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Aug 28, 2021

There’s a photo that circulated a few years ago on social media that really made an impression on me. A man perches beyond the railing of a bridge in London, plainly ready the jump. But a crowd of strangers has gathered, wrapping their arms around him through the bars of the bridge and even tying his legs and torso with ropes to keep him from leaping to his death. The man has turned around, away from the fatal drop and toward his rescuers. He is not fighting them. He seems to be weeping. According to reports, these good Samaritans clutched the suicidal man for over an hour until police arrived with a bucket lift to lower him to safety and transport him to a hospital.

I brought up this viral photo during my conversation with Dr. Matthew Sleeth because it illustrates in a simple yet stunning way how inadequate individual autonomy is when dealing with suicide. There is no moment quite like the moment when a person decides life is no longer worth living. It’s incomparable because of how much it reveals. At the point when, as Joseph puts it in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a person decides to throw away God’s greatest gift, our modern conceits about self-realization and esteem fall to pieces.

When you come to believe that your life is too miserable, your resilience too depleted, and your future too hopeless to continue breathing, a self-centered worldview has no more comfort to offer you—only a cold sendoff. You are, after all, the ultimate arbiter of your destiny, the “captain of your ship.” And if you have decided the voyage is over, then who is to say otherwise? Who can rightfully impose their view of reality and purpose on you? How dare they coerce and deny you the right to choose?

Yet the image of a crowd restraining a suicidal man—not with force so much as reaffirming arms and bonds he welcomed—this image drives us to the point of tears. And it makes it plain why consent and personal autonomy aren’t enough for a civilized society. We need each other. Sometimes we need a hand there to curtail our freedoms, to override our self-will, and to tell us life is still worth living when our imaginations fail. And without the intervention and care of others, they will inevitably fail.

Two weeks ago I had a conversation with a young man as he drove me to the Traverse City Airport in Michigan. As we passed apple orchards and corn fields, the subject turned to America’s suicide epidemic. He asked me what I thought was behind our current tide of so-called “deaths of despair.” I told him that it came down to a natural and supernatural answer. Naturally speaking, people have lost touch with one another. Community and connection are no longer the scaffolding of Americans’ everyday lives, and the resulting isolation has been deadly.

Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” which I’m still working my way through, documents the disintegration of mediating institutions. Where once our country teemed with voluntary associations that gave life rhythm and meaning for millions, now it echoes like the empty buildings of social clubs and civic associations. Venues in which strangers and neighbors could meet and share an evening have dwindled to near non-existence. In their place, glowing screens curate faceless social experiences that unite us with avatars of distant persons who know only as much of us as we choose to publish. These strangers almost certainly lack the insight (and probably the will) to intervene on our behalf when despair takes hold. They certainly can’t reach out and wrap their arms around our teetering forms.

The second part of my answer was supernatural. Along with the silent shells of Elks and Moose Lodges, Kiwanis, American Legion, and (thanks, Putnam) even bowling leagues, we see empty churches. America’s main streets and boulevards are lined with the moldering husks of Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Baptist congregations once packed with worshipers. Now these are little better than museums, warmed by visitors mostly at Christmas and Easter, and then only as a formality. Calling these “communities” would be laughable, were it not so sad.

Even evangelical congregations, packed as they may be into auditoriums in the suburbs, tend toward showmanship over discipleship. Consumers often enjoy a light show and TED talk, and maybe some hastily-brewed coffee in the lobby. But how many can point to a fellow Christian who knows their deepest struggles well enough to tell when they’re on the ledge, much less talk them down from it? Even the most sanguine megachurch pastors must admit they struggle to remember most names. Can they keep their congregants from jumping?

As I told my friend while we drove through Michigan, even a little connection would blunt America’s suicide epidemic. This is true not only because real friendship and human company make life worth living, but because they remind us that life’s value isn’t subjective, and therefore doesn’t depend on our circumstances.

In the opening chapter of “Hope Always,” Dr. Sleeth tells the story of two patients who were admitted to his hospital. The first was a young man full of promise who had chosen a .22 caliber bullet through his temple instead of a future. The second was a man a few years older who, despite being wheelchair bound from a neurological injury, was filled with joy and gratitude for life. He was admitted for an illness that had gotten out of control, but from which he soon recovered. Only after telling the story of these two young men does Dr, Sleeth reveal that they were one and the same.

Thanks to rapid and determined medical intervention, this patient survived his suicide attempt, much to the gratitude of his parents. Dr. Sleeth, who was an atheist at the time, recalls his wonder at seeing a quadriplegic patient relish life where an able-bodied young man once chose to throw his away. He recalls also his amazement when this young man’s parents embraced and kissed him for bringing their son back from death’s door, even if it was in a wheelchair.

It’s a powerful beginning to a book on suicide and an effective reminder that “quality of life” has more to do with who we are than how we are. Yet Dr. Sleeth doesn’t keep the real source of this young man’s newfound zest for life a secret. Christian faith, he explains, helped turn the human embrace of parents and doctors into a picture—perhaps even a means—of Divine love. For this remarkable patient, the realization that life has value irrespective of circumstances or psychological state came in the form of a physician who wouldn’t let him die, of parents who wouldn’t let paralysis spoil their joy, and of a God who wouldn’t let despair have the last word.

In the midst of a historic suicide epidemic, we need connection, with each other and with our creator, because autonomy is a literal dead-end. And when we feel those arms reaching through the bars to hold us back, we may find, like that man on the bridge in London, and the Dr. Sleeth’s patient, that we’re glad not to be in charge for once