“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” – Viktor Frankl
One aspect of suicidal desire comes from the feeling of loneliness and isolation resulting from a lack communal belonging. Here I demonstrate how the concept of ‘the sacred’ helps us understand communal belonging, particularly in relation to the meaning of service. I apply this concept to veterans in transition to civilian life, showing how the loss of meaning and purpose can result from losing a tight-knit community centered on the sacred ideal of service.
In the book Suicide, Durkheim describes the function of the ‘sacred’ as an ideal that binds individuals together into moral communities; he states, “it’s object is to raise man above himself and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead, if he followed only his own individual whims.”
Moral communities provide individuals with a sense of purpose by giving them a cause to serve outside themselves. In his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan A. Wood describes how this sense of service assisted his recovery after leaving the military following his return from war in Afghanistan.
Bryan found himself unable to connect with friends whose infuriating black and white view of the war drove a wedge between them. At work, he could no longer derive a sense of purpose from the office job he had once held: “I started looking through the work files…trying to find a purpose to any of them. Strangely, I could not find a single one that seemed to matter.”
After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
After a few years of feeling isolated and battling post-traumatic stress, Bryan received advice from a friend that would begin his healing process: “If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.”
‘Service’ is the outward manifestation of moral purpose provided by a sacred ideal. The military provides a high degree of moral purpose, leaving veterans vulnerable to feel lost and apathetic in civilian life.
A high degree of responsibility for one’s comrades, guided by the sacred ideal of public service, instills a strong sense of meaning and purpose for individuals in the military community, potentially leading to problems when transitioning to civilian life. An individual I interviewed stated:
Once you’re out of that environment you realize, okay what do I do now? How can I possibly top that? Where do you go from here? You’re at the top of your game, you were doing something meaningful, relevant, you had a focus, you had direction, you had support, you had comradery… it’s like god, what do I do now, everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here, there’s no purpose, nobody stands for anything, life seems very shallow after that.
As another individual stated, “We want to serve, that’s our mantra… a lot of guys will join the paramedics, police, or fire-department, because they want to be in that position of service to other people… that’s who we are.” . Coming out of the military, as one veteran states:
You lose the sense that you are serving your country. Serving your country tends to be an undervalued activity, but it is one that veterans have embraced. Unlike any other profession, they put their life on the line. What they are looking for is something like what they just left, and that doesn’t exist anymore, so that’s why so many people don’t actually leave the military; they go to the reserves or they go into organizations that deliver projects to the military or they go on as trainers.
Durkheim (1933) states, “…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” Service-personal thrive on a sense of duty through service – the title “service-personnel” is itself is based on the idea of duty.
When the circumstances that keep one awake to a life of duty fades, one is thrown into a world of sleepwalkers; or as Durkheim states, “when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?” As a veteran states: “You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul.” This same participant went on to describe the military’s moral milieu in terms of providing a “psychological paycheck”:
You get two paychecks in the military: you get your pay monetarily, but you also get paid psychologically in the military… a sense of purpose, focus, comradery, mission, and all those kinds of things… but when you leave the military often times they take away both of those paychecks, or at least one of them; they take the psychological pay.
This individual experienced suicidal thoughts after leaving the military. These thoughts became very serious and all hope was almost lost last year after witnessing the long string of military suicides in Canada. Witnessing these suicides added to the trauma of losing a sense of meaningful military service. In addition to the transitional trauma of losing the “psychological paycheck” provided by the military, isolation is further instilled when individuals don’t feel their government is respecting the sacred obligation to care for them upon their return.
Serving those who served requires creating opportunities for veterans to regain a sense of purpose through the sacred bonds of communal life. The first aspect of facilitating this sense of community requires governments to uphold their sacred obligation to veterans, demonstrating a degree of warmth, care, and timely access to necessary benefits and services. The second aspect consists of creating opportunities for veterans to apply their skills in civilian life, regaining a sense of contribution to a common cause.