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Kyle Eller: ‘Deaths of despair’ point us in the direction of ‘the margins’

“Deaths of despair.”

That’s the jarring term being used to describe a spike in deaths from opioid addiction, as well as from drug and alcohol addictions more generally and from suicide. This spike is showing up in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

According to a recent article in MinnPost, there were five times as many deaths in Minnesota from drug overdose in 2016 as there were in 2000. Track deaths by suicide and alcohol and the graph line also rises over the same time period, although less dramatically.

Researchers are still debating what’s driving all of this, but many sensibly connect it with things like declining economic opportunity, the breakdown of the family, social isolation, and a general sense of having nothing to live for, no hope for the future.


I would add to the list of indicators. If we are speaking of deaths of despair, I think the conversation ought to include school shootings and other mass killings, abortions, and the push for assisted suicide and euthanasia. In addition to deaths, might despair and a sense of meaninglessness also have something to do with our education woes, obesity, our cratering birth rates and marriage rates, our widespread anxiety and stress? I think so.

And then there’s declining church attendance and religious adherence. I suspect that, too, is related. But as cause, effect, or both?

Making such connections is not a new idea. As I was thinking about these signs of despair, I thought of the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who years ago, in his typical dark humor, used to characterize his habit of chain-smoking Pall Malls as a classier, slow-motion form of suicide.

When you think about it, it’s odd that we should be awash in despair. If we believe the world’s narrative, why should we be?

Isn’t the stock market soaring? Isn’t the economy always recovering and everything always getting better and better, according to whoever is in office?

Hasn’t our technology advanced beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, putting instant communication around the globe, vast swaths of the world’s knowledge, worldwide news from every point of view, our address books and appointments, and an endless array of videos, music, games, and books, right in our pockets a couple of taps away?

And what about freedom? Primary obstacles to progress, we have been told, have been things like the Catholic view of human sexuality and marriage — archaic, medieval holdovers from the wrong side of history, we’re told. Over the past several years, haven’t these views been almost completely vanquished in the courts, in the media, in corporations, at the polling place, in public opinion?

Pornography is ubiquitous, there are infinite genders to choose from, family may be defined any way one pleases, and sexual license is limited only by consent. Any reservation about this situation is considered bigotry. Has any society ever come closer than ours has to realizing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous modern creed: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life ...”?

Yet despair is growing, not receding. With vast information at our fingertips, we are less informed, less educated. With instant communication we are more lonely, more isolated. Told we can define the meaning of our lives absolutely any way we want, many instead find no meaning at all.

The world has no adequate answer for why this is so. Given the possibility that technology, affluence, pleasure, and a radical freedom from any constraints, even those of human nature itself, do not bring happiness, what’s left for the world to say?

For us, our important duty is finding ways to help people who are, as St. Paul put it to the Ephesians, “without hope and without God in the world.”

Pope Benedict XVI says of this passage that Paul “knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were ‘without God’ and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. … ‘How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing’: so says an epitaph of that period.”

Sound familiar?

Pope Francis urges us to go to the margins, to refuse to be conscripted into a throwaway culture where people we consider inconvenient or burdensome are cast off. “Deaths of despair” point us in the direction of one of those margins, to the neighborhoods of some of those thrown away.

What we have to offer them is hope and meaning, because while we cannot offer them wealth, limitless pleasure and license, or worldly popularity, if we have the courage, we can bring them to God.

And God alone suffices.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]