Have Millions of Americans Lost the Will to Live?

COMMENTARY: It seems that the United States contains whole demographics of citizens who are simply giving up on life. And we should do our part to reach out to these hurting souls.

(photo: Shutterstock/Antonio Guillem)

A new genre of Life at the Bottom literature has been emerging in our national blogs and magazines. It features gloomy pieces about the bitter plight of our nation’s least-fortunate, whose lives are apparently solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Why so short, in our materially rich country? The answers are telling.

In our country, impoverished blacks are dying violently at alarming rates; black Americans are being murdered at 12 times the average rate for all citizens of developed nations. We shouldn’t oversimplify the causes here. Across all ethnic groups, intra-racial homicide is far more common than interracial homicide, and police shootings represent only a very small fraction of total deaths. Still, we should easily agree that the rising rates of homicide indicate both a tragedy and an enormous social problem.

Where homicide is rarer, suicide is more frequent.

Impoverished whites are dying of suicide and drug overdose at appalling rates. These menaces are both responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths each year. Of course, they are disproportionately concentrated in regions where unemployment is high and marriage and birth rates are low. Churches and other civic institutions are likewise declining in many of these areas.

It seems that the United States now has whole demographics of citizens who are simply losing the will to live. There is even a name for this now: “despair death.”

There are places in America where life is fairly good. Other places seem to be drowning in dysfunction and despair. One recent blog essay by “Anne Amnesia” (discussed here by The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher) dubs these desperate people “The Unnecessariat.” They contribute nothing to our public life, so nobody cares if they die.

It’s interesting to me how these “life-at-the-bottom” stories tend to return to this common theme: widespread social indifference. Millions upon millions of Americans feel like their lives are meaningless, these articles assert, but nobody out there seems to care.

On one level, I think the suggestion that there’s widespread apathy about this group is somewhat inaccurate. If nobody cares about “The Unnecessariat,” why is it that I can hardly go online without tripping over another heavy reflection on their problems? It seems to me that our social and political commentary is, if anything, drenched in anxiety over this group. That’s understandable. Feeling the desperation radiating outwards from these collapsing communities, we want to do something. Accordingly, we debate entitlements, unions, school choice, addiction treatment, the collapse of marriage and so on, always feeling the pressing force of the question: What is to be done?

We know that we can’t just let whole communities self-destruct while we sip Starbucks on the sidelines. So we discuss solutions. The problem is that most of the recommended ones have been tried, usually with limited success. We don’t permit these people to die because we don’t care; it’s more that we don’t know how to help.

On another level, though, I can agree that indifference is a problem. Politicians and talking heads debate what is to be done, and sometimes they even do things. But those things don’t usually involve, say, crossing the threshold of a family that just lost a parent or child to drug overdose. They don’t involve walking into high-crime neighborhoods to help negotiate solutions between rival gangs.

People look at our national politics and demand “someone who cares.” In reality, though, the diffuse concern of politicians and social critics isn’t what the desperate truly want. That kind of concern may be sincere, and sometimes it may even turn out to be productive, but suffering people need personal love and concern.

First and foremost, they need to feel the love of God. It is surely no accident that declining religiosity tends to coincide with growing despair. When we trust that all things are held in God’s providence and that he has a good and meaningful plan for every individual life, even hardships can be gateways to grace.

Even for those who aren’t yet ready to accept that grace, some human contact is needed. People are yearning for an actual human being to meet them wherever they are, look at them through human eyes and communicate the message, “I see you, and I care about you.”

That kind of care can’t be delivered en masse through a government program. It can only be offered directly, from one person to another. Pope Francis reiterates this point regularly, as in this speech, wherein he reminds the Swiss bishops to be zealous about sharing the Good News and fostering a “rich, serene and fraternal life together.” The Church, he reminds us, is not a non-governmental organization.

It’s interesting how, even among those who favor subsidiarity and localism in principle, there can be a kind of implicit assumption that a national solution is needed, without which our whole society is likely to collapse into this kind of dysfunction.

Even people of faith (like Dreher, who is an Orthodox Christian) sometimes seem prone to the same kind of paralyzing despair that identifies the collapsing pockets of American society as truly indicative of our national trajectory. Why should this be so? Thriving and productive subcultures do also exist in America, and if anything, it’s usually these segments that succeed in perpetuating themselves, while the more desiccated communities dwindle.

In a nation of more than 300 million people, it’s not reasonable to expect that life will be good everywhere, all the time. Though we should of course be concerned about the poor and the walking wounded, we shouldn’t allow that concern to become so pervasive that we ourselves to begin to despair. That’s what tends to happen, however, when we allow the political left to persuade us that every example of suffering is indicative of systemic national failure.

In fact, the implicit demand for a national solution may be a big part of the problem. Sweeping government programs can do a tolerable job of keeping people fed and sheltered, but usually at a cost. Man does not live by bread alone. Having tended to the bodies of the poor (by voting and paying our taxes), we can easily become complacent about their minds and hearts and souls. Those are still very much in need of care, and here it is individuals, in parishes and neighborhoods and townships, who need to offer that care.

It is not a unique indictment of our society that the poor are still with us. That is a commonplace of all human societies. Nevertheless, it may be an indictment of you and me as Christians if we fail to offer love and solicitude to suffering individuals within our community’s sphere of concern.

In a materially rich world, these spiritual deficiencies have become especially glaring. By freeing ourselves from many of the physical hardships of centuries past, we have also eliminated many of the practical necessities that once brought communities together and forced human beings to be part of one another’s lives. Now we find ourselves with large numbers of people who are physically alive but psychologically and spiritually broken. I sometimes pray that God might raise up a new religious order with a charism to respond especially to these modern problems of isolation, alienation and loneliness.

Organizations like Christ in the City offer a model for how such evangelism can work. It would be beautiful to see efforts of this kind (perhaps engaging the efforts both of religious and of the laity), bringing the water of grace to the parched soil of our desperate and lonely “unnecessariat.”

In the meantime, it is up to us to combat this problem as we can, from wherever we happen to be. This problem is driven in part by our culture’s relentless need to classify “The Unnecessariat” as a group. If we sincerely are worried about them, our immediate response might be to find actual persons who feel desperate and alone. Issue them an “exit visa” by listening and caring. Make sure they’ve heard the Good News about Another who understands their troubles intimately and who has promised all who approach him that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the

University of St. Thomas in

St. Paul, Minnesota.