Two high-profile suicides last week have me in a reflective mood. According to the CDC, the suicide rate in the United States has risen nearly 30% since 1999. Like most people, I had no idea. Unsurprisingly, this seems to coincide with the findings of Gallup’s most recent well-being survey: even though the economy continues to bounce back, the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index score dropped off tremendously in 2017. In fact, Gallup noted that the 2017 spike reflects the largest year-over-year drop in well-being in the 10 years Gallup has tracked these data. We are a polarized, anxious, unhappy people and it shows.
All of this prompts me to think about the veracity of our stories. Everyone lives in the context of a story — a meta-narrative that lends meaning and purpose to life. Who am I? What is the point of my life? What truly matters? For thousands of years, the pursuit of such questions was the domain of religion, philosophy, even science. History’s best and brightest — from the Stoics to Charles Darwin to Galileo to the Apostle Paul — have provided us with an assortment of Big Stories (meta-narratives) as answers to our most pressing questions. Even atheism — essentially the assertion that there is no divinely authored meta-narrative — is itself a meta-narrative from which one derives meaning, even if that meaning is decidedly existential.
In his seminal After Virtue, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes:
I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
If you don’t remember reading MacIntyre in your Philosophy 101 class, he’s essentially critiquing the modern culture of individualism as “morally vacuous.” We are narratival creatures — “storied” in the sense that we derive meaning from the story out of which we choose to live. What’s the first thing you do when you meet someone new? You begin to narrate your story: what you do for a living, who you’re married to, who your kids are, etc. This comes instinctively because we are wired to ascribe meaning through story. Each story is focused on a telos — a particular end. But we rarely consider the virtue of a particular story’s telos. Instead, we just kind of roll with it, thus our moral vacuousness.
To put it differently, the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have me thinking about the lie the Enemy feeds us through the stories of the world. To the minds of many, Spade and Bourdain lived a representation of “the good life”, filled with notoriety and wealth and privilege. In our celebrity culture, these two were living the kind of lives to which many would naturally aspire. And yet, tragically, this version of “the good life” was apparently unsatisfying. Maybe envy really is useless after all.
I can’t claim to know the stories out of which Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were living. But I feel certain that somewhere along the way, they were handed a false telos. Maybe that telos was the “good life” of fame and fortune and, in the end, that story inevitably failed to deliver on its promise of fulfillment. Maybe that telos was the utter despair they felt in their last moments — the cold, grim possibility that there really is NO telos after all. Maybe we’ll never know what that telos was for these two, except to say it was a false one.
And it’s enough for us to reflect on our own lives at a deep level. To ask about our telos, our meta-narrative, our story.
And, hopefully, to expose the moral vacuousness of the Enemy’s lies.