Deaths of Despair

In his classic work Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  It’s a phrase oft-repeated that resonates with many, but the observation, though insightful, has hardly been the stuff of empirical data.  That may be changing.  Nobel-laureate and Princeton Professor of Economics, Sir Angus Deaton, and his colleague Anne Case published an interesting paper in 2015[1] containing some surprising data.  In it they note that mortality rates (deaths per thousand) have steadily declined for decades in America, as in other rich and industrialized countries, and then present data which reveals a reversal in that trend during 1998 through the present, but only in America, and only in one demographic group: middle-aged, white men and women.  The increase in death rates for this group applies in all regions of the country, and is attributable to the increase in deaths resulting from drug and alcohol poisonings, and suicide.  Deaton and Case refer to these as “deaths of despair.”

There are probably many valid points that can be drawn from this data, but it is nevertheless striking that in this day and age when almost all people across all demographic groups in the West are living longer (undoubtedly because of improvements in technology and healthcare), the “hiccup” in that trend is due to a measurable increase in deaths rooted in despair.

An Existential Reality

The Bible doesn’t gloss over despair as an existential reality.  In the dark and brooding Psalm 88, the sons of Korah wrote, “From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair” (Psalm 88:15). The Teacher in Ecclesiastes reflected on all his hard work and, upon being struck by the realization that when he died everything he worked for was going to end up in the hands of another whom he couldn’t be sure would be wise or a fool, admitted: “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune” (Ecclesiastes 2:20-21).  When honestly acknowledging such absurdity and resulting despair, one might well ask him or herself “What’s the point?” Pushing that inquiry further, as Albert Camus did, one might even question how and whether to go on living.[2]

But Not a Necessity

While recognizing that despair is a reality, however, the scriptures also offer hope that despair is not a necessity, and this hope is rooted in God and his work in and through our lives.  The apostle Paul wrote to the church he started at Corinth, reflecting first on “God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” and that we can experience God’s awesome power and work even as frail and flawed people (2 Corinthians 4:5-6). He then concluded with this application:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Thus, even when surrounded by trouble and persecution, or feeling like we have a front row seat in the Theatre of the Absurd, we need not despair.  Why?  Because of what God is doing in us, and what he has in store for us:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).

An Invitation to All

If you find yourself mired in despair, I would gently and respectfully remind you of God’s unconditional love for you (John 3:16), and Jesus’ invitation to all: ““Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. … Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:1-27).


[1] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”, PNAS, vol. 112, no.49, 15078 (Dec. 8, 2015).
[2] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Justin O’Brien, translator (Hamish Hamilton 1955).

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