“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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