Suicide and Immortality, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader responds to the earlier one who invoked the role religion can play in helping people cope with suicidal thoughts:

Your reader’s certainty that there is something after death, and that it is apparently self-evidently better, strikes me as the same kind of sadness that he or she sees in those who don’t share such certainty. If this is all there is, can’t that be a motivation to make the most of whatever life on Earth we have?

I feel sorry for the reader, who can apparently only find joy in life through a belief in something after it. (If the reader feels a touch of condescension from my words, consider that their words may have provided the same.) If someone can’t find meaning in their work, their family and friends, or the life that surrounds us, I have to wonder if they simply lack the imagination necessary to revel in the wonder of the world.

Another reader asks of the religious one, “Would not the knowledge of an afterlife make this life utterly meaningless? For what would 60 or 80 years be against eternity?” Another reader offers alternative ways to cope with suicidal thoughts:

Religion can be inspiring, but it can also be self righteous navel gazing—and it’s no panacea for those who are trying to find meaning in this world and life. I speak from long experience; I’ve been a diagnosed depressive since I was a teenager and I’m nearly 50 now. Daily, I wrestle with the existential “Why am I here/why do I bother?” line of thinking that threatens to drag me down into the abyss.

How to resist?

Find something to GIVE AWAY that can give your life meaning. I give my time and energy to a laboratory investigating ways to make growing plants indoors easier, less resource intensive, and less expensive. I feel very strongly that my work will benefit those who come after me, and it’s that thought that propels me out of bed in the morning.

I don’t need a religion; any newspaper will do to remind me that millions go hungry every day who might benefit from what I’m doing. THAT thought gives urgency to the direction of my life—and now I have no time to be depressed.

I invite everyone who feels insignificant to try their hand at giving something. As long as the gift is beneficial to the recipient, it can be nearly anything ... and the more you do it, the less depressed you’ll feel!

This reader takes an even broader view of humanity and its place in the universe:

I don’t claim to have any esoteric, hidden knowledge, but I think your religious reader has forgotten a wellspring of human meaning which I frequently tap into. I was raised with no faith in an omniscient divine and feel none of its Grace to this day. But I am frequently overwhelmed with the sublime—not from God, but from our own species.

I currently live in Seoul, and whenever I cross the Hannam bridge, looking at the giant towers our species has constructed along the banks of the Han, the way the buildings both obfuscate and conform to the mountains of Seoul, I am overwhelmed with a mystic sense of humanity. So much of what makes our society today is the legacy of many generations that toiled and sacrificed for an imagined, hypothetical descendant.

What is our society except a glimpse into our ancestors and a deep faith in their visions, hopes, and laws? We live surrounded by things we have not done and could never do on our own, but they were done by humans, like ourselves, combined into a collective agent. I am reminded of Durkheim, who wrote off of Kant that we are shaped by a priori social categories of thought. That idea bewilders me—that so much of who we are is not made by a God, or simply springs from the Earth, but is shaped by humans, by people like us.  

So I think there is still great meaning in the world, even without the blessings of some omnipotent being. And it makes death frightening, because in death, we may lose what makes human life so fascinating and mystic. It also makes immortality wondrous, because then we can perpetuate our vision further into the future and find even more time to bask in our humanity.