I know why a person commits suicide. Regardless of their situation or their circumstances, there is a single thread that runs through them all.
The Centers for Disease Control released a study that concluded suicide rates have risen nearly 30% in the United States since 1999. Twenty-five states experienced increases of over 30%, and in all states except Nevada, suicide had increased in every age group. White middle-aged women had an increase of 80%.
Though the study mentions factors such as relationship problems or loss, life stressors such as work or school, and recent or impending crises, the one thread that exists across all spectrums is the loss of hope as a collective depression has settled in. As long as there is hope that the situation will pass, the pain will lessen. If there is a belief that at some point in the future there will dawn a brighter day, there exists a lifeline that helps individuals place one foot in front of the other. But when all hope is lost and they cannot see their situation improving, there can exist a feeling that there is no sense in carrying on.
With the stock market crash of 1929 came headlines that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of” and lower Broadway was clogged with corpses. (The Washington Post, Bennett Lowenthal, October 25, 1987) But that actually was not the case, as the referenced article points out. From Black Thursday through the end of 1929, the New York Times reported 100 suicides and attempted suicides. It would take until 1932 for the suicide rate to peak with 17.4 out of every 100,000 Americans. On July 8, 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average bottomed out at 41.22, the lowest since the Great Depression began. The unemployment rate was 23.6%. The Dust Bowl had been going on since 1930 and would continue for four more years. It was against this backdrop that The Grapes of Wrath took place, as John Steinbeck tells of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, a family evicted from their home and their struggles to survive.
Those that did commit suicide when they first learned that their money was gone might have thought they could not recover from the financial loss. Perhaps when they looked ahead, they saw in their mind’s eye only food lines, unemployment and a persistent want. By 1932, more people were beginning to see only a bleak future ahead as the Great Depression wore on. By that time, up to two million Americans were homeless, many evicted from their homes and others surviving in shantytowns called Hoovervilles, vividly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath, and described by Steinbeck as “...in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
But if the Dust Bowl continued for four more years and the Great Depression did not subside until 1939, why did the suicide rate go down after 1932? Perhaps one argument could be made for the change in government; Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected by a landslide (472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59), largely because of his plans to pull the country out of the Depression, partly with his New Deal. His plan, considered radical at the time, gave hope to millions. FDR spoke to the hearts of millions when he said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
On January 20, 1989, George H. W. Bush said this during his inaugural address:
“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.” (Bartleby)
When you consider each one of us as a point of light, contributing to the collective good for all mankind and our planet, you begin to understand exactly what Bush was referring to. No one person has all the knowledge of the Universe, but collectively each of us can lend our knowledge, our time, our commitment to the causes we are most passionate about, leading to the best version of Utopia we human beings can attain. Just like a single grain of sand cannot create a beach but billions of them can, each of us can contribute what we are capable of for the collective good.
It is time for every American to decide what they want for the future; not only their personal future but that of their children, their grandchildren, the country and the world. On one hand, we are faced with people who advocate hatred, bigotry and disregard for human life—disregard for any of God’s creatures that do not look like them, sound like them, vote like them, pray like them or act like them. If we were to continue on this path, the United States of America would be turning away from the dreams and plans of the Founding Fathers. Once we start down that road and we move beyond a certain point, we shape our country into one filled with hatred, distrust of neighbors, suspicion, intolerance and disregard for basic human rights. One man or one group will not be able to harness that monster but it will grow larger and uglier with successive generations.
But today we have the ability to turn this around and project the hope that a thousand points of light can bring. While one person cannot do it all, one person can contribute what they can to promote tolerance, inclusiveness, love and respect for those within their sphere. If we lift up those we can, it creates a ripple effect of greater and greater circles until the country once again symbolizes the hope for all mankind. I do not recall who said it first: that the only thing we must remain intolerant of is intolerance.
We can look to our own personal values, however deep we must dive, to show the better side of being a human being and not its worst. And in focusing on becoming one point of light, we can make things better for those we come in contact with. We can give hope back to the masses. And once we restore hope, I’d wager that suicide rates will go down.
Be the light for someone else.
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