Lesson 17: Death of Despair in the Pandemic

Death of DespairWithout a doubt, the pandemic has forced us to face our mortality. In the past, we talked about the threat of nuclear or climate disaster, but it was always in the abstract. We could easily dismiss it as only a possibly and move to our next task. Now suddenly, day after day, our deaths confront us. We realize we could become infected tomorrow by someone we meet in the store, end up on a ventilator, and die in a matter of weeks. Some of my friends want to discuss the horrors of dying while trying to catch your breath and ask whether suicide is justified in such a situation.

Living more consciously with the reality of our deaths has provoked a number of responses. I find two very interesting: the increased concern about deaths of despair and the emerging questions about the pro-life argument. Let me examine the first, this week and the second, next.

Several articles about deaths of despair have appeared in the middle of the pandemic, almost implying the need to finally face up to this phenomenon. As you might know, death of despair refers to the steep rise in deaths resulting from drug overdoses, alcoholic liver diseases, and suicide since the middle of the 1990s. Studies show it is pretty much confined to middle aged people in the United States, especially white men who do not have a college degree.

All the studies I read agree the main factor in this hopelessness is the economic inequity in our affluent nation. The despairing have experienced a steady loss of income ever since the 1970s. They have become more and more fatalistic as they have lost once substantial jobs to outsourcing and automation. At the same time, a few very rich people are unashamedly accumulating great wealth in this situation.

The authors also blamed being unable to live by societal standards. They associated demoralization with immorality. Often mentioned was serial cohabitation contributing to hopelessness. Single mothers moving from one partner to another and raising children from different fathers finally give up.

I was struck that these sociological studies looked to ethics and religion for hope in coping with the despair that leads to needless death. They often ended with some comment about hoping that the pandemic would teach us the importance of little acts of selflessness and generosity. Some suggested that it was time to stop valuing everything according to cost effectiveness or to begin regarding co-operation rather than competition as the model for a healthy society. One accompanied that last one with a remark that the pandemic has revealed that the cowboy capitalism that has taken over our nation leads to poverty and plague.

The pandemic has revealed we are afflicted with many forms of sickness unto death. Perhaps being forced to cope with the ever-present threat of our own death will inspire us to search for ways to heal the despair experienced by so many in our unjust society.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    I have a Mennonite friend who I meet often and both of us are active in our respective churches. We share thoughts on current events and reactions in our church communities. As the pandemic began, my friend made a comment that has stuck with me, he said “These people are afraid to die”. Of course, what he meant was much deeper. In pointing out the panic, paranoia and fear that became pervasive, he meant that people in the greater world are both unprepared for and greatly fear….death. His point was you approach our mortal death very differently as a devoted Christian, to paraphrase (1 Cor 15) scripture – death has lost its sting. I fear we have lost a great opportunity to provide comfort in this storm of fear among those unversed in Gods saving grace.

    All reports indicate significantly higher suicide rates during this pandemic. People are afraid to connect with one another. No school, no work, no graduation, no visiting loved ones, locked down at home, people everywhere in masks….of course fear will prevail. Add in fears of how you will pay bills, catch up on school, if your loved ones are OK. This is a time (of all times) to help those in spiritual need. In too many cases, we are absent….we are AWOL. We allow our own fear for ourselves to prevail, walking away from spiritual support for others. Shame on us. We do not know Gods plan, but we do know the Good News. We need not fear.

  2. Fritz Foltz says:

    I received more than the usual email responses to this one. None were happy with the economic situation and came at it from many different perspectives. An international CPA offered this:

    1. I think that a major problem for all our have-nots is the success of our lobbyists. Remember
    that back in the Eisenhower days the top tax rate was something like 92%. As far as we know, the rich were still rich. Ooops, don’t forget that some of our investment income gets taxed at lower rates than minimum wage income.
    2. Now, regardless of who pays for it, healthcare costs double what it costs in other civilized countries.

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