I have been asked no fewer than three times to post this article from the blog Ancient Christian Wisdom entitled "Divergent Interpretations of the Same Statistics: Differing Suggestions from Christianity and Sociology." I have acceded below. It is a fine post and well worth reading. Please do give the blog a read, too, as it is worth following.
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.
While 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.