Middle-Aged Hopelessness

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Middle-Aged Hopelessness

“Suicide,” notes the New York Times, “has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.”

As the May 3 "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported, the suicide rate for people between 35 and 64 rose by 28.4 percent from 1999 to 2010. “The most pronounced increases,” the Times went on, “were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent. … For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent…”

CDC deputy director Ileana Arias was quoted saying, “There may be something about that group [the baby boomers], and how they think about life issues and their life choices that make a difference.”

For example, it may be due to the financial situation in which we find ourselves. Boomers have been called the “sandwich generation” with adult children who are still dependent on us along and elderly parents who are also dependent on us. Time, money, emotional energy, and worry are flowing both directions. It’s exhausting — and depressing.

In addition, baby boomers are caught in the “Great Recession.” Extended unemployment or underemployment, mortgages for homes that have lost much of their value, and diminished savings in a bad economy with little hope for relief can bring about depression, despair, and even thoughts of suicide.

While past generations have faced economic hardship without a spike in suicides, as Rutgers University sociologist Julie Phillips told the Times, “The boomers had great expectations for what their life might be like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way.”

Of course, we didn’t need a professor to sociology to tell us that. We had the Bellamy Brothers. In "Kids of the Baby Boom" they sang, “We all grew up on Mickey Mouse and hula hoops/Then we all bought BMWs and new pick-up trucks.” About our youth: “It was a time of new prosperity in the USA/All us fortunate offspring never had to pay.” And the chorus sums it up:

Kids of the baby boom, we had freedom, we had money

Baby boom, here in the land of milk and honey

Counting our chickens way too soon

Kids of the baby boom

We bought into unlimited progress and prosperity and grew up with sky-high expectations for ourselves and for the future. We knew we would be better off than our parents in a world getting better, richer, and more peaceful. But as Lisa Margonelli points out in the latest Pacific Standard:

Baby boomers aren’t going to retire the way their parents did. They are poorer and more likely to live alone. They can’t depend on pensions, and the real-estate bubble destroyed almost 50 percent of their wealth. Today one in six seniors lives in poverty, and that proportion is rising; the generation of Americans now facing retirement is so financially ill prepared that half of them have less than $10,000 in the bank.

Suicide can seem like a good solution unless we’re willing to confront two heresies.

Heresy #1: Unlimited progress and prosperity. The past hundred years have brought startling progress and prosperity and there is not good reason for believing that wealth can’t continue to grow worldwide. At the same time, we’re confronted with human greed, stupidity, and the desire to dominate others. Sin limits and even destroys human flourishing. This world remains the place “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). Believing otherwise sets us up for disappointment.

Heresy #2: Suffering — physical, emotional, or financial — has no value and must be avoided at all costs. “There’s no point in suffering,” my friend’s oncologist tells her as he offers her yet another pain pill. She keeps refusing based on his premise. Suffering does have a point. The Christian’s suffering is redemptive because it is mystically connected with Christ’s suffering on the cross (Colossians 1:24). We never endure “meaningless” suffering. Believing otherwise sets us up to be crushed.

As kids of the baby boom, we don’t want to believe that. As Daffy Duck put it during our formative years, “I’m not like other people. I can’t stand pain. It hurts me.” Suffering then becomes an excuse for ending it all either by suicide or by disengaging even if we keep breathing.

The sooner we can get over our daffy heresies about progress and suffering the better. We’ll be emotionally and physically healthier and we can get on with the work of being witnesses to the love of God and his providential care in a generation that has lost hope.