Welcome To The Suicide Belt

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Maybe it’s all the Henry Rollins podcasts I’ve been listening to. Maybe it’s turning 52 a few weeks ago that’s got me getting so morbid. Maybe it’s having Donald Trump as President. I dunno. In any case, death and more specifically MY OWN death have been on my mind frequently than I’d care to admit. Particularly the potential wisdom of choosing one’s own demise.

The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest… comes afterward.”

Creepy? Fuck, yes. Accurate? Pretty much. Humans are the only animal on the planet that chooses to intentionally end their own lives. We’re also the only animal on the planet with smartphones. Coincidence? I think not. But I digress. Determining if staying in the game is worth it is a choice every person living makes every second of every day. All the other living beings in the world are motivated by a damn powerful survival instinct and a biological imperative to stay in the game, find food and reproduce. Humans, with our big, evolved brains and self-awareness, don’t have it so simple. Our awareness of our own ultimate end motivates us to do some crazy shit, including taking our own lives.

Not every culture has such an obsession with death. In many regions around the world, suicide is unheard of. It just literally isn’t a thing. The concept of intentionally ending one’s own life is incomprehensible. Consider the Piraha tribe, an indigenous people from the Amazon Jungle on the banks of the Maici River. They speak their own language and call any other language “crooked head’. Their culture has no history beyond living memory, and they are only concerned with personal experience. I like these guys already! They have no gods or religious beliefs and lost interest in learning about Jesus when they realized that the Christian missionaries that came to visit them had never actually seen him. Suicide among the Piraha is non-existent. It just isn’t a thing for them. Piraha society is extremely close-knit and they work together to eke out their existence in the rugged Amazon.

Compare this to the “suicide belt” in the United States, which runs from Idaho and Montana on down to Arizona and New Mexico. The suicide rate in these mountain West states is twice as high as those in other regions of the United States. Twice as high? That seems crazy. What is the common denominator? Okay, consider that these states have unusually large numbers of middle-aged and/or aging white men, frequently single and unattached, often unemployed and all with ready access to guns. Western states also have a disproportionately high population change rate, with more newcomers, immigrants and temporary residents than the rest of the country.

What is the connection? Residents of the “suicide belt” are seemingly independent to a fault, with weak social ties and a lack of social support institutions, while the Piraha people depend on each other for their day to day living. I guess the real question is, what makes life worth living? Turns out that no matter how bad things are, ultimately humans are social animals that can survive and thrive even under harshest circumstances… as long as they have close social ties to each other. So maybe this whole Donald Trump thing isn’t worth doing something drastic over. It might not be the end of the world if humanity can somehow stick together.

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