The Suicide Wave

Philosopher William James had a solution

Mitch Horowitz
Jun 25, 2018 · 6 min read
A young William James.

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After back-to-back suicides this month — first by fashion designer Kate Spade and then travelogue chef Anthony Bourdain — social observers and news outlets again wondered if our nation is facing an unacknowledged suicide epidemic.

“Treatment for chronic depression and anxiety — often the precursors to suicide — has never been more available and more widespread,” the New York Times noted in June. “Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week reported a steady, stubborn rise in the national suicide rate, up 25 percent since 1999.”

America has been here before. In the mid-1890s, authorities puzzled over a “suicide craze” among young men. Then, as today, the suicide index may point to a crisis in social and individual purpose. Philosopher William James (1842–1910) thought so—the psychologist struggled with depression himself — and in response wrote his 1895 lecture and essay, “Is Life Worth Living?

James argued that we urgently need philosophies of individual purpose and intention to counter the impulse that life is not worth living. He was right. Even today we see that social policy and pharmacology—vital as they are—are not enough to stem the tide of emotional turmoil. As individuals and as a nation, we must rediscover James’ insights. They can save lives.

Fighting Evil

“Need and struggle,” James wrote, “are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.” We are never so strong as when we are actively striving — it is actually the arrival and completion of an aim that seem to deplete our psyche and invite ennui. James’ solution? Continual struggle toward worthy ends: “The history of our own race is one long commentary on the cheerfulness that comes with fighting ills.” Don’t read that in an overly narrow way: Your definition of “fighting ills” may be intimate, such as going through addiction recovery or a personal philosophical experiment. Or it may be public, such as engaging in activism, military or civic service, or starting a constructive business.

The determination is yours, but the message is clear: Fighting evil, however you define it, is vivifying. “Life is worth living,” James wrote, “no matter what it brings, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat.” Working to conquer a problem or ill is the most vital part of living.

Reward Anticipation

The Victorian age in which James wrote was marked by humanity’s newfound understanding of the evolutionary, natural, and biological causes of life. This did not mean abandonment of religion, but it did mean that the doctor, minister, or philosopher had to recognize the individual as part of the natural processes of the world. This awareness liberated people to see their individual lives in their hands. You could, James counseled, take your own life at any time — and that realization itself provides a sense of self-determination: You are not at the mercy of unknowable forces, but you are their final arbiter. Hence, James reasoned, “[W]e can always stand it for twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what to-morrow’s newspaper will contain, or what the next postman will bring.”

As much as we are victims of repetition and tragedy, we are also, in the course of time, recipients of radically unexpected good news. The miraculous is as much a part of life as the catastrophic. This is lawful. It is not fanciful to wait for welcome and dramatic turns of events; it is practical.

Personal Achievement

James noted that we should never underestimate the need to preserve a sense of personal honor and self-agency. A friend of mine was recently depressed when a book he wrote failed to live up to sales expectations. Rather than search for some vaguely Eastern form of “nonattachment” or opt for an amorphous search for inner meaning — which can be especially difficult for Westerners (something I consider in my upcoming book, The Miracle Club) — why not throw yourself anew into effort and striving? Does that sound like a corrupted ethic for forever racing on the gerbil wheel of receding achievement? It is not. I specifically question the hallowed expression “no one on his deathbed wishes he had spent more time at the office.” Actually, I believe some people find a deep-seated sense of purpose not only at the office, depending on their work, but also the studio, stage, martial arts mat, writer’s desk, and so on.

I don’t think it helps a disappointed person to discourage his or her return to the workbench; sometimes the workbench is the answer itself. Many people experience a sense of self-realization in entrepreneurship, artistry, and the professions. James grasped this. Too few spiritual thinkers do today.

Independent Prayer

“I confess,” James wrote, “that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.”

I strongly believe in the power of prayer, devotion, and worship to ease the grip of emotional anguish. When engaging in devotional practices, throw away the rulebook. Pray however you want to whatever Greater Power you can bring yourself to believe in — even to ethics and rationality. The very act of fealty, James wrote, may serve to increase the presence of productive forces in your life — forces that may direct you to a sought-after answer, insight, sense of personal possibility, and perhaps something more. (The book Alcoholics Anonymous is especially helpful in this regard.)

Childhood conventions or established practices be damned; use James’ injunction in the most personal sense. “It is a fact of human nature,” he wrote, “that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without dogma or definition.”

Escaping Cruel People

In his letters, James noted that “the deepest principle of Human Nature
is the craving to be appreciated.” The absence of respect and appreciation — and the private toll taken at work and at home by bullies, smart-mouths, gossips, and passive-aggressive creeps — can drive you toward desperation. Indeed, the agonies inflicted by cruel or manipulative people represent an unacknowledged psychosocial crisis; I am convinced this is a factor in despair and suicide.

My heartfelt advice: Cut cruel people out of your life, and burn your bridges behind you. Even if you cannot immediately get away from a destructive personality, begin by doing so as an inner principle. Vow internally to separate as an emotional fact, and then remove yourself from physical proximity at the soonest possible moment. Remember: James called recognition and respect “the deepest principle of Human Nature.” Cut ties with those who will not honor it.

D-Day Approach

James was radically ecumenical in outlook. As I observed in my essay “Depression and Metaphysics,” take no method, practice, or idea off the table when combatting depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. We are too quick to accept boundaries and limitations in our therapeutic or spiritual search. There exists no reason why you cannot combine spirituality, such as prayer and meditation, with traditional psychopharmacological methods and other forms of talk or cognitive therapy. Take a “Day-D approach”: Throw everything you’ve got at your problem. Listen to no one who insists that one approach precludes another. I know many people who have benefited from a pastiche of drugs, therapy, and the spiritual search, as I have personally.

This is your D-Day — deploy all your resources, and command them like a general. “Be not afraid of life,” James concluded in his 1895 essay. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

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