Two of my teenage son’s friends committed suicide this winter. Their situations were different, their challenges particular to their lives, but their deaths both came as a profound shock to me and my son. I found myself weeping for days, mourning the loss of the light that these young men took with them out of the world, aching for the pain of their friends and family, wondering what could have led them to the point that ending their lives seemed like their only option.
Since I’m a scholar of literature, I turned to books to try to make sense of these tragedies. In his 1980 sci-fi novel, Se dagens lys [See the light of day], the Danish author Svend Aage Madsen describes a society that institutes a nationwide system of rotation—in which people wake up every day in a new home, with a new family situation and a new job—as a means of combatting a global suicide epidemic. An older woman named Varinka, who lived through that era and helped shape the rotation system, describes how the crisis developed:
It started very quietly. A young man jumped from the tower of City Hall. No one paid that much attention, that sort of thing happened now and then. A young couple was found dead in the forest, in a tight embrace. An older woman set herself on fire, apparently intentionally. People began talking about it. It was still just a faint rise in comparison to the things people had become accustomed to. Somewhat later, a book became popular, in which the young protagonists killed themselves, not because of unhappy love—that was nothing new—but because of boredom or powerlessness. Several couples imitated the book and were found with it in their arms. “We have finally found a purpose: death,” one of the couples wrote. Someone made a film that magnified the situation even more. The tendency toward suicide spread. It wasn’t just in this country. New reports came in every day, especially from large cities, but also from the countryside. It became —I hate to use the expression, but it is the most fitting term—fantastically fashionable. Serious newspapers were shocked, distanced themselves from it, analyzed it, and sought its cause. But it didn’t change anything. Popular rags promoted suicide, worshipped it almost, and it became even more popular. Every day, the papers were full of famous, touching, or clever goodbye notes. Articles about the most inventive, beautiful, or grotesque methods.1
Looking back years later, Varinka tries to make sense of the collapse of her society. She concludes, “It was as if humanity had reached a natural ending. The final goal of development, it was called. There had been wars and periods of violence, there had just been a wave of violence and criminality, naturally as a consequence of anger, envy, and a sense of injustice. But even those things were understandable and even acceptable, in comparison with … the mental plague. It was so incapacitating and at the same time so predictable, because it was the logical consequence of the meaninglessness.”
That last line really struck me, that hopelessness is the logical consequence of meaninglessness. I look around at our society’s obsession with money, the love of money, if you will, that seems to inform the priorities of our political leaders and to motivate people in their choice of studies, their professions, their voting, their life choices, and so on and I see the same kind of creeping meaninglessness that Varinka describes.
Although the author couldn’t remember, when I asked him a few years ago, if this was the case, I see a connection between the social rotation system described in Madsen’s novel with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s essay, “The Rotation of Crops,” which appears in his two-volume thought-exercise Either-Or (1843). In this essay, the narrator ‘A,’ an aesthete, describes boredom as the root of all evil, advocating that people, like farmers, rotate their interests and relationships in order to remain engaged and productive. He explains, “Boredom rests upon the nothing that interlaces existence; its dizziness is infinite, like that which comes from looking into a bottomless abyss” (Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part 1, 291). From the perspective of an aesthete, simply ensuring that you are continually distracted from the abyss is enough to counter the paralyzing power of meaninglessness. However, as Elef and Maya, the protagonists of Madsen’s novel, discover, the continual rotation of life situations, while ensuring that everyone gets an equal share of life’s ups and downs and guaranteeing the stimulation of new experiences each day, is nevertheless incapable of meeting people’s deeper emotional needs. It is in connecting with each other, in learning each other’s stories, that Maya and Elef find a bridge over the abyss, a deep meaningfulness to motivate their rebellion against society.
Similarly, Kierkegaard only introduces the aesthete ‘A’’s perspective in order to counter it, first with the ethical perspective of Judge Wilhelm, in the second volume of Either/Or, who advocates for doing hard things because they are our duty, and ultimately, over the course of his authorship, with the idea that we must leap into the abyss, trusting joyfully in the “absurd” belief that God’s promises will be fulfilled, even (or especially) when their fulfillment seems impossible, as in the case of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
These thoughts remained with me when I attended a workshop last week designed to promote awareness of a public health initiative called QPR (Question-Persuade-Refer), a mental health equivalent to CPR. Most people who survive physical heart attacks do so because of widespread public knowledge of CPR; the QPR movement wants to create similar conditions for people suffering from thoughts of self-harm, so that people know how to intervene and offer help. The workshop facilitator explained that no one commits suicide because they want to die, they just want a release from pain. QPR rests on the belief that if people sensitive to the pain of the people around them, dare to ask whether they are thinking of suicide, persuade them to stay alive just a little longer, and refer them to people who can help, more people will survive existential heart attacks.
The humanities got their name from their ability to expose and illustrate the human condition, to share the stories of our common humanity and individual joys and pain, to illuminate the meaningfulness of our lives. I believe that meaning is to be found in those stories, in the connections between us. It may seem absurd, that art and music and film and poems and essays and novels and dance can weigh more in the calculus of human happiness than money and power, but I believe it joyfully all the same.
This post was written by Julie Allen, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.
 Madsen, Se dagens lys, 82, my translation.