March 11, 2023
My discipline, sociology, really begins with an interest in suicide. French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s (1858 – 1917) pioneering 1897 publication, Le Suicide, looked to find macro-level patterns in the very micro-level act of suicide. He conducted what many believed was the first sociological research project to find some evidence of his theory. Looking at the suicide statistics from numerous countries, he formulated the concept of anomie, a sense of normlessness. Durkheim used anomie to explain why Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics and I’ve used it a great deal in this blog to explain white supremacy and the rise of Trump.
Durkheim identified four types of suicide that were present in his late nineteenth century world; Anomic suicide – When the moral chaos of a society undermines our social integration. This often is the the case when there is rapid social change. Altruistic suicide – When the individual is overwhelmed by their duty to the group. Think of a soldier throwing their body onto a hand grenade to save others. Egoistic suicide – When the individual is not fully integrated into their social group. This is death by isolation. And fatalistic suicide – the opposite of anomic suicide, when an individual is overly regulated by their group. Think of an inmate hanging themselves because prison life is too structured.
All those types still make sense in the COVID era. We’ve seen an increase in suicide rates in the 2020s. There was an 8% jump in suicide by males 15-24 from 2020 to 2021. Much of that could be anomic suicide do to the insanity and confusion (and downward mobility) of life in a pandemic. 2020 counted 45,979 suicides and 2021 the number was 47,646 suicide deaths. People are hurting. Young people, veteran people, mom people, BIPOC people, cop people, old people. Pretty much everyone.
But Durkheim’s typology may have left out a growing category, what I will call the F.U. suicide. Literature is littered with Romeos and Juliets whose suicides may be the last act of heartbroken lovers but they are also intended to be a big middle finger to the Montagues and Capulets of the world. A recent study in India found that suicides by jilted young lovers rocketed up 11% in 2021. The angry suicide is a monster and is best seen in mass shooters who want to take their hurt out on as many people as possible. Mass shootings are almost always acts of suicide, with multiple casualties.
I’ve written much about my struggles with suicide here (typically using it as an opportunity to flog my novel on the subject, The Mission of the Sacred Heart). The first moment was about age 15 when I stood on the edge of a lake in Stone Mountain, Georgia, thinking that hurling myself into the water would be an escape from the chaos of my family. (The lake was really a large pond that probably was only about 3 feet deep.) Then there was me at 23 standing on Pont Neuf in Paris, planning on throwing myself into the Seine after a hard break up with my Danish girlfriend. That wasn’t the last time I would contemplate the big leap.
On reflection, each of those moments was not about anomie or fatalism. It was conceived as an act to hurt someone. “Look what you did to me! Now live with it!” One would hope that those hurt by that kind of action would just think, “God, what a dumbass.” But I’m sure there are those who would cary the pain of that loss with them. I have no doubt Courtney Love is still a wreck from Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
But there is a glitch in the F.U. suicide. The idea is that after you’ve blown your brains out, Dead You will be able to see the people you wanted hurt and have the last laugh. “Look at them crying. They should have appreciated me when I was alive!” Like there is some viewing room in Limbo, the same one where you get to see who shows up at your funeral. What if death is, in fact, the end? Lights out. Non-existence.
When I was teaching in grad school I had a community college student ask, “Mr. Randy, don’t you believe in life after death?” As an agnostic, I said, “I don’t know and neither to you.” But another student asked the class, “What do you remember from before you were born?” Silence. “That’s what it’s like when you’re dead,” she said. Boom.
It seems like atheism is a great buffer to suicide. This is it. This life on earth is your one shot at existence. You don’t get to watch life after you from Valhalla or wherever. You won’t have the last laugh because you won’t be. So say F.U. here on earth by living an amazing life in spite of the people who broke your heart.