et al. 2012) Importantly most of these studies did not assess clinical samples, and only four explicitly enrolled persons with mood disorders.(REFERENCE REMOVED, REFERENCE REMOVED, Rushing, Corsentino et al. 2013, Stroppa and Moreira-Almeida 2013) This leaves unanswered questions not only about the relationship between religion and suicide risk, but more specifically about that relationship for adults suffering with depression.
Who are all these thoroughly immersed people? It varies.
Obviously, many people who have an abundance of material stability will have more confidence in their stories.
But some, I’m sure, will not.
And some of the people I’ve seen shitting into viaducts are thoroughly immersed in their stories, too.
But some, of course, do not.
It’s not the nature of the story, per se, that creates this clarity. So what, then, could it be?
Killing Time in the Cosmos
At my best, I remember that I and 7.7 billion people are bearing witness to an indifferent cosmos, and that each fleeting burst of consciousness, coming before and after whole eternities of silence, is an extraordinary event unto itself.
But at my best, I also remember that all our storytelling is just… one aspect of being human. It’s the chatter that allows us to kill time in the cosmos, and to do this so splendidly, perhaps, that others will be charmed, provoked, and transformed by our presence while any of us still means a darned thing to our fellow human beings.
Meanwhile, when my vagus nerve pain is highest, there are other aspects of being human that perhaps matter more. Eating well, for sure. Resting. Exercising. Maintaining the nuisance physicality of my personhood.
And most of all, being part of a community. Feeling like part of a community–for I never feel so tired, so completely hopeless, as when I feel I lack a clear and meaningful way to contribute to other lives, and particularly lives I care for personally.
It’s no wonder, then, that many people will throw themselves at such times headlong into any story that will provide them with a sense of community, and fill this fundamental mammalian-species desire to belong.
Indeed, from that perspective, perhaps there is something fundamentally at odds with thriving in me, for I will not take up such lies simply in the hope of feeling better. I will instead face the hard truth, say, that I have followed the wrong body of evidence for many years, rather than double down on sunk cost fallacy.
I did as much when I walked away from my PhD two dissertation-drafts into the process, after realizing how profound a disconnect I had in my committee.
I did as much when I left Canada, after realizing what my struggle would continue to look like in that socioeconomic climate, with the mess of a personal and familial life I had as well.
And now I have to do as much in Colombia, which–admittedly–is hard. It’s painful. It leaves me so tired of starting over, and so sick of my own stories of self in the interim, that I know I have to weather the physical storm of my grief awhile before the work of rebuilding can truly start anew.
But am I a “bad” secular person for my lack of unwavering drive to exist? A hypocrite for championing the need for better secular storytelling, when my own stories sometimes leave a taste of ash in the mouth?
Maybe. But I’d rather be an honest failure just as I am–a human being of fleeting relevance in the cosmos–than one who, in struggling for a greater sense of purpose, allows any wilder storytelling to occlude the fact that sometimes, in some physical states, the story itself doesn’t matter. All we fragile critters really need is presence. The company of caring people. The knowledge that we in our struggle are not, in fact, alone.
(And maybe, if it’s on offer, a slice of bread with chocolate, too.)
So on this day of pointed celebration–as on every day, fellow humanists of every stripe–reach out, won’t you, to those in your own necks of the woods who might benefit from the same? And I promise, I’ll be trying my best to focus on the same here in my own.
Un fuerte abrazo para todos, de esta humanista muy extraña en Medellín.
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviours, don’t hesitate to reach out. Here are two international contacts you can always use in times of need. There are, of course, many national lines in the US, the UK, and Canada as well.
IMAlive (International Online Chat Service)
International Association for Suicide Prevention (Global Crisis Centre List)