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Something To Look Forward To

Web posted on March 10, 2017

Hey Jude!

Suicide has been much in the news in recent months, especially stories about First Nations youth, and also stories about PTSD sufferers from the war in Afghanistan, the latter sometimes involving the death of family members as "collateral damage".

One often wonders whether troubling incidents of this sort are really on the rise, or whether the media are just reporting more of them. In the case of suicides, I suspect that we really are seeing an increase. The same seems true of recent types of narcotic abuse. That is entirely consistent with the secularizing of Canadian culture and the passing of legislation that, seeking to affirm freedom of religion, actually promotes freedom from religion.

Now, lest I seem to trivialize a serious matter, let me acknowledge that suicide and abusive and self-abusive behaviors often involve psycho-social-medical factors that are beyond my ken. So I am constrained not to indulge in simplistic ideas about why people in pain (whether literally or metaphorically) commit acts of desperation. But that does not preclude the need to say something about the spiritual dimension of such problems.

When friends are approaching retirement I often remind them that they need to retire to something as well as from something. That's because having a purpose is what keeps us going. Not just a purpose, but a purpose that we perceive as worthwhile. And with a reasonable hope of achieving it.

A purpose that we think worthwhile and achievable - that, along with valued relationships, is how most of us define who we are. In the normal course of things, those are what make life worth living.

But suicide doesn't happen "in the normal course of things". Neither do divorce, abuse, addiction, poverty.... They're all too frequent, to be sure, but not "normal" - not the way things are supposed to be. When a soldier spends a six-month "tour" overseas, killing and seeing people killed, that's enough to mess his or her head - because that's not the way things are supposed to be. When a parent whom one has looked up to, who has been held up as an exemplar, abandons the family for a new spouse, that can mess a kid's head - because that's not the way things are supposed to be. When there's no work in the community, nothing to do but drink, make out, toke up, commit acts of vandalism, and try to avoid being abused - that messes people's heads. Because we know in our gut that it's not the way things are supposed to be.

When the things that make life worth living begin to fall apart, and hopelessness and depression set in, where do we find the will to continue? Indeed, to continue what? More of the same? More of the pain?

The heart of the matter was expressed to me recently by a young friend who works with seniors as a personal support worker. She was saying how important it is for her clients, even as they approach the end of life, to have goals capable of fulfillment - from big things like a son or daughter to carry on a family business, to trivial things like a jigsaw puzzle that they are able to complete, perhaps in cooperation with others. What matters, she said, is simply that "They have to have something to look forward to."

But when we feel trapped in a life that's going nowhere - without friends or family, without purposeful activity, plagued by "demons" of mind or body, where do we find "something to look forward to"? I understand, at least somewhat, that life on "civvy street" can feel almost pointless after a highly focused tour of military service.

Joseph Gold, a professor at the University of Waterloo, wrote a book titled Read For Your Life (2001), in which he quipped that God created people because He likes stories. That makes sense in the context of Emily Esfahani Smith's recent book The Power of Meaning (2017), in which she makes the case (as does Professor Gold) that in addition to having a sense of belonging, purpose, and transcendence, one also needs a "narrative" to give one's life "coherence".

"Some historians," as Arnold Toynbee noted, "hold that history... is just one damned thing after another." But "one damned thing after another" does not give life meaning. Coherence requires more than mere sequence; it requires meaningful progression towards a realistically attainable goal. Like the plot of a story.

That's exactly what Jesus offers us in the gospel: a story that includes us, a goal that is no less attainable when life gets difficult, nor even when it draws to an end. A goal called the Kingdom of God. A new heavens and a new earth. Something to look forward to. Something to sustain us - not merely to the end, but beyond the end.

Those who opt out of life do so, I suspect, because they no longer see their lives as part of a larger and meaningful story. In many cases they never have seen their lives as part of such a story. Whether we're thinking of soldiers, First Nations youth, addicts, street kids, or bright high school students coping with cyber bullying, the problem at root is the same - we Canadians have created a secular culture that "protects" our brightest and best from religion.

No more church parades in the military. No more Bible reading, Lord's Prayer, or even National Anthem at the start of the school day. No more distribution of Gideon Bibles to students. No parental reinforcement of religious ideals. And no alternative to fill the psycho-spiritual-philosophical vacuum that our egalitarian Canadian democracy has created.

Is it any wonder that people who discover life to be "brutal, nasty, and short" have no resources, no ideology, no hope to help them cope, other than pulling the plug, or the trigger?


Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St. Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at nm@bbs42.net. Also check out stjudeguelph.ca and Rev Robert on Facebook
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