Military Psychology Sociology

A Life-Saving Philosophy


“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.” – Bryan A. Wood

In my previous four posts, I have tried to shed some light on why people die by suicide. In this post, I discuss what saves people from suicide. Here, I explore how the act of service to others can save oneself from the grip of suicidal despair.

This post was inspired by a comment from a fellow blogger who said this philosophy has been his salvation. He writes:

…once I’ve accepted that my life is fundamentally expendable, no longer worth living, I get on with it and do what I can, each act of generosity makes me feel better about myself, rebuilds my confidence if not my validity, sometimes it’s a long hike, a very long time alone…

…when a caller at a distress centre where I volunteered asked once if I had found my own reason for living after my own bouts with myself, I answered that maybe it was to be there to help him, where would he be if I weren’t, I think that helped us both.

I’ve encountered this same sentiment of salvation through service in my interviews with Canadian veterans of Afghanistan. Upon Leaving the military, one veteran stated:

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.

This individual stated that his step-son who also served in the Canadian Forces valued service and that although he embraced the value of his generation – making a lot of money in the banking industry – his heart was in public service and he spent a great deal of his spare time serving his military reserve-unit.

With ‘service’ comes a sense of contribution. Therefore, losing the community one served creates a need to regain a sense of contribution. As one veteran states: “…no one tells us, ‘hey, you’re still worthy of making a contribution.’” Facilitating social environments that give veterans the opportunity to apply their skills in civilian professions allows them to potentially regain a sense of service, reducing the risk of suicide in this population. The “Recommended Veteran Organizations” listed on my resources page provides examples of organizations committed to rebuilding a veterans sense of purpose and contribution.

People die by suicide because of a sense of thwarted belonging and a perceived sense of burdensomeness – as discussed by Thomas Joiner. Therefore, even individuals who belong to a supportive group and are surrounded by loved ones may still be at risk of suicide of they feel like a burden to these people. The opposite of burdensomeness is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with contribution/ service to a cause larger than oneself. A sense of meaning through service provides psychological resilience amidst the darkest states of suffering.

Victor Frankl states that humans are driven by the necessity to seek meaning in their lives by committing to a cause or purpose outside themselves. If an individual is unable to find a meaningful commitment, the suffering they experience leads to despair. If they are able to find a meaningful commitment, any suffering they experience will be met with resilience and the strength to preserver toward their goals. Frankl is a living example of this philosophy since he survived two concentration camps in Nazi Germany through his commitment to the goal of rewriting and publishing his book that was nearly finished before being taken away when he entered the camp. Frankl’s sense of contribution was gained through his commitment to surviving the camps so that he could serve humanity by writing about the psychological insights gained from his experiences. His book can be found here: Mans Search for Meaning.

In conclusion, serving others can be lifesaving. Veterans who lose the sense of service they attained in the military may be at an increased risk of suicide, and organizations that work to rebuild this sense of purpose facilitate psychological resilience. War is hell, but civilian life can be worse for those who lose a sense of purpose and develop thoughts of suicide. Serving a cause greater than oneself allows soldiers to overcome extreme adversity, and allowed Victor Frankl to overcome abject impoverishment. This is how, as stated in the beginning, reaching out not only helps others, but it can “fix your own soul.”

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  1. That quote can only be felt when someone is recovering from a depressive illness, for when you are at the bottom in the darkness, you only feel hopelessness and helplessness. It’s a difficult cycle to break. Wonderful quote though.

  2. This is beautiful! As Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. When one is lost in life and suffering, serving can help us to let go of our egos, which can be so healing, if even only for a few moments.

  3. Frankl finds purpose and a role in delivering his message to those that don’t or don’t want to understand. But what a piece of work is man. And Primo Levi picked up the same baton, only years later to kill himself. If this is a man surely speaks of alienation and loneliness amplified by being treated as a thing and not a person. The witch huts against those on welfare and immigrants have all the hallmarks of those times.

  4. Reading your post just reminded me of that scene in the film Forrest Gump where Forrest refused to leave his Lieutenant to die in the battle field despite his wishes to simply be left behind. It seemed to have conveyed an interesting moral dilemma between honoring someone’s choice or saving them in spite of their pleas to die right there in that moment for their country. In the end Lieutenant Dan found his purpose again and went on to start a family with his new found love. What solution would you offer those who perhaps are in similar situations having suffered a terrible loss of either their legs, arms, or perhaps are paralyzed? I would estimate that not everyone ends up as fortunate as Lieutenant Dan.

  5. Reblogged this on LifeState Blog and commented:
    This is an interesting article that requires some more thought. As a social worker and therapist who just happens to have also served in the armed forces I agree that the sense of self is very closely aligned with the need to serve something that is bigger than ones self. That on face value is almost intuitively true; however, many of my clients also veterans do not have that level of insight. They all know something is missing but use avoidant behaviours so they do not have to face the issues that bring about change. It has been my experience that the fear of the unknown brought about by change is a major factor. As a result other para military, rescue, law enforcement or pseudo service role is chosen to support their self image. The crisis can occurs when this can not be done or when expectations are continually thwarted.

  6. You have a pretty brilliant mind and quite a look of knowledge which suits you for that PhD your are aiming to. Everything we wish with the ideal of linking hearts is successful. Linking international hearts makes you the most successful as a human… and so on. I am following you Sir.

  7. I started in being of service when I was 21 and taught in the inner city schools for very little money. I love my job and I really found my sense of meaning and purpose. Since becoming disabled from work with my PTSD, I have been struggling for 10 years to find meaning and purpose. I have it again in my life and I am grateful. The good part is that I have learned how to take care of my needs with my PTSD first and then to freely be of service to others. It has brought me such bliss among the pain. I truly feel blest to be where I am at after 10 years of darkness and thoughts of not being able to live any longer with the pain.

    1. For sure. Emergency services are often appealing for those looking to regain the sense of service in conjunction with the action-oriented environment, although it is not necessarily suitable for everyone, from what I have seen. Bryan A. Wood talks about this in his book Unspoken Abandonment, where he joins the local police force but was unable to gain the same sense of significance. Upon hearing the advice stated in the quote at the beginning of this post, he was able to transform his life and, as he says, heal his soul.

  8. Very true and well said. Somewhat by accident I fell into a professional position 15 years ago in which I serve some of the most vulnerable people in society, refugees and immigrants. They do their part to keep me breathing and help me continue my own battle with the aftermath of trauma. Also not to be dismissed are my pets. Many are the days the only reason I get out of bed is because my dog needs me, and many are the nights my cat keeps the night terrors at bay.

  9. Steve – Thank you for the follow. Your writing is filled with compassion and understanding of how every suicidal individual I’ve interacted with has articulated on one level or another. It’s that sense of purpose so many tell me that keeps them alive. My husband tells me if he hadn’t had a specific sense of purpose at numerous times, he would have gone ahead and committed the act of suicide. During the month of September, National Suicide Prevention Month in the US, I blogged heavily about suicide and of course, only hit the high points. I’m looking forward to exploring your site.
    Another population base I’m currently researching and working with is the military spouse of both active duty and retired military. Their suicidal rates are exploding along with those of their children.

    1. Thank you for these kind comments. I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties your husband faced, but glad to hear he was able to gain resilience through a sense of purpose.
      I agree that military families are a much-needed area of research. Keep up the great work!

  10. Well said. Absolutely true! Giving to others forces your focus away from yourself and onto another who needs you. It’s a win-win situation because it’s so rewarding; makes you and the person or people you’re helping feel good and brings comfort to both.

  11. Reblogged this on Cracker Jack Whiz Pop Bang Writer and commented:
    I like the sentiment that perhaps our purpose here, in any given moment, is to help someone else through a difficult period. I suppose that is why I volunteered with Victim’s Services for five years, to help others in whatever small way that I could. You never know the impact that a simple outreached hand can make, and it’s always worth putting out, because there is nothing lost in the action.

    Steve Rose puts this sentiment in the context of veterans, but I think the same applies to most people with depression: how to identify with the society in which we live, and it doesn’t matter if it is civilian or military; those terms are just linguistic compartments demarcating parts of society.

    The next time you see someone, whether they be a stranger or a friend, who looks like they might need a hand, offer it to them. Maybe they don’t take that hand, but at least they know that someone cared enough to offer.

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