Anthony Bourdain’s suicide hits me pretty hard in this particular moment. I used to watch his show regularly during my Wilderness years, living in the mountains outside of Santiago de Chile, and struggling with my own depression and suicidal thoughts. At present, I’m living not too far from that house, and it was around this time of the year, with snow covering the Andes, in 2010, that things became the darkest. It was a period that lasted for 15 months more, before slowly subsiding, but the period seemed like an eternity to me then.
Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in America, and is skyrocketing. Alongside Alzheimer’s and drug overdoses, it is one of only three of the leading causes of death that is growing.
I cannot help but see the link between them. Drug overdoses are effectively suicides with weaker intentionality, and Alzheimer’s is the subconscious suicide of the mind & memory, which I have the strong suspicion will be eventually borne out by research as the result of suppressed, unprocessed psychological trauma. War veterans experience Alzheimer’s at rates 60% higher than non-veterans, and there is strong research evidence linking Alzheimer’s to PTSD more generally.
Attempts to find strictly physical causes of these phenomena are dangerously wrong-headed. We should not be prescribing people more Omega-3s as some solution to this, though perhaps people should eat more of them anyway. We should not be telling people to call suicide hotlines. We should be examining the roots of this unusual set of diseases that result from the loss of the will to live — perhaps the strongest biological drive of any living organism. When this has been broken, something must be horribly wrong underneath the surface.
The root of these diseases is in cognitive dissonance. The degeneration of language in the dissonance between the way people use words, and what words actually mean. The dissonance between people’s words and their behavior. The dissonance between intention and action in a world where one cannot possibly do something to directly effect a desired outcome, but where almost the inverse of rational action is required to achieve a desired outcome. The dissonance between Nature and Modern/Postmodern lifestyles. The deep levels of denial about the horrors humans inflict in the name of empty words like Freedom, Liberty, and Love.
We are all victims of the dissonance, and we are all its perpetrators.
American culture and identity (both versions, Red and Blue) are fundamentally dishonest. At their core, they are not just petty lies, but mammoth ones. They are the gigantic horcruxes into which the American soul has been divided and cast, after the murder of however many thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of physical lives, and the tens and hundreds of millions of psychological lives that have been sacrificed to maintain the ruse that America is the land of the free and a force for good in the world.
American children are raised in a land where more men are raped every year than women because of the atrocity of the American prison system. They are raised with the implicit threat that the punishment for any violation of the regulations is rape. This is reinforced with every television show and film that portrays prison. Undoubtedly the suicide of Aaron Schwartz can be linked to this tragic reality.
They are raised in a world where they are told their every move, every word spoken or written, is being watched and monitored in the cloud. They are increasingly raised in a world where every person must be treated as a potential accuser, that nobody can be permitted to get too close without risking exposure and vulnerability.
This is not the rule of law, this is not justice, this is not freedom. It is not even slavery. It is a 9.8 million square kilometer death camp whose prisoners are slowly tortured by being force fed more and more dissonance with every passing day.
The celebrity suicides we are reading about are from highly successful, intelligent people who achieved worldly success, but who for whom it was insufficient, unsatisfying. Anthony Bourdain was clearly somebody who always marched to the beat of his own drum, and with many individual demons of his own. I cannot help, in such a moment, but to think also of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, perhaps the single most thoughtful and reflective member of Gen X.
They are people too intelligent and reflective to pretend the dissonance isn’t there, and too principled to ignore it, but also too faithless to find another way of coping. When I say faithless, I do not mean it in the perverted Enlightenment sense of belief in which it is used in our generation, but rather the ability to suspend disbelief about the connection between means and ends at the margin. To act as if right action is self-justifying, and that outcomes must be left to the future to determine. This kind of faith is not about belief, but will. The will to accept the possibilities of life, over the certainty of death, even when all of life’s probability seem to point toward heartache and anguish.
Suicide’s victims often have thought they could do something about the evil in themselves or the evil in the world — that somehow, through their art and craft, and the force of their work, make some advance against the darkness of the age, only to see their efforts ignored, twisted, or thwarted, or to have failed repeatedly in their own personal struggles with the darkness, and do not have the faith that next time it could be different.
The personal struggle with personal difficulties is always the focal point of the stories about suicides, whether it is the difficulties with depression or alcohol, or relationships, or money. But these things are the results of underlying dysfunctionality of the mind and spirit, of this dissonance I’m describing. Were it not for the significant increase in the suicide rate, our analysis could stop at the individual level. But darker realities underlie our current events.
It is the dissonance that drives people to drink. It is the dissonance that drives people to depression. Suicide is just the result of many layers of despair, each one applied in the hope of extinguishing the one below, until it compounds to the point where there is no hope left at all.
We do not need more psychologists or hotlines. We do not need better psychiatric pharmaceuticals. We need integrity and holiness, in the literal senses of the words. We need to destroy the horcruxes, and glue the fragments of our souls back together. We need the courage to stop allowing ourselves to be perpetually traumatized by the cancerous culture that is trying its best to eat us all alive.
No more compartmentalizing life. No more living one way over here, and another way over there. No more silencing ourselves about the evil we see that underlies the entire foundation of our modern lives. No more fearing what we might discover if we go searching deep inside ourselves to find what is truly wrong with the world and our part in perpetuating it.
The problems are not out there, but “in here.” And it is the “in here” that causes the problems out there. Our own inability to cope with the dissonance causes us to behave in ways that only exacerbate the dissonance from others. So much of our behavior toward one another is the externalizing of our costs of living with the dissonance. These externalities compound one another, and more efficiently with contemporary forms of media at our disposal.
We must root it out, each of us in our individual lives, for there is no collective solution that is not fundamentally an individual solution extrapolated over the entire population.
I have said that this is a problem with American culture. But it should be noted that American culture is not limited to the boundaries of the United States. It is a cancer that has spread to the world’s lymph nodes, and is attempting to latch on to every cell in the body of our species, in every corner of the planet, wherever an undiseased cell can be found. It is likely that America itself, and Americans as a people, are wholly, completely, and irrevocably lost already. It may well be that like Rome, there is little to do but watch as it burns itself to the ground in its own greed and deceit. On my better days, I am able to hope that it is not the case. But I have fewer and fewer such days.
That notwithstanding, it needn’t be allowed to burn everything else down with it. The rest of the West is at grave risk from this conflagration, but the outcome is not inevitable. In Eastern Europe and the Latin world, where there are still vibrant young people in their 20s who are not quite digital natives and therefore not totally lost to the catatonia induced by social media, the intentional creation of an alternative to this dissonant culture is possible. But it does require swimming against the inertia of a massive tide that has already begun to come in.
With that tide comes two particular varieties of toxic garbage threatening to ensnare the swimmers — the false prophets animated by the ghosts of the past, and the false prophets animated by the Utopian ghosts promising an easy short-cut out of the wilderness.
The former are people like Jordan Peterson, arrogant demagogues peddling warped versions of abandoned ideologies trying to make things that were never great, great again — appealing to privilege lost, for those who once had it. They are trying to create a postmodern narrative of the Fall that both horrifyingly and comically claim that all was basically right with the world prior to World War II, and then everything went south, first with the Bomb and then with the Sexual Revolution (the two of which, it turns out, are strongly connected — but that is a discussion for another essay). They derive false conclusions from truthful premises. They want to live in a world *only* governed by mammalian and primate biology. If women’s rights or respect for gay people must be sacrificed, then so be it.
The latter are people like Ray Kurzweil, promising that technology will soon solve all of human suffering. The ‘inevitability’ of Artificial General Intelligence will be humanity’s last invention, and assuming it doesn’t kill us, it will make us all immortal and fabulously wealthy. The price is merely the willingness to let go of our biological reality, merge with the machines, and sever our connection to that wretched thing called the body that entraps our otherwise pure minds.
Both visions manipulate the perception of time in the same way, though. The Peterson vision wants us to believe the Apocalypse is imminent, the Kurzweil vision that the Rapture is imminent. We are constantly gaslit to think we live in some special moment, by both sides of the debate, and in this insidious accidental conspiracy of adversaries, we are convinced at least of this one fact.
The reality is something far less clear, less certain, less tractable. Our way of life will surely not continue as it is today. But no way of life has ever continued. The way of life is and has always been an ever-changing flow and evolution of consciousness. History is always not-quite repeating itself. Patterns of similarity notwithstanding, it always manifests itself in new characters and new plot twists. Just as Rome fell, the American empire will fall. All empires do. But not in the same way or with the same outcome. Caligula and Nero have been substituted out for Obama and Trump. Rome didn’t have nuclear weapons or birth control. Somehow, Persia seems to always be in the picture, though.
The Catholic Church and the Christian monarchies of Europe that replaced Rome were an improvement on it. But they were not the final word. The Renaissance & Reformation, the French & Industrial Revolutions challenged the claims of the end of history, just as our own time now challenges similar claims made about liberal social democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is because there can be no final word on the matter of the ultimate destiny of the human species. Each generation gets to decide the plot, characters, and dialogue in the next Act of the human script. No matter how hard we try, we can neither erase the prior Acts nor cement the final one — except through evil and destruction. This is why we cannot listen to anyone wanting to bring the story to a close with some settled Utopia —such projects are always surreptitious suicide pacts hocked by the leaders of death cults.
Sadly, there is this weakness inside of us, the negative residual of childhood, that somehow hopes, wishes, expects there must be an easy solution to the problem. The hope and innocence of a child in this regard, when inappropriately transferred to adulthood, risks making us sophomoric, odious, and murderous. We know these claims are too good to be true. But we want to believe them. We don’t want to accept the hard old truth that all is not gold that glitters.
Neither abandoning our biological origins, nor abandoning ourselves to them will bring us any closer to the phasm of Utopia. Perhaps the most useful way of understanding the narrative of the Garden of Eden is at a meta level — why the story appears at all. It places the “where we went wrong” event so far in the distant past that nobody can claim it was recent or make political claims about it. Nobody can claim that everything was fine until such and such happened or so and so came along. The problems have been there since the dawn of the species — full stop.
The Peterson / Alt-Right narrative places the Fall in the very recent past. The Left places it somewhere around the time of the Agricultural Revolution. They both see the demarcation line of their preferred Fall narrative as the “last stable release” and want to hit the restore button. Singulatarianism & Transhumanism are the only contemporary ideologies that understand human problems are inherent to being human, but they propose instead a definitive end to the humanness of the human experiment—a gigantic baby thrown out with a thimbleful of bathwater.
There is no way to go back to Eden, and there is no simple way forward into the New Heaven. There can be no settled history, except through death and extinction, and we cannot cling to any false promises to the contrary.
What, then, is the answer to the darkness and the dissonance? How, then, do we reclaim the will to live, and the willingness to endure that suffering which for unknown reasons, or perhaps no reason at all, is endemic to the human condition?
The embrace of truthful, humble living; the painstaking accounting of all forms of externalities; a self-critical examination of the customs and social norms in which we participate; the acceptance of uncertainty in life — these are the steps on the only possible path to healing and reconciliation. We must learn to discern when what is Natural is in our interest, as well as when it is not. We must learn to overcome our Nature when it is harmful to ourselves and others. We must not seek to escape from death by bringing it upon others, or to stamp out liveliness in the name of security. We must learn again how to make judgments, and not merely express preferences, how to act against our short-term, superficial self-interests and in favor of our deeper long-term self-interest. We must truly work out our faith with fear and trembling.
Most of all, we must learn to accept the impermanence of all of our states of affairs, that life is change and change is life — that stasis is death, and the desire for death is the defining characteristic of Evil. We must learn that engaging with Evil in the attempt to defeat it always leads to ruin. That the ancient truth is deeply true: “do not resist Evil, but overcome Evil with Good.” That we must rather so fully embrace the Good and flood ourselves in Light that Evil and Darkness cannot find a corner in which to hide. This point is so difficult to accept. Going to war against Evil is so emotionally invigorating. So morally justifying. And yet, it is always our undoing. For in fighting Evil, we grow to hate it, and in hating, we wish its Death, and in seeing it thrive, we think all hope is lost, until we reach the point of wishing for Death, either our enemy’s or our own. And in this, Death wins and Evil is victorious, converting us to its cause.
The ends do not justify the means because there are no ends.
Machiavellianism is an approach to practical reason that falsely presumes that there will be some fixed, final end-state from which everything can be judged. But there are no ends. There is only the ever-evolving transformation of one thing into another, the flow of Being through many forms. Should our Machiavellian project succeed, it will only succeed temporarily. And then, how should we be judged? The brief end moment, or what follows? Or what follows what follows? Indeed, here we see that the means must be able to justify themselves, for they can never be justified by a fiction.
Herein we see the ultimate source of the dissonance, and can finally close the loop on these thoughts. In believing our mission is to eradicate Evil, we adopt Evil’s tactics. We tell ourselves we are doing good, when we are actually doing harm. We say the ends will eventually justify us, even whilst our means condemn us. We know that Light can have no fellowship with Darkness, and so we give way to the Darkness, but tell ourselves it is in the name of the Light.
In all of our delusional avoidance of confronting and embracing the mystery of existence and suffering, we find there are three short-cuts perpetually being marketed to us: continuously fulfill the desires of the senses at the margin (consume), circumvent the need to deal with the senses at all or deny them (suicide), and control all of the inputs that influence the sensory experience (wealth/power/homicide). They are not new. They are extraordinarily old. Thousands of years of human experience attests to them, these Gods of the Marketplace.
To love life for its own sake, and to embrace it vigorously and irrationally is the first step back toward sanity, which is to say, health. The answer to death is not more death, or a war against death, but in living itself.
The sound of water breaking around smooth stones, the ecstasy of sex with your beloved, the poetry of Longfellow, the passion of Brahms, playing with dogs, the laughter of children, the longing for dear ones, restful sleep, the peculiar exhaustion that follows a day of fulfilling labor, are all forms of rebellion against death and evil, and they point to the ultimate act of defiance against it, and from which they derive their motivation — that self-extending ἀγάπη, which seeks the Good universally and unconditionally as the infinite end, the end that is always arriving and yet never arrives.
In this ἀγάπη, “that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” and in which we find our origin, we also find renewal, for there is the wellspring of life and liveliness, the voice that speaks from the darkness and says “let there be Light,” which needs no explanation and stubbornly refuses to entertain the question of “why?” dogmatically responding to every such interrogatory — I AM.