Military Psychology Sociology

Suicide and the ‘Sacred’

Suicide and the sacred
“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.

Team Rubicon and Squad bay are some examples of organizations in the U.S. that are assisting veterans regain this sense of meaning and purpose through commitment to a common cause.

46 comments

  1. Good linking of the two concepts 🙂 and treated in a sensitive way. When I look at the theme of suicide and the sacred the themes that come to mind are martyrdom, crucifixion, stigmata and sacrifice. Would love to read more of your work – so I’ll just scroll through your blog 🙂

  2. Hello. My name is Becky and I’m changing the world. Dyingwithstyle.org is my website. I’m disabled and my mission is to get other disabled people to go out into their communities more. It is so easy to seek isolation when you’ve been through severe trauma like military service, or a disabling illness or injury. Community is so vital for maintaining a will to live. I’m still killing myself in 2027, but in the meantime, I want to encourage and inspire. I’d love any ideas or suggestions you might have for my movement.

      1. My youngest child will be 20 then. I’m ready now, but they deserve to have a mom at least through their childhood. I have multiple sclerosis, which is not terminal, but progressive in my case. I want to sign off before my kids are wiping my ass.

  3. Thanks for following my blog and providing an opportunity to explore such a wonderful blog on the subject of sociology. I agree, the lack of pupose leads one to lose meaning to his life. In materialistic war of consumption, we worship money to buy goods and have self esteem. A society where rich is more respectful than poor, results in a social system where people lose hope and motivation to live.

  4. Thank you for following my blog and for this informative post. It provided me with more insight into what veterans experience when they return home from war. Before reading this post, I knew that veterans could experience both psychological and physical trauma from their time on the battlefield, but I did not realize how devastating loneliness and isolation were to some of them off the battlefield.

    I am glad that you are bringing attention to the plight of veterans and the problems they experience as they transition from military to civilian life. They do need more attention and help, and sadly they do not always receive quality care.

  5. I am a disabled US Navy Veteran and I have found that it is harder to be a disabled veteran than it was to serving my country. For some time I struggled with thoughts of suicide even though it is not something I personally have ever believed in; there I was having thoughts and even planning how to do it. I never attempted but there were a few times I can close.

    Loneliness is not the only motivation for suicide. Pain is also a factor that need to be looked into with veterans. Veteran Hospitals need to become more equipped to handle long term pain in Veterans. Currently the policies for pain management only make the Veterans suffer more not less. If you have a chronic pain issue the Veterans Hospitals do not want to give you anything strong enough to handle the pain in fear you may become addicted. So they give you some motrin and send you on your way. After years of pain comes depression and eventually hopelessness. Pain is a slippery slop and can make someone feel worthless.

    The Veterans Hospitals need to start helping Veterans grow their own medicine or grow it for them. Cannabis saved my life. No fear of addiction since caffeine is more addictive than cannabis. There are many medical benefits to using cannabis. It helps treat pain, depression and even PTSD some of the most common aliments suffered by Veterans.

    “Spread Cannabis Knowledge!”
    FM

  6. This is a tremendous piece Steve; the relationship between suicidal thoughts and loss of community particularly resonates with me. Wondering if you have ever read James Hillman’s “Suicide and the Soul”?

  7. Perhaps you should look a wee bit at The Legion.
    Not just a superficial look—take time out to go right into it (no, I don’t mean join) and look at what it’s all about. There’s a lot of psychology there, an academic study that should be relevant to your theme.

    1. Thank you for the suggestion. From my experience in the Legion and talking to veterans about it, I for sure see a relevant academic study that could be done on it, especially from a historical perspective.

      1. You did time in the Legion? Wow …

        But I was thinking more along the lines of a social study than historical; Legio patria nostra, remember?

        The legion looks after its own … compare to how many US ‘beloved and honored’ pop themselves off each week?

  8. It is a crying shame that this happens to our finest and brightest young men and women…a thankless job…no truer words when you see their plight. Thanks so much for this sensitive and enlightening post. I pray for those who must return to a sense of hopelessness, joblessness, and an uncertain future. They need our attention and our help…most of all, our appreciation and love.

  9. I encountered a framework for maturity delivered by a woman name Delorese Ambrose. It defined a cycle of power that begins with Powerlessness, and progresses through Association, Accomplishment, Introspection, Purpose and Wisdom. She called Accomplishment the “sexy” part of the cycle. It is being in the position of having a lot of people committed to having you around because you serve an important function. It is, in a sense, living for others.

    In a number of case histories (including Lee Iacocca), I have been made aware of how hard it is to fall from that place, to return to being just another person. People will kill to avoid that happening, or destroy themselves.

    That’s because the work of introspection is so hard. It’s realizing “Hey, that wasn’t me! That was what all those other people wanted!” It means standing up for ourselves, and saying: “Well, if I can satisfy all those people happy, then I can certainly satisfy myself.” It means throwing away all those external definitions of success, and deciding what YOU believe is important.

    From which we discover Purpose.

  10. Being a victim of a loss of hope myself, this is a deep issue. Depression is the root. That is something we can never forget and only upbringing communities end a loss of hope. There are always more no’s then yes’s in life and that takes continual uplifting.

  11. Very interesting post – I wonder how many people who “live rough”, or are living outside society’s norms – even those not veterans of military service, are likewise in some way disenfranchised with our consumer addicted society?

    Great to bring attention to suicidal thoughts, and open up discussion on this often taboo subject.

  12. A great article. So the question arises, what is the Canadian government doing in regards to all of this. Is your own research finding ears that are willing to listen? Are there departments willing to modify their current working strategies that just aren’t doing it…if you know what I’m asking?

  13. 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.”

  14. I like your post. This is very informative. I’d like to add that I have never served in the military, however, my father was in Vietnam and served there for one year.

    Something that he has told me repeatedly is that the military trains up a soldier to have a mentality to destroy, kill and conquer…but after their tour is over, the military hands them a pink slip with a “thanks for serving” message but doesn’t do anything to retrain them for civilian service.

    I don’t know if this plays a role in PTSD or suicidal thoughts for ex-military persons, but it’s something to consider.

  15. Excellent post on an important, but often hidden problem. As a nurse for many years, I understand exactly what you mean by ‘sacred ideal of service’. You work as a member of a team, often united by adversity and certainly by a common aim – to serve your community. It is near impossible to recreate this in the modern, soulless, commercial workplace. Public service – in all its permutations – has much to teach our fragmented society. I wish it was listening!

  16. Very interesting. I totally agree that to find happiness folks must come out of themselves and find a higher purpose than self-indulgence (which is rampant). However, I think you misuse the word “sacred” when you refer to “public service” as being “sacred.” It is a higher purpose than self, and assuredly a lofty purpose, but hardly sacred!

    1. Thank you for your comment. Perhaps I should have have been more clear and provided a deeper explication regarding my Durkheiman social realist conceptualization of the ‘sacred’. How would you define your concept of the sacred?

  17. Feeling lonely, especially those without a family or the family roots to fall back, are the prime victims of loneliness. This becomes compounded with the fact that many veterans retire early in life and have many a productive years ahead of them.
    To make this stage of life meaningful, one got to find suitable employment for them. The society and the government has a role to play in this aspect. Reserving a part of the police and security related jobs for the veterans will go a long way.
    Keeping oneself engaged and busy through a job, community activities, pursuing various interests and passions one could not pursue while in the military are some suggestions. Always remember that “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop”. The communities, municipalities etc should encourage veterans to take up voluntary services like school crossing guard, assist in library etc.
    Most veterans while serving did not bother much about the veterans and when one becomes a veteran, they want the military to look after them. Most soldiers never think and visualise that one day they will be veterans. It is high time that this reality dawns on all soldiers.
    Preparing a soldier. moth psychologically and by training them in a skill they can adapt when they retire is the most important aspect, but is never given the weightage required.
    The faith in God – at least as an answer to all the unresolved puzzles of life – will surely help the veterans to tide over some difficulties. They can always blame it on God Almighty.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write this comment. I agree that finding suitable employment is key. Regarding theistic faith, I’m sure it assists many people cognitively process their experiences, but my concept of the sacred is fully agnostic.

  18. Thanks, Durkheim is an interesting academic. I had almost forgotten Anomie and its role in social disorder. the Military can easily provide a shelter from the Anomie we see in our modern world today.

  19. About 1 in 10 rough sleepers in the UK are ex-mil. I know because I was one once.

    Thing is, apart from hating the world what drove them there, it is the loss of their forces identity, their “family” that destroys them.

    That and some being discharged with no regard to illness (PTSD) and occasionally the loss of their own personal family who can’t cope with the depths of despair and rage some vets suffer from..

    Finally some just arrive there following their experiences of working for civilian bosses.
    Bosses? Boy did I want to write another word for them.

    It’s true most ex go into paramilitary type jobs (security, emergency services) as they live, breath and shit duty, and crave a return to an organized life
    Such work is the nearest they can get to rejoining a family.

    For the lucky ones the time on the streets is brief as it was for me YET there is a ‘bro’ type of attraction within the ex-mil homeless and of course the bottle.

    The person who saved me wasn’t ex-mil though, a young street girl who ‘adopted me’ and made me stand up.

    I wonder why and how that happened occasionally.
    The slide, the street life, and the super fast recovery.
    Thanks Megan wherever you are.

    I also spit on the ‘assistance’ Forces Charities and religion gave (NOT!) me even though I was brave enough to ask for it. Apart from the Sally (Salvation) Army’s kindness, foraging and scavenging was my norm because of that.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m glad to hear you’ve recovered!

      I really like how you said, “apart from hating the world what drove them there, it is the loss of their forces identity, their ‘family’ that destroys them.” This is central to my own research on what it means to come ‘home’. The slide into homelessness can be the the tragic consequence of the loss of one’s military family affecting one’s ability to reintegrate into one’s civilian family, therefore potentially causing the individual to lose both. Glad to hear that the downward spiral into homelessness was promptly reversed by the care of a compassionate individual.

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