From 13 Reasons Why to S-Town, the topic of suicide is fast becoming a mainstay in popular culture. 13 Reasons Why offers a particularly robust challenge to the carefree individualism that frequently characterizes our thinking. But why are we so preoccupied with self-destruction in the first place? After all, we’re healthier, more connected, and more comfortable than we’ve ever been. Why does our cultural moment seem so very sad? In the final episode in this series, we consider the Christian response to cultural despair.
Listen on iTunes or Google Play Music.
Follow Cameron on Twitter:
If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Want to listen to this later?
Note: Vital Signs is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs Podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Well, this is the concluding episode in a series that we've been doing that I've called, Is Opting Out an Option? Hope Beyond the Narrow Confines of the Self. This has been a pretty sobering series, but I think we need to talk about why our cultural moment is not just very volatile and angry, but very sad, deeply sad. So we've been talking about opting out and opting out is synonymous with suicide. I chose not to put suicide into the title because I thought that just sounded a little bit sensationalistic and I think a bit distracting, but we're talking about why so many people, particularly young men and women feel so sad and empty and there's so much pain. And I have said throughout the course of this series that a huge factor, two huge factors in this phenomenon are comfort.
The fact that we're more comfortable than ever and the idea of expressive individualism. On the one hand, the fact that we're more comfortable than ever has led us to believe that one of the most important priorities in life is to maximize our own pleasure and comfort and to make life really convenient and easy and that that's a reasonable expectation. And then on the other hand, that we need to pursue our own private dreams and wishes and that we are largely responsible for that on our own and that so long as we're not hurting anybody else, we can keep pursuing our dreams and our own hopes and wants and wishes, and that will give us fulfillment and satisfaction. I've argued that both of those assumptions are wrong because life is never going to remain comfortable. If personal comfort and convenience are elevated so highly, we've got a problem because we're mortal human beings and life is filled with pain and it's just not going to remain a feasible option.
At a certain point, even the distractions and we have at our disposal so many distractions available to us. At a certain point the distractions won't be sufficient and they won't work and both of these assumptions I've argued the idea that comfort is a priority, personal comfort and the idea that your own individual wants and wishes and pursuits should take top priority as well, that you're responsible for them on your own. This leads to this reduction of life as nothing more than a set of options and so now we approach very important and critical decisions about how we're going to lead our lives as just with really the guiding question of whether this fits my personality, whether I like this, we choose it almost like we choose an outfit or almost like we choose a movie from a streaming service, whether that's religion or some cases even something as drastic as our biological makeup and our gender.
Now this is a very radical new way of looking at who we are as people and looking at identity and I think that what we are seeing is that it is not working. I brought this question up in the last episode, but if you look at the United States right now, can you honestly say that we seem to be as a nation in a healthy state of mind right now? Can you look at events around the country? Can you look at politics? Can you look at public discourse? Can you look at family life and say that we're in a healthy state of mind as a nation? I think it's pretty obvious that we're not, and I think if you look at rising suicide rates, and if you look at this growing sense of loneliness and isolation, even in the midst of a time where we are more connected than we have ever been, I think that points us to the fact that something somewhere is not right.
Something's not working. And I think a lot of it has to do with our assumptions and that major idea that we are isolated sort of atomistic individuals responsible completely and totally for our own wants and whims and wishes and that we go after that dream. Well, that simply doesn't work. We've been talking about the show, 13 Reasons Why. 13 Reasons Why illustrates the tension there. Because in that show we see that individual actions, people pursuing their own hopes and wants and wishes often that that pursuit leads them to neglect a person who desperately needs help and when that person in the show takes their own life, we see how important our obligations to other people are. Now that doesn't absolve the other person of the fact that they made their own decisions. This is not to put the victim up on the pedestal and say that the victim is always devoid of responsibility, far from it.
It is to acknowledge however, that what we do affects other people from our eating habits to the way we talk or don't talk to people. All of that affects people deeply. Why? Because the reality is we are relational beings, profoundly relational, and even if we've accomplished a lot, even if we've experienced astonishing success, well, let's humbly admit that that success has not been completely on our own strength. We've had help. We've had friends, we've had teachers, we've had employers, we've had people pour into us over the years who have helped to cultivate our gifts and helped to refine our talents. If we're teachable, that is and have helped to move us forward. Many people are colossally gifted. That's true, but that doesn't mean if you look at any accomplishment, you're going to see a whole trail of relationships behind it, whether people acknowledge it or not, and that's because we're relational beings.
You see, I think that scripture describes reality. I don't think the Bible is a collection of uplifting stories. In fact, it's not. Read the Old Testament. Read Matthew Chapter five which is very challenging. Read the book of Revelation. It's not all feel good. Trust me. How about the book of Ezekiel? Have you read judges. It's not all uplifting and it's not all easy stuff and it's not all children friendly stuff. It's tough stuff because I think the Bible describes reality. It's not just a collection of uplifting stories and inspirational verses. I think it actually describes the world we live in. And so here's two commands, love commands that sound inspirational, but actually I think they're born out in reality. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus lists these as the two most important commandments. He's actually asked to give the most important commandment. Why does he give two? Well, here's why. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself, unless you love God with all that you are. Why is that the case? Well, here's an argument I've been making repeatedly throughout this series. You are meant to belong to something more than the self. You are meant to be a part of something greater than just your own hopes and wishes. And this is where I submit to you. I would say human beings are natural born worshipers and I've drawn on the thought of David Foster Wallace here. He said in his commencement address at Kenyon College, "In the day to day affair trenches of adult life, there's no such thing as atheism. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." Side note, it's pretty fashionable nowadays in Wallace's scholarship to disparage this commencement address speech which is called This Is Water, and to say that this is light Wallace, that this is pop Wallace.
It doesn't really have a lot to do with his amazingly complex and powerful line of work. And I'm here to say actually I'm going to push back and say that's not true at all. If you read for instance Wallace's magnum opus, the massive, Infinite Jest, which is a wonderful book, one of my favorites, not for everybody, but I really do love it, you'll find this idea running like a thread the whole way through that book. And if you read that book, it's all about worship. It's all about what happens when we worship something that isn't true and what tends to happen is we tend to become addicted. We tend to become addicts because let's just follow some of the common practices in our culture. If you worship your body and being seen as beautiful, you end up aging is actually especially hard for you, but you end up so going after your own looks and your own beauty and these cosmetic considerations and you end up becoming so superficial that you can end up becoming empty and completely addicted to an image.
And this is where often celebrities become almost godlike icons in our culture because they come to represent this sort of ageless, immortal quality that we just long for and I'm drawing my thought here a little bit from a famous book called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, but, and so it leads us to drastic procedures and plastic surgery and all sorts of these different endeavors. Or how about if you just care so deeply about feeling pleasure and enjoying and maximizing pleasure that often leads to addiction, whether it's alcoholism or drugs or pornography and what often began as a pursuit of the good life ends in addiction and bondage. It's a sad irony of our day. Well, David Foster Wallace is going to argue in Infinite Jest and in that speech that these are simply misdirected forms of worship. Now here he sounds a lot like the church Father Augustine of Hippo.
And I think this is absolutely true. If you look at life, if you look at the way human beings actually behave from sports stadiums to concerts, to just their private lives, the things that they love, well those are the most, I think in many ways the most profound question you can ask a person is, "So what do you care about? What do you love? What are you passionate about? What are you excited about? What's your ultimate concern?" And that tells you a whole lot about who they actually are, what they actually value, what they're devoting and giving their lives to. If we are devoting and giving our lives to something less than God, I will suggest to you we are in for addiction and emptiness and ultimately despair.
That doesn't mean we don't always experience happiness in the everyday sense. We may have families and we may have a good career and a good job, but the long-term, deeper happiness of knowing that we are eternally loved and secure and that we belong to a heavenly father that is absent. And if you look at our culture, the rampant loneliness and fear and anxiety and depression and yes, swelling suicide rates confirm that we're not happy, that individualistic pursuits aren't cutting it, they aren't enough. Well, again, I submit to you this testifies to the reality. This corroborates the scriptural reality that I believe the Christian truth that you are made by God for God and if you're made by God for God, nothing less than God will satisfy you in the ultimate sense and so we need to be worshiping what is true. We need to be worshiping what is real. This is why the question of truth is so important when it comes to if we've prioritized happiness and personal comfort.
The major question is often, "Do I like this. Does it fit with my life? Do I find it compelling and beautiful?" Those are important questions, but the most important question is, is it true because after all, let's take Christianity. Are you going to follow Christianity because you think it'll make your life better, easier, happier, or are you going to follow it because it's true? After all, if it's true, it doesn't really matter if it makes your life better or easier or happier because ultimately it's empty and hollow. The only really compelling and authentic reason to follow Jesus Christ is if you actually believe Jesus Christ is Lord. That's why I think it's of critical importance to answer who he actually is. I've said this before on the podcast. If you want to answer the question, who am I? You need to first answer the question, who is Jesus?
Now that can sound a little Christianese and that might sound a little hokey, but here's why I think that's the case. In Colossians 3:3, this is just one of my favorite verses and I think it speaks so powerfully into our moment right now, our very sad cultural moment where people are breaking their hearts and breaking other people's hearts to try to figure out who they are. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:3 to believers, he's writing to Jesus's disciples. What's a disciple? A disciple is a person who is Jesus's apprentice. A person who has just said, "Jesus, you are my master. You are my Lord. Teach me how to live. Teach me how to be human." Here's what he says. He says, "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed in glory, then you will be revealed also, when Christ who is our life is revealed in glory, then you will be revealed also."
That's not a comfortable verse initially, because notice you have died, right? That's not a very inviting thing to be told. See, here's where I'm going to come to a juncture where I often do now and where I just say, If you're a nonbeliever, I hope you'll weigh very carefully what I'm saying, but I am not here to tell you that Christianity will make your life easier right now, that it will make it better. I am here to tell you that I firmly, I am firmly convinced that it's true and I'm also firmly convinced that with Christianity comes the promise of eternal happiness and bliss. We don't have that yet because we're waiting on Jesus to return and make all things new, but here's what I am going to tell you. Christianity involves self-sacrifice for everybody. Every single person who bows the knee to Jesus, we are told to die to ourselves and we are told to take up our cross.
Now, that is a profoundly countercultural message. It flies in the face of expressive individualism. It flies in the face of comfort and the maximization of comfort. It says the opposite. It says your wants and wishes. It's not that they're too strong. It's not that you're too passionate. It's not that you're too excitable. I'm going to quote Lewis here. It's that they're too weak, they're too small. This is what Lewis says. C.S Lewis says in his famous talk that he gave, which is now one of the best pieces of writing he gave called The Weight of Glory. It's not that our wants and wishes are too strong. They're too weak. You see, if you've tried to live for yourself and yourself alone, if you've maximized your own dreams and your own comfort to the exclusion of all else, you've probably found that life's pretty empty and lonely, and if you haven't found that yet, you will.
Why? Because you're a relational being and cut off from those networks of obligation and those relationships, most importantly from your creator. You'll be starved and you'll find that your wants and wishes are crushingly trivial and small and petty, and that you want something more. There's some nagging sense that there should be more. There's some nagging sense that no matter how much success you experience, there just seems to be this nagging, overwhelming sense that I need more. Maybe if I climb up one more rung on the corporate ladder, maybe if I have this relationship with this person, maybe that'll give me what I'm looking for. Spoiler alert, it won't, it won't. If you're only living for your own satisfaction and your own wants and whims and your own wishes, you are doomed to isolation, loneliness, and a sense of failure even when you're most successful.
In that sense, your success is actually going to make things worse because you'll get what you'll want. You'll find out that's not what you wanted in the first place, and that often leads to profound despair. This passage is saying the absolute opposite of maximizing your own wants and wishes and expressing yourself no matter what. It's saying, you need to die to yourself. Your own wants and wishes can't be top priority. You die to yourself and you give yourself completely to your creator. Why? Well, he invented you. He made you, he crafted you. He knit you in your mother's womb, to use the beautiful artistic language from the Psalms. So that means that Jesus Christ knows you better than anybody else does. He knows you better than you know yourself.
And yes, here's an offensive idea. He knows what's best for you, he does. In the same way, well in a roughly analogous way to a parent with a very small child. I have a small child right now, so this is fresh on my mind, but I know what's best for my son, Dylan. I do. And I know that many of the things that he wants to do, many of the sockets that he wants to explore with his little finger will do him profound harm. Now it makes him very upset when I deprive him of what he wants. But I know what's best for him and I want what's best for him. And I love him. And I know that his greater, larger, more holistic happiness is dependent upon me being responsible as a dad to him.
In a similar way, Jesus knows us and our heavenly father knows us as we truly are. And here's a really humble picture and I think it's an accurate one. The more I hold my little infant son in my hands and he's squirmed and he screams and sometimes he's laughing and sometimes he's delighted. The more I think, "Oh my goodness, that's me before God." Okay. We're often called in scripture, children of God. I'm a little squirming, helpless, dependent, messy baby. This is a very unflattering picture. There isn't even less flattering and picture in scripture when we were compared to sheep as well, which are not the most majestic or the most intelligent creatures, but totally dependent, totally in need. And you know when Dylan comes alive, my little son, more than ever? When he sees the affection of his mom and his dad, when he sees our pleasure, and that's when we come alive.
When we experience the pleasure, the fondness, the love, the care of our heavenly father. And in this passage, Colossians 3:3 Jesus, you see, Jesus comes to the world. He comes to the earth, he takes on flesh. This is what theologians call the incarnation, is the son of God, fully God, fully man. He comes to this world to show us what it means to be a person. So when we look to Jesus, he is our supreme example of humanity. This is why when people bring up the question of hypocrisy in the church and Christians doing terrible things, and this happens all the time and it's really gives one pause for thought. It's very sobering. I always have to answer two fold. I have to always have to say, well, sadly, this rings true for me because I often have been a hypocrite myself and I have to come clean about that. But I also need to point you to Jesus Christ, who is the main and key exemplar of Christianity and of humanity.
In the entire history of the human race, there's only been one complete human being, one authentic human being, and that is Jesus. So we look to him. So he comes to this earth as my colleague John Njoroge has often said, "Not just to die for us, but to show us how to live." And he is the one who has made us in the beginning of John, John's Gospel, there's that famous majestic opening, in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. And we are told in that majestic opening that this word is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ as the word is the one who creates and brings everything into being including you and I. So he is the author of our identity. He's the author of our salvation, but he is the one who calls us and he is the one who knows us better than we know ourselves.
And so we are called to sacrifice our own wants and wishes. We are called to recognize that there are selfish habits in our life. The Biblical language here is sin. There are sinful habits in our life. There are selfish habits in our life that cause us to prioritize our own needs over what is true and good and beautiful over what it's right, over our responsibilities, those have to die. Those have to go. It doesn't mean there's an instant switch that's flipped, the process of following Jesus and becoming more like him. It's a long and it's a hard road and we need help. And we need help from Jesus and we need help from fellow believers who come alongside us and walk with us and we need help because we are relational beings and we need one another, but we have to put to death these destructive habits that we all have.
The cultural narrative of expressive individualism, maximizing your own personal comfort and your wants and wishes, that actually makes you do the opposite. What that does is that makes you prioritize some of your most selfish habits and it leads to destruction, leads you to hurt other people, leads you to hurt yourself. This is why we see, once again, this is confirmed. I think this is born out. When you look at the cultural landscape in the United States, it's a mess. Why is it a mess? Because if we're all living only for ourselves, if we're all singing the song of ourselves, we are neglecting one another and if we're neglecting one another, I think it makes sense that people are increasingly sad, isolated, lonely, and filled with despair. We need to push back against this. We are relational. We need each other and speaking to the Christians who are listening now.
This is where the church I think needs to lead the way. We need to show that we are relational. The church is a community. It's the family of God and we need to behave like a family. People need to look at the church in action. They need to see a level of unity and love and an embrace that they don't see on the outside world. This is what draws people in. This is why it says in John 13:35, "That they will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another." You see, there's a persuasive power to Christian love and it's persuasive partly because the reality is we need each other and this is why I think a show like 13 Reasons Why is profoundly important because it's just confirming that we need each other. We're responsible for one another.
This is born out in reality. This is practically, you can see this. You really can. It's not just some inspirational saying, there it is right in front of you. You can look in your own life and you can see it. We need each other and if we need each other and if we're responsible for one another, we can't prioritize our own needs, selfishness has to go. It's not easy. It's got to go. And so this involves death, a death to self. It's not easy to push past that. It's not easy to push past selfishness when the culture around you is constantly reinforcing it. But we have to. It's critical. But then there's that other idea that we have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Oh boy, that's not easy. Take up our cross? Yes, because if we love God with all that we are and we follow him, we've given our lives completely to him, we worship him supremely, then that means we are then committed to loving others selflessly.
So that means taking up a cross, that means self-sacrificial behavior. That means loving your enemies. That means reaching out to the most poor and the downtrodden and the marginalized. And those are who are hated. That means getting angry about injustice. That means caring about what's going on in the world around you and right under your nose, hidden in plain sight. That means getting involved in the messy affairs of other people's lives. That means when grief strikes, when the crisis strikes, not running away, but actually showing up and being the face that greets the person who's weeping, who's downtrodden, who's angry. That means taking risks. That means inviting people into your home. That means feeding them meals. That means, in other words, behaving like the Gospel tells you to behave, love others as yourself. It's a huge risk. It's a huge risk and it's not easy and it's a challenge, but we are not meant to do it alone.
We do it with the empowerment of Jesus, his Holy Spirit, and we do it side by side with our Lord and Savior. This is why Jesus says, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden for my yolk is gentle and easy." The idea, the picture, the image there is two beasts of burden being yoked together side by side, pulling a load. Dallas Willard used to often say that in Christian circles, we talk about the cost of discipleship, what it actually means to give yourself completely to Jesus, to follow him and to obey him and the challenges that presents you with and how that puts you at odds with the prevailing culture. And that's true, but he says, we don't often talk about the cost of non-discipleship, which means you do everything on your own. That means the whole crushing burden of life and identity is all on your shoulders and you have that load yourself.
You can do it alone or you can do it with the king and Lord of all creation. There's a massive difference there and as the body of Christ, that's what the church is called in scripture. This is very radical language. We are the body of Christ on earth. We are Christ's body. Now as the church completing the mission, he began, completing the mission that Jesus began when he came to earth and his ministry was inaugurated. We are completing that mission until he returns and that means the church, we work together. That means we are not lone rangers. That means we are not a celebrity culture that puts people up on a pedestal. That means we are brothers and sisters in Christ working for the sake of the Gospel and we love one another. We are eclectic. We come from different backgrounds. We have all sorts of different hang-ups and skeletons in our closets, but together we work for the sake of Christ and we have all essential things in common. In Christ we are united and we can take up our crosses because we're not doing this alone.
The individualism of our culture is a lie. The church needs to show the world an alternative. That is what I submit to you. Opting out is not an option. When we look at life in holistic terms, when we see that life is not a set of options, life is so much richer, so much more holistic, so much more massive than that. If Christianity is true, your life is a gift from God. You are authored by God. You were made by him. That means your identity is not something that you're responsible for making and fashioning. That means it's what you discover and the only way you can discover who you are is by pursuing your author. Makes sense, doesn't it? If it's true, if Jesus is your author, it makes sense to pursue your identity in him and if he's the author of your salvation, it makes sense to seek to be saved by him.
We've never been more comfortable in North America. We've never had more luxury and more distractions surrounding us, and we've never been emptier and lonelier and more in despair. We need help. One of the hardest things to get through to people nowadays often is that they actually need help because they're so darn comfortable. But I think we're finally arriving at a juncture in US history now in the modern world where we see how profoundly empty and lonely we are, even though we have so much, even though we have so much, it's not enough. We need to be saved. So I'll say it again, as hokey as it might sound, if you want to answer the question, who am I? You need to first answer the question, who is Jesus? If he's your author, seek your identity in him. If he's the author of your salvation as scripture says, then I think you need to look to him to save you.
If you recognize that your own wants and wishes aren't enough, lay them down. Set them aside. Die to self. Take up your cross. If you recognize that others need you and that you need others, take up your cross. Live for something greater than yourself, live for God and live for others and you will see that this is what you are made for. Human beings are made in a very specific way. They can rebel and run away from who they actually are and there's catastrophic consequences. Shows and popular culture and books like 13 Reasons Why show us the catastrophic consequences of living only for ourselves, prioritizing only our own wants and wishes, but if we recognize that we were made for more, if we were made by God, for God, and then for others. Let's lay down our own wants and wishes. Let's love God with all that we are and prioritize the needs of others. Let's do that for the sake of Christ and his gospel.
Thank you so much for listening in. This has been a challenging series in many ways, but thank you. If you've listened to all three of these episodes, you've come this far, thanks for sticking with me. This has been Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. My name is Cameron McAllister and I'm a speaker and a writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.