Dedicated to M.L.
Since my son took his life in 2004, I have been on a quest to understand suicide. One of the things that stood out to me right away—even in the middle of the spirit-crushing pain I was experiencing—was that there was something about this event that seemed distinctly “first world.” It turns out the facts supported my hunch.
According to the World Health Organization in 2012, Europe had 15.4 suicides per 100,000 people, while Africa had far less at 7.4. Upper-income countries generally had a rate of 24.5 percent versus low-income countries, which had a rate of 10.2 percent—less than half. If wealth is supposed to help us live happier lives, how does this make sense?
As I chewed on this question, I thought back to my own childhood, which was darkened by what I now know were clinical depression and anxiety. Like many privileged white kids, I wrestled with the irony of having “everything,” except a reason to live. All I saw before me was a life of mind-numbing toil at a meaningless job—most likely undertaken beneath a blanket of florescent lighting (an interior design element that still gives me chills today).
My mother thought my talents would be well-suited to advertising, which was true, but also horrific. The message I heard was that I’d just be another cog in the machine, helping people sell useless things so that I could buy equally useless things. All the endeavors I imagined might bring me joy were “not practical”—stuff like writing novels, painting pictures, petting dogs, and traveling. Only a few select people get to make a living wage doing these activities, and I knew for sure that I wasn’t talented enough to be among them. Cue a life of earworms and catchy slogans.
As bleak as the future looked, the present wasn’t much better. I could never really understand why I was so angry and sad, but I knew it had something to do with learning material that seemed irrelevant in school each and every day, preparing for tests that didn’t test anything about me that I valued, and not understanding why no one was talking about what sham ideas like “success” seemed to be.
If I sound like I was a problem child, I was. I have apologized profusely to my parents and all who knew me then. And yet, in my now-old age, I see—I kind of had a point.
Like me, I think my son struggled to see the point in doing all the things he was expected to do each day just to prepare himself for…what? Punching a clock at some corporate job five days a week? Raising kids just like him who were destined to a similar life of meaningless toil? Unlike me, I don’t think my son framed out his thoughts this way (or maybe he did), but I believe he had a pervasive sense of the futility of life the way he was instructed to live it, and I think that’s ultimately what helped kill him.
As I read back over this, I see important buzz words: futility, meaninglessness, irrelevance. These are crisis-of-the-soul words, words which—if they define your reality—make life pretty unbearable. First-world wisdom says that if we get our basic needs met straight out of the gate, we will have the luxury of doing “more important” things (like writing really excellent ads), but what if taking care of our basic needs is, in part, what can give us our all-important sense of purpose, self-sufficiency, efficacy…and meaning (thus accounting in an admittedly simplistic way for the lower rates of suicide in poorer countries where basic needs are not guaranteed). And how, if those basic needs are met, do we begin to discover another sense of purpose, one that sustains us and that, ultimately, helps us connect to joy?
I think the answer lies in this quote:
“When the Dalai Lama was asked to define what love means, he hesitated for a moment before breaking out in his trademark smile. ‘Love,’ His Holiness answered, is the wish to make someone else happy.” ~ Jon Carlson
When we have no sense of purpose, we grapple mightily with the idea of love. We feel unlovable. It is hard to connect to others, we isolate, feel like we’re “faking it” when we express or receive loving sentiments, and easily come to believe that “love” perhaps, doesn’t even really exist at all.
The one thing that I have found that (for me) solves this problem is being of service. I still battle anxiety and depression, but much more successfully than I did before I stumbled on my first purpose-driven life task—motherhood. Though motherhood was (and is) fraught with all kinds of terrors—not the least of which was losing one of my children—I had, at least, a reason to live.
Depression and anxiety transformed for me again when, in addition to mothering, I discovered counseling, a career that is literally about “the wish to make someone else happy.” It turns out that wish seems to be the key to one’s own happiness.
I realize I got very lucky. Parenthood is not for everyone. Counseling is definitely not for everyone. And not everyone gets to do a job every day that is packed with meaning. But that doesn’t mean we can’t prioritize the need to find purpose in any way we can, to find some way to be of service, whether it’s a part of our career or some sort of side gig, and to know that by doing so, we are creating avenues for ourselves of joy.
But how do we actually do that? Purpose will look different for each and every one of us. It’s not as simple as going to volunteer at a dog shelter (though by all means, please go volunteer at all the dog shelters!). It’s about figuring out what our special thing is, and what it is about us that resonates with others.
I find other people often are far more perceptive about our gifts than we are—it was my niece who suggested I become a therapist, an idea that had never ever crossed my mind. What do people say you’re good at? Believe them—they are probably right. Whatever it is, you can find a way to apply that to something someone needs.
It might take a long time. I did not find my first purpose (despite desperately trying) until I was 29, and I didn’t find my second until I hit my 40s. I had to roll around in the dirt and make terrible mistakes for almost 30 years before I was ready to begin inhabiting myself. And that’s fine.
I work with so many clients in their 20s and 30s who think their lives are over because they haven’t found a partner or the right career yet, and nothing could be further from the truth. Each day we live gets us closer to our destiny, whether it feels that way or not. Our challenge is to keep the faith and remain open to possibility.
I used to fantasize about opening a practice called “Third World Solutions” where I would help people like me get out of their heads by doing things like cooking from scratch and chopping wood. But as much as I like to complain about this “first” world of ours, it really is a privilege to live in it. Because my basic needs are met, I get the chance to cultivate my higher self. That self is deeply rewarded by knowing that I can help those in need, and in turn, that self now feels, sometimes—dare I say it? Worthy of love. If there is one thing I wish every single person got to feel, that would be it.
If you are feeling like each day is something simply to be gotten through, try to imagine what your purpose might really be. You have one. It is important. And it will change your life.