The Choice to “End it All.”

Suicide Definition Graphic

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

IT WAS FOUR IN the afternoon. I was driving along the river in my home town. It was the fourth decade of my struggle with active addiction. Overwhelmed with thoughts of utter failure, rabid hypocrisy and complete hopelessness, I started ruminating about the idea of suicide. Why not? It made sense. I was in bondage to drugs and had grown tired of living a life so out of touch with my Christian upbringing. Seems I could not stop lying, cheating, stealing. Doing whatever it took to keep getting high. Duplicity was the word that most described my existence. I’d grown weary of living on the down-low. I was defeated, exhausted and tired of failing.

I turned into an area boat launch and stopped about fifty yards from the edge of the water. I closed my eyes and took my foot off the brake. I’d barely touched the accelerator when I heard an audible voice. It filled the cabin of my car: Don’t. I jammed the brake pedal to the floor and gripped the steering wheel in a panic. I must be losing my mind! There was no one else in the car. The radio was off. Yet, somehow, I heard a voice that seemed to fill the interior of my car. I could feel the voice, insistent but not loud. No sense of anger or disappointment. It was simply an audible, gentle, compassionate insistence.

Don’t end your life!

It’s been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Perhaps if some in-between state existed—some alternative to death—many suicidal people would take it. One question every surviving family member has asked without exception, that they ache to have answered more than any other, is simple: Why? Why did their friend, child, parent, spouse, or sibling take their own life? Even when a note is left behind, it still never makes sense. Yes, they felt enough despair to want to take their own life, but Why did they feel that way? Alex Lickerman, MD said, “People who’ve survived suicide attempts have reported wanting not so much to die as to stop living, a strange dichotomy, but a valid one nevertheless” (1).

A friend of mine took his own life in 1996. We met a few years earlier as co-workers at a Philadelphia law firm. We were both on staff as litigation  paralegals. He had recently started a new career trading stocks. Apparently, he was under investigation by the SEC for insider trading. His wife kicked him out and filed for divorce. He moved in with his parents and had become quite depressed and withdrawn. He stayed home from work on a Tuesday. After his parents left the house, he took his father’s .357 handgun and drove to his wife’s place. When she answered his knock, he shot himself on the stoop in front of her. I always knew him to be outgoing, hilarious, and always up for a good time. His death made no sense to me.

Unfortunately, suicide without warning is common. Patrick J. Skerrett quoted Dr. Michael Miller, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, in a recent article on suicide: “Many people who commit suicide do so without letting on they are thinking about it or planning it” (2). Currently, suicide is the tenth overall cause of death in the United States. In 2018 there were 48,334 suicide deaths in America. Had I not heard God’s voice that afternoon in 2018, the total would have been 48,335. There were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in the U.S. in 2018. The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular. It was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. On average, there are 132 suicides per day. In 2018, firearms accounted for 50.57% of all suicide deaths in America (3).

America’s suicide rate has increased for 13 years in a row.—The Economist

According to the National Vital Statistics Report, suicide was the second leading cause of death for age groups 10 to 24, or 19.2% of deaths, and 25 to 44, or 10.9%. This report presents final 2017 data on leading causes of death in the United States by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. These data accompany the release of final national mortality statistics for 2017 (4). In 2017, the 10 leading causes of death were, in rank order: heart disease; malignant neoplasms; accidents (unintentional injuries); chronic lower respiratory diseases; cerebrovascular diseases; Alzheimer disease; diabetes mellitus; influenza and pneumonia; nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis; and intentional self-harm (suicide).

Suicidal Ideation and Social Media

Various social media platforms offer an unprecedented volume, velocity, and variety of social data to researchers. Among these, the most consistently studied is Twitter, a microblogging platform in which participants broadcast 140-character posts directly to one another or to the Twitter community simultaneously. Twitter’s sociological and psychological relevance for researchers and treatment providers is elevated due to ease of accessibility to data, the fact that most data collection activities can be undertaken at no cost to the researcher, and the ease of data management. For example, because Twitter limits individual posts to 140 characters, the information is more easily stored and reviewed than longer Facebook posts.

Facebook Suicide Prevention webpage can be found at www.facebook.com/help/594991777257121/ [use the search term “suicide” or “suicide prevention”].

As with a variety of social media platforms, Twitter has been a boon to suicide researchers, who can observe the behavior of individuals in a non-invasive manner, collecting “live” (time-sensitive) information that might not otherwise be shared because of the stigma of mental illness and suicide. One researcher was able to analyze 125 users who publicly announced they had attempted suicide. Analysis of these individuals’ posting history revealed distinct signals in previous posts that could have been used to predict their upcoming attempts and initiate an intervention (5). This is a relatively large sample that otherwise might have been overlooked.

Strong correlations have been discovered between suicidal expressions on Twitter and state-specified age-adjusted suicide rates. It is believed that posting suicide-related content on social media specifically identifies at-risk individuals. In fact, unique posting patterns have been posthumously discovered for Twitter members who died by suicide when compared to those who died of other causes (6). Such results demonstrate the value of verbal content people post on social media sites—providing unique insight into suicidal behavior.

Twitter’s Best Practices in Dealing With Self-Harm and Suicide at https://support.twitter.com [use the search term “suicide,” “self-harm,” or “suicide prevention”].

Psychologists and sociologists have begun to analyze social media data—correlating the content of social media posts regarding the topic of suicide with eventual suicides or attempts. Analysis has proven most useful in this regard. It must be determined whether suicidal behavior can be correlated to online comments among peers beyond one degree of social separation. Also, it must be determined whether that correlation persists after excluding innocuous commentary regarding mood and attitude. In other words, if mood is held to a constant in the analysis, will the observed association in suicide-related behavior still be higher than chance? Recent research has determined that comments on social media relative to suicidal expressions can be studied and correlated  up to three degrees of separation between peers, but no further. 

N.A. Christakis and J.H. Fowler (7) noted that correlation held between suicidal remarks and suicidal actions even when accounting for the distribution of mood among participants in the social media network. They used the bootstrapping method (employing computer-intensive analysis of  variability within their data samples) to study real-time posting activity on Twitter. Their samples were comprised of two non-consecutive 28-day periods. Mechanical Turk (MTurk; Amazon, 2016) raters have compiled suicide-relatedness ratings for each of the 10,222 most common words in contemporary English for use in evaluating social media posts for occurrence of “suicidal conversation.” These words are correlated with a preexisting list of “sad” words (as they relate to the sad/happy continuum) used to infer the general mood of social media users. Collection and analysis was conducted via double-blind method for accuracy and to allow for detecting statistical variation and spurious correlation.

Some variants of “sad/happy” word expressions that may or may not be associated with suicidal ideation include “I’m so sad! I’m gonna kill myself!” “I’m the worst! LOL!” “My final day on earth…” “Just got in a fight…” “It’s a sad day.” “I love my life!” Analysis included placing “sad,” “happy,” and “suicidal” words into columns on a graph and quantifying the number of uses of such words or phrases. Also, degrees of separation (direct friend versus once, twice, thrice removed) were determined at one through six degrees: friend, friend of friend, friend of friend of friend, and so on. The Sad Column, Happy Column and statistically relevant variables were each plotted along the graph comparing “mood” and “suicide-relatedness” comments. Amazingly, this study may be the first of its kind, and involved collection and analysis of over 64 million post from over 17 million unique social media users in two nonconsecutive 28-day periods. Analysis of this real-time data helped predict (by an algorithm) the information collected, which typically has infinite possibilities of correlative meaning.

You might ask, But why is this important? What does it mean? How can it be utilized? Suppose a counselor is concerned with the suicide risk of students in a high school where a fellow student recently took her own life. To get the best data in the shortest amount of time, the counselor would do the following:

  1. Ask a teacher for a list of the decedent’s closest friends and screen them;
  2. Ask any friends on that list to name their closest friends and screen those friends;
  3. Ask any friends from the new group to name closest friend and screen them, and so on; and
  4. Once there are no more positives in a friend group, screen students at random until a positive is found and begin the procedure again until the resources run out (i.e., there are no more students in the population).

Although the above process will provide an  initial “hint” of an assortativity-informed treatment approach, additional research would be necessary before beginning any efficacious intervention. Researchers warn that no offline behavior was included in their study, and therefore was not available for comparison.

Co-occurring Issues and Suicide

Suicide is a major public health problem and a leading cause of death in the United States. Everyone who chooses to attempt suicide has an underlying reason for wanting to do so. Suicide does not discriminate—people of all genders, ages, religious faiths, and ethnic groups can be at risk. Most people at risk will not follow through. Still, assessing the risk for suicidal behavior is complicated. Researchers tell us that people who attempt suicide may do so in reaction to a particular event, thought, or emotion. These individuals make decisions differently than those who do not attempt suicide. Such factors for increased risk are depression, anxiety, personality disorders, psychosis, severe bullying, rape or trauma, and substance abuse. 

Suicidal acts may be connected to recent events or current conditions in a person’s life. Although such factors may not be the primary motivation for the suicide, they can precipitate it as underlying or co-morbid triggers. A major underlying cause of suicide has been combat stress and other related PTSD issues. People in this at-risk category do not necessarily have to experience the horrors of a war zone. Other types of immediate stress include natural disasters, terrorism at home, or catastrophic loss from such events as a structure fire or a serious motor vehicle accident.

People suffering from chronic pain, severe disability, or a major illness may attempt suicide, believing their suffering is too great or that their death is inevitable. Victims of an abusive or repressive environment from which they have little or no hope of escape sometimes commit suicide. Situations that fit this category may include torture, confinement, sexual assault, or persistent physical abuse. Also, occupational stress has been indicated in some suicides due to extreme tension, anxiety, disillusion or “burnout,” and job-related financial pressures.

Cyberbullying, Substance Use Disorder

In addition to the above precipitating factors, many suicide attempts are preceded by a severe change in mood that do not correlate to an underlying psychiatric diagnosis. Mood changes most likely to lead to suicide often include extreme sadness, unresolved anxiety, frustration, anger, or shame. Unfortunately, the number of teens and young adults who take their own lives has increased due to bullying at school or on social media sites. Nearly 1 in 5 students (21%) report being bullied during the school year, impacting over 5 million youth annually. See National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018. 

There has been a spike in cyberbullying over the last couple of years. This is willful and repeated bullying behavior that takes place using electronic technology, including texting, comments during gaming, Internet sites, social media, emails, blogs, cell phones, and so on. Unlike traditional bullying it can happen anywhere at all hours of the day. Approximately 34% of students report experiencing cyberbullying during their lifetime. See Hinduja & Patchin, 2015. Students who experienced bullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide. See Hinduja & Patchin, 2018.

Worldwide, more than 1 million people die by suicide every year. Self-harm deaths have been on the rise in nearly every state in America. In the U.S., suicide deaths (47,173) were almost equivalent to the number of deaths from opioid overdoses (47,600) in 2017. It is essential that suicide prevention practices be implemented and expanded wherever possible (8). Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) has a distinctly strong relationship with suicide as compared with other substance use disorders (9). Pain causes alterations in brain circuitry in the brain’s reward center (involving the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala), resulting in vulnerability to suicide and a higher risk of opioid addiction. This is supported by epidemiological data that have shown chronic-pain diagnoses are linked to suicide. These associations are only partially explained by co-occurring mental health conditions, which tend to further complicate morbidity.

Tolerance to THC can build quickly in cannabis users. Teens who seek help for cannabis-use problems often report withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, appetite disturbance and depression (Budney & Hughes, 2006). These symptoms are of sufficient severity to impair everyday functioning (Allsop et al., 2012) and they are markedly attenuated by doses of an oral cannabis extract (Sativex) that contains THC (Allsop et al., 2014). Bagge and Borges (2015) conducted a case-crossover study of 363 persons who had recently attempted suicide and were treated in a trauma hospital for a suicide attempt within the previous 24 hours in Mississippi. The researchers compared rates of cannabis use in the 24-hour period leading up to the individual’s suicide (case period) to individuals who used cannabis during the same time period but did not commit suicide (control period). They found that 10.2% of those who attempted suicide had used cannabis within 24 hours of their suicide.

Cannabis was involved in an estimated 6.5% of drug-related suicide attempts, and in 46% of attempts the person had also used alcohol. In the 23% of drug-related suicide attempts with toxicology reports, 16.8% tested positive for cannabis, although this cannabis use could have occurred days or even up to one week earlier. In general, 9.5% of all toxicology reports for deaths by suicide (Borges, Bagge & Orozco, 2016) show the presence of cannabis. There is preliminary evidence of higher detection of cannabis among suicide decedents that do not involve overdose (CDC, 2006) and higher detection among male suicide decedents using non-overdose methods than among females (Darke, Duflou & Torok, 2009; Shields et al., 2006).

So Now What?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data on the ten leading causes of death in the United States recently. Tragically, suicide—too often a consequence of untreated mental illness and substance use disorders, and as such a preventable condition—remains on that list as the 10th leading cause of death for adults and the second-leading cause of death in our youth. Suicide rates increased from 29,199 deaths in 1996 to 47,173 deaths in 2017. Click here for more information.

What are the contributing factors to a state of mind that ends in a person taking his or her life? What can be done to intervene? How can we turn the numbers around? The increased number of suicides year after year say something about the conditions under which people live and die, and about our society at large. Our teens and young adults are deciding in record numbers that killing themselves is the best solution to what is usually a temporary situation. Citizens at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are significantly more vulnerable due to negative views about life and an increased amount of psychological and social difficulties. Many of these conditions are not diagnosed in time or go untreated. Many are turning to substance abuse to cope, which often increases the risk of self-harm behavior. This speaks to an environment that can promote depression, anxiety, and elevation in substance use disorder. Some sociologists have referred to these suicides as “deaths of despair.”

There are a number of interventions we can apply to these dire circumstances:

  • Safety Planning. Personalized safety planning has been shown to help reduce suicidal thoughts and actions. Patients work with a caregiver to develop a plan that describes ways to limit access to lethal means such as firearms, pills, or poisons. The plan lists coping strategies and people and resources that can help in a crisis.
  • Follow-up phone calls. Research has shown that when at-risk individuals receive proper screening, implementation of a Safety Plan, and a series of supportive phone  calls, their risk of suicide goes down.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help people learn new ways of dealing with stressful experiences through training. CBT helps individuals recognize their thought pattersn and consider alternative actions when thoughts of suicide arise.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been shown to reduce suicidal behavior in adolescents. DBT has also been effective in reducing the rate of suicide in adults with Borderline Personality Disorder or related personality disorders. These mental illnesses are typically characterized by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, harmful or risky behavior, and impulsive actions. A therapist trained in DBT helps a person recognize when his or her feelings or actions are disruptive or unhealthy, and teaches the skills needed to deal better with upsetting situations.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to someone before the fog of desperation clouds your mind. If you have a friend or loved one who has expressed an intent to take their own life, do not dismiss it as a cry for attention—instead, it is a cry for help. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or mental health professional and want to be a part of the solution for this national epidemic, please talk to a teacher, professor, mental health professional, pastor, or mentor to find out how to get started.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE
1(800) 273-8255

Footnotes

(1) Alex Lickerman, M.D. (April 29, 2010). “The Six Reasons People Attempt Suicide.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201004/the-six-reasons-people-attempt-suicide

(2) Patrick J. Skerrett (Sept. 24, 2012). “Suicide Often Not Preceded by Warnings.” Harvard Health Publishing.

(3) “Suicide Statistics.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

(4) Melonie Heron, Ph.D., (June 24, 2018). “Deaths: Leading Causes for 2017.” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 68, No. 6. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_06-508.pdf

(5) Wood, A., Shiffman, J., Leary, R., and Coppersmith, G. (2016). “Language Signals Preceding Suicide Attempts.” CHI 2016 Computing and Mental Health, San Jose, CA.

(6) Bryan, C.J., Butner, J.E., Sinclair, S., et al. (2018). “Predictors of  Emerging Suicide Death Among Military Personnel on Social Media Networks.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 48, 413-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12370

(7) Christakis, N.A., and Fowler, J.H. (2013). “Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior.” Statistics in Medicine, 32, 556-577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/sim.5408

(8) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcjq.2019.10.001

(9) Bohnert KM, Ilgen MA, Louzon S, McCarthy JF, Katz IR. Substance use disorders and the risk of suicide mortality among men and women in the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. Addiction 2017; 112:11931201.

 

 

“Is My Life Worth Living?”

“The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5, RSV).

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, RSV).

IT IS OBVIOUS THAT purpose can guide life decisions, influence behavior, shape goals, offer a sense of direction, and create meaning. For some, meaning is defined by what they do—doctor, lawyer, construction worker, teacher, welder, chef. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Unfortunately, some never find meaning for their lives. I cannot think of a more sad state than existing without knowing why you exist, or where you’re going.

A Matter of Worldview

We are talking about worldview. Everyone holds a worldview, which Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) define as “the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” Sire (2015) says a worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world. [Italics added.]

I agree with Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) that truth is absolute; if not, then nothing is true. They consider (p. 64), “If a worldview is true, we can expect to find at least some external corroborating evidence to support it. This does not mean that something is true because there is evidence for it, but rather evidence will be available because something is true.” [Italics added.] It is critical to note that evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like a pair of eyeglasses. When you begin wearing glasses, the rims can be quite distracting. In a short while, however, you lose your awareness of the rims and even the lenses. You forget you’re wearing glasses.

Accordingly, we can lose perspective on our assumptions, presuppositions and biases, especially with the passage of time. Entwistle (2015) warns us that assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. He said, “…what we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” (p. 93) Our ability to know is both dependent upon and limited by the assumptions of our worldview. In my Christian worldview, I recognize God as the unique source of all truth, and that this truth is absolute. In other words, it is not relative, but it is universal and unchanging. Truth is not absolute on its own merits; rather, it derives ultimately from God. I do not believe, however, that the Bible contains all that we need to know: e.g., we don’t consult the Bible to understand how to change a tire or perform brain surgery. Scripture does contain everything we need to know regarding God, the spiritual life, and morality.

We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. Increasingly, our media culture is playing a key role in shaping worldview. We are a culture saturated with powerful media images in movies, television, commercials, music, gaming, and social media. What we watch, listen to, and read, impacts the way we think.

The lack of a sound basis for the meaning of life can cause a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. This perception underlies everything we do. For example, we can be “busy” with many things, yet wonder if what we’re doing makes any real difference. Life, by its very nature, presents itself one day at a time: a random and unconnected series of activities and events over which we seem to have little or no control. If a sentiment of disconnectedness develops in our everyday existence, boredom sets in deep within our soul. To be “bored” does not mean we have nothing to do; it means that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. Here is the great paradox of life: Many of us are busy and bored at the same time!

Symptoms of a Lack of Purpose

Interestingly, boredom might be rooted in resentment. If we run around all day like a crazy person, doing this and that, yet wonder if our busyness means anything to anyone, we easily feel used, manipulated, or exploited. Is this not often how a parent feels when he or she is constantly doing for their children, but the children appreciate nothing? In this state of mind, we begin to see ourselves as victims pushed around and made to do things by people who do not acknowledge us or take our contributions seriously. An inner anger starts to well up inside us—an anger that eventually settles into our hearts. Left unresolved, this anger leads to resentment, which has an effect on us much like a poison.

Perhaps the most damaging expression of our looming sense of unfulfillment is depression. When we start to believe our life has little or no effect on those around us, we can easily fall prey to sadness, depression, and regret. This can morph into guilt. It must be our fault that no one appreciates us, right? Perhaps we don’t do enough. Maybe we did the wrong thing. We begin to think it’s all our fault. This guilt is not always connected to just one event; sometimes it is connected with life itself. We feel guilty just for being alive. The realization that the world might be better without us becomes a sort-of “sub plot” to our life. We look in the mirror and, “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are all symptoms of our sense of being disconnected. We cannot help but see life as a broken connectedness. We feel as though we don’t belong. Not surprisingly, this often leads to loneliness. This is what is meant by being in a room full of people at a gathering but feeling all alone. We experience this  because we don’t really feel like we’re part of the community. And it is this paralyzing sense of separation from others that establishes the core of much suffering in the world. When in this state of feeling cut off from the community, we quickly lose heart. Ultimately, if we don’t address this sentiment, we see ourselves as passive bystanders. We tend to live life “on the bench.”

Americans Increasingly Turn to Suicide

There is now a potential for us to believe our past, even our present, no longer carries us to the future. Instead, we go through life worried, cut off, without any promise that things will improve. Perhaps this is at the crux of one’s decision to commit suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the tenth-largest cause of death in America in 2017, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States in 2017 as there were homicides (19,510).

No Sense of Roots

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.” I had a t-shirt years ago that had a rather interesting quip written on it: I Have Gone to Find Myself; If I Return Before I Get Back Keep Me Here. Does this not address the very struggle we all face when attempting to define the meaning of our existence. This “rudderless” life leads to our being tossed to and fro on the ocean in search of a port—any port—in the storm. For me, this pervasive sense of meaninglessness and loneliness led to some rather damaging behavior—infidelity, job hopping, geographic changes, and addiction. I learned that when we feel an inescapable sense of disconnectedness we will being to lie to ourselves. Not only about what the meaning of life is (or should be), but about the serious damage our addictive behaviors and activities of distraction are causing—both to us and to those around us.

What is the Answer?

If you are familiar with Scripture, you will likely remember that Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be busy with everyday activities. Instead, His response is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of our focus—to essentially relocate the “center” of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to stop focusing on “many things,” and instead focus on the “one necessary thing.” He does not preach of a change in activities as a means of finding a meaningful life. That would be akin to putting a temporary bandage on a bleeding wound. When we ignore critical wounds in the flesh, we risk developing a puss-filled infection that can spread to our bloodstream, thereby causing a “systemic” infection.

Instead, Jesus speaks of a change of heart. This change is what’s needed to make everything different even while everything appears to remain the way it was. Let me be clear: Many of us are living lives that are in need of drastic change. That’s a given. When we focus on the one necessary thing, we begin to tap into the resources needed to realize an effective change in our direction. This is what Jesus meant by His comment to the disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33, RSV).

I believe it is only when we understand the importance of Jesus’s urgent instructions to make God the center of our lives that we can better see what is at stake. We will understand who we are, why we are here, and why things happen the way we do. This cannot be achieve through our human wisdom or understanding. We can’t grasp the things of the Spirit while focusing on the flesh. A heart set first on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart that is properly oriented toward the spiritual life. Thankfully, Jesus provided an exemplar for us to follow when refocusing our attention in this manner.

We see that Jesus was not merely a zealot who ran around the Holy Land espousing some “new wave” approach to life. He was not interested in seeking a “self-fulfilled” life. Rather, everything we know from Scripture is that Jesus was concerned with only one thing: To do the will of the Father. From His very first public utterance in the Temple, He made this abundantly clear. “‘Why were you searching for me?’” he asked. “’Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?'” (Luke 2:49, NIV). The footnote provided for this verse at blueletterbible.org says, “be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was quick to tell his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19, RSV). In other words, Jesus wants us to understand that without God nothing is possible. Moreover, with God nothing is impossible.

Consider this thought: Jesus is not our Savior simply because of what He said to us or did for us of His own accord. He is our Savior because what He said and did was said and done in obedience to the Father. Paul expressed this in Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19, RSV). This speaks of an all-embracing love—for the Father and for us. We cannot understand the impact of the richness of Jesus’s ministry until we see how everything He did was rooted in one thing: Listening to the Father and obeying out of the power of a perfect and unconditional love.

When Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life, He was not merely stating that everything He said was true. It was, of course, but He meant something much deeper. He was not speaking of an idea, concept, or doctrine, but He was talking about true relationship. I believe that’s why we cannot quash the nagging sense of meaningless alone; rather, it must be understood through relationship with Jesus and with the Father. It is only by first loving God, then loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we can hope to find the connectedness many of us are desperately searching for day after day. When our lives become a continuation of Jesus’s life and ministry, we begin to see the paramount importance of being connected with Him and the Father in order to experience connectedness to our “selves” and others.

Concluding Remarks

It is in and through the Father’s kingdom that we find the Holy Spirit, who will guide us, heal us, challenge us, and convict us. This is the very mechanism for renewal. Moreover, this is not merely hitting the “heavenly lottery.” The words, “all other things will be given you as well” express that God’s love and care extends to our whole being. When we set our sights on Him. we come to understand how God keeps us in the palm of His hand. We learn not to worry, project, or become hopeless. We avoid the trap of emotional upset, including anxiety and depression. We become lifted up into God’s unconditional love and care. A change in our hearts leads to a change in our perspective, and this is the very meaning of developing a Christian worldview.

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd Ed. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015) Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

I Shattered Like Glass

Moving ever closer to the edge,
I try to peek; get a glimpse, you know;
I need to see how far it is
to the bottom; to calculate how far I’d fall
If I were to fall at all.

Just curious, that’s all, nothing more.
No harm in knowing the risk.
I’ve been living life close to the brink for decades,
Yet I’m still here. What harm will come if I were to
Continue rollicking near the edge?

“This time you’ll be dead if you fall,”
said a voice from behind.
“There will be no more chances this time.”
I didn’t believe it; I never heeded the many warnings
No matter from whom they came.

“I’m going to live forever,” I told the voice.
(But I was beginning to grasp the true price tag
constant reckless behavior brings);
What an insane and daring undertaking my life has been!
It’s as if I’ve been tempting Almighty God.

I started shaking my fist at the heavens. “Go on, then,
Take me if you’re going to, but be quick about it.”
(I don’t like pain.) It doesn’t matter what you do with me.”
I was done with this miserable little life of mine;
All aspiration was gone.

As I stood there, toes dangling over the edge,
A mighty wind began to push from behind,
urging, insisting, demanding, physically shoving me,
“Wait!” I insisted, but my feet slipped, and I fell.
I shattered like glass when I hit bottom.

©2016 Steven Barto

Sadness

We all feel sad sometimes. Sadness is a normal emotion that can make life more interesting. Much art and poetry is inspired by sadness and melancholy. Sadness almost always accompanies loss. I have written several poems following the loss of a girlfriend. When we say goodbye to a loved one we usually feel sad. The sadness is even deeper if a close relationship has ended or a loved one has died. Sadness also helps us appreciate happiness. When our mood eventually changes from sadness toward happiness, the sense of contrast adds to the enjoyment of the mood.

There are ways to experience normal sadness in a healthy manner and to allow this emotion to enrich your life. Allow yourself to be sad. Denying such feelings may force them underground, where they can do more damage with time. Cry if you feel like it. Notice if you feel relief after the tears stop. If you are feeling sad, plan a sadness day. Plan a day or evening just to be alone, listen to melancholy music, and to observe your thoughts and feelings. Planning time to be unhappy can actually feel good. It can help you ultimately move into a happier mood. Think about the context of the sad feelings. Are they related to a loss or an unhappy event? It’s usually not as simple as discovering the “cause” of the sadness, but it may be possible to understand factors involved.

Sadness can result from a change that you didn’t expect, or it can signal the need for a change in your life. Change is usually stressful, but it is necessary for growth. Know when sadness turns into depression. Get help if this happens rather than getting stuck in it.

People deal with sadness in different ways, and it is an important emotion because it helps to motivate people to deal with their situation. Some coping mechanisms could include creating a list, getting support from others, spending time with a pet or engaging in some activity to express sadness. Some individuals, when feeling sad, may exclude themselves from a social setting, so as to take the time to recover from the feeling. I tend to isolate when I’m sad. Any thought of facing people causes me to shut down. In the past, I dealt with sadness by drinking or getting high. The irony here is that alcohol is a depressant.

While being one of the moods people most want to shake, sadness can sometimes be perpetuated by the very coping strategies chosen, such as ruminating, “drowning one’s sorrows”, or permanently isolating oneself. As alternative ways of coping with sadness to the above, cognitive behavioral therapy suggests instead either challenging one’s negative thoughts, or scheduling some positive event as a distraction.

Being attentive to, and patient with, your sadness may also be a way for you to learn through solitude; while emotional support to help people stay with their sadness can be further helpful. Such an approach is fueled by the underlying belief that loss (when felt wholeheartedly) can lead to a new sense of aliveness, and to a re-engagement with the outside world. Take for example sadness that accompanies the loss of a loved one. It is possible to come to terms with the fact that he or she is in a better place, at peace, no longer in pain.

Though much has been made of the many benefits of happiness, it’s important to consider that sadness can be beneficial, too. Sad people are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions, are sometimes more motivated, and are more sensitive to social norms. They can act with more generosity, too.

The benefits of sadness have their limits, of course. Depression, a mood disorder defined at least in part by prolonged and intense periods of sadness, can be debilitating. And no one is suggesting that we should try to induce sadness as a way of combating memory decline, for example. I’ve read that mild, temporary states of sadness may actually be beneficial in handling various aspects of our lives. Perhaps that is why, even though feeling sad can be hard, many of the greatest achievements of Western art, music, and literature explore the landscape of sadness. In everyday life, too, people often seek ways to experience sadness, at least from time to time, by listening to sad songs, watching sad movies, or reading sad books.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” I like the designer Bill Blass’s quote: “Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.”

When dealing with sadness in your life, focus on the good and move on. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get on with things. There is a contemporary Christian song that includes the lyrics, “A man who walks by the side of the road can turn himself around. Pick himself up. Dust himself off. Start all over again.” Before you know it, you’ll be happy again. After all, you have so many things in your life to be happy about. Appreciate those things, and suddenly your sadness will feel smaller and your happiness will grow larger.

Overcoming Depression

Nearly everyone at one time or another experiences sadness. Most people get over it with the passage of time. But for some, the sadness continues. It just seems to linger. It covers some people like a wet blanket. If you are caught in a prolonged period of sadness, you may recognize one or more of the signs that accompany depression: a growing distrust of God; resentment of others; difficulty making decisions; guilt; inactivity; sleeplessness or oversleeping; not eating or overeating; doubting; complaining; worrying; hopelessness. It can feel like you’re in an inescapable pit.

Thankfully, as desperate as everything may look, there are real reasons for hope. God loves you. He wants to fill you with peace and joy and happiness. The Bible says Jesus came that we might have life, and might have it more abundantly. Abundant life means bountiful, plentiful, more than enough. It means amply sufficient. John 10:10 in the Amplified Bible says, “The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that you might have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, until it overflows).” Certainly, depression is not abundant life. But you can be assured God wants you to find his peace and joy. He will help you because you are very, very important to Him.

When you accept Jesus as your Savior, your Sacrificial Lamb, and turn your life and your will over to Him, you become a new person. But you need to learn a new way of living. God will help you. Luke 11:13 tells us that our Heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask and continue to ask Him. The Holy Spirit gives you the power to live like God wants you to live. The Holy Spirit guides, comforts and teaches. He empowers us and produces within us the actual characteristics of God. The fruit of the Holy Spirit, which His presence within us produces, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (that is, meekness and humility), and self-control. (See Galatians 5:22-23). It is when you are living the way God wants you to that you will experience the full and joyful life God has for you.

But what if you are now a Christian and you are depressed? You are not alone. Many people of faith have experienced periods of deep depression. The Bible stories of Moses, David and so many others show us how God’s love continues even during times of great sadness, and that He eventually brings great hope. What can you do to overcome depression? It depends on why you are depressed. There are many possible reasons. Some depression is caused by physical problems. Improper diet, lack of exercise and not enough sleep all can lead to depression. So if you are feeling “down,” make sure you are taking care of your body.

In addition, many illnesses can cause depression. Others may be caused by depression. Also, some medications can cause depression. But remember God can heal any physical problem, including one that is causing depression. (See Psalms 103:3) If your doctor has diagnosed a particular problem, ask your prayer partner, pastor, Christian counselor or other believer to pray with you for God’s healing. (See James 5:14-16)

When something you see as bad happens to you, it’s normal to feel hurt. You might have lost your job or financial security. You may have been wronged in some way, recently or in the past. You may have a bad relationship with a friend, family member or spouse. A loved one may have died. Or you may be hurting about something you’ve never had, but always wanted. It is okay to hurt over a situation like this. Tell God about your hurt. He already knows what’s going on, but it is important for you to talk with Him about it. Also, tell a trusted friend or pastor, or consult a Christian counselor. Allow yourself to cry if you want to. Normal grieving, including crying, is healthy. Just remember, the Bible says that Jesus bore our griefs on the cross. (See Isaiah 53:4-5) He feels our pain as strongly as we do. Give your hurt to Him. Then resolve not to dwell on it again.

Sometimes depression is rooted in sin. You will never know peace if you ignore something in your life that you know is displeasing to God. (See I Tim. 1:19) If you know you are doing or have done something against the will of God, admit to God that it is wrong. Then ask His help in doing what is right. If you admit your sin and turn from it, God has promised to forgive you completely, and cleanse you from the sin. (See I John 1:9) Trust Him to do it. If it is an ongoing sin, and seems too big for you to deal with, just deal with today. This moment. Tell God that with His help you will do the right thing right now. In addition, you may need to take some action to make up for your sin with those you have wronged. Making amends. You may need the help of your pastor or a Christian counselor to help you decide what to do.

Don’ forget to obey God in the small things. Very often it is because we choose to ignore Him that we slowly slip into deeper problems. You can reverse this downhill slide. If you obey God in the small things, it will help put you back on track with the bigger things. What about wrong thinking? What do you think about right before you feel depressed? Do you think things such as, “I’m no good,” or “I can’t do anything right?” Perhaps you think to yourself, “This situation will never change.” It is vitally important for you to find out what God says is the truth about you and your life. Read the Bible closely to find out what is the real truth. (See Ephesians 1:18-19) Once you find out the wonderful things God says about you, meditate on them and stop repeating negative things to yourself. Instead, memorize and repeat to yourself the truths you find in the Bible that contradict negative thoughts. Write theses truths down as daily affirmations.

Fill your thoughts with such truths as “For I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and the power.” (See Phil. 4:13) The Bible says it is Christ who will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory. (See Phil. 4:19) The Holy Spirit does not want you to be afraid of people or situations, but to be wise and strong and to love people and enjoy being with them. (See II Tim. 1:7) Overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us enough to die for us. (See Rom. 8:37) He personally carried the load of our sins and iniquities in His own body when he died on the cross so that we can be free of sin and live a good life. His wounds have healed ours! (See I Pet. 2:24)

Rebuild your spiritual life through Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship with other Christians. If your depression continues, seek help from a qualified professional. There are answers for your depression and sadness. However, finding the root of the problem does not always happen overnight. As you pray, ask God to reveal specific thoughts and actions He wants you to change. Agree with Him when He points out sin in your life and ask Him to help you change. Forgive others who have wronged you. Do not harbor resentment. Thank God for His love and ask Him for healing and a renewed joy in your life.

Some tips for managing your depression include not expecting too much from yourself too soon, which will only accentuate feelings of failure. Avoid setting difficult goals or taking on new ambitious responsibilities until you’ve settled on a solid treatment plan for your depression. Break large tasks into smaller ones and enjoy the small victories along the way. Recognize patterns in your mood. Like many people with depression or chronic sadness, the worst part of the day might be the morning. Participate in activities that make you feel good. Try exercising. Participate in church or Christian activities. At a minimum, such activities may distract you from the way you feel and allow the day to pass more quickly.

You may feel like spending the whole day in bed, but don’t. Do not get upset if your mood doesn’t improve right away. Feeling better takes time. Don’t get discouraged if you start feeling better then backslide into a sad mood. Sometimes the road to recovery is like a roller coaster ride. This is true emotionally and spiritually. The devil will want you to fail and remain defeated. He does not want you empowered by Christ and leading a spirit-filled joyful life. If you do that, he loses. People around you may notice improvement in you before you feel it. Encourage feedback from your significant family members, Christian friends and others.

Lastly, do not expect to snap out of your depression on your own by an exercise of will power. This rarely happens. Reach out and ask for help from others. Remember to remove yourself from negative situations and keep your faith in the Lord. Always remember to pray. Recognize that even Christians can suffer sadness and depression. There is a way out of the storm. Remember Peter? Keep your eyes on Jesus and you can walk on the water and wade out of your depression.