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  • One of the most surprising aspects about one of the saddest of all human possibilities,

  • suicide, is that the suicide rate goes up markedly the richer and more developed a society

  • becomes. We might expect suicide rates to vary across time and place, but not to increase

  • alongside developments in wealth, comfort and security. That we should be unwittingly

  • creating nations in which more of us end up killing ourselves at our own hands appears

  • to negate the whole purpose of economic growth. Nevertheless, the disturbing connection was

  • first conclusively identified towards the end of the 19th century by the leading French

  • sociologist, Emile Durkheimand has continued to be noted ever since. The suicide rate of

  • an undeveloped country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a fraction of the

  • rate in a developed nation like South Korea. The crucial factor behind people’s decision

  • to end their lives is not really wealth or poverty. As Durkheim discovered, it is the

  • extent to which the surrounding culture ascribes responsibility for failure to individuals

  • or else maintains a faith that poor luck, or divine intervention is to blame instead.

  • It so happens that as societies become modern and industrialised, they very frequently give

  • up their beliefs in demons and gods and start instead to trust in a meritocratic, individualistic

  • philosophy that suggests to people that their fate is always in their own hands. This may

  • sound generous but it carries an immense psychological burden, for it means thatwhen failures

  • occurthe individual is held entirely responsible for them. Reversals start to seem

  • like a horrendous judgement on one’s worth and a public humiliation from which there

  • may, at the extreme, seem no escape other than through annihilation.

  • There are two big cultural ideas that may help to mitigate the pressures upon us: Luck and Tragedy.

  • To believe in Luck is accurately to observe that merit and success are in fact never reliably

  • aligned; one may be a fool and winor a virtuous person and fail. If we fully internalise

  • and widely share the notion of luck, then the shame of failure will be greatly reduced

  • and our agony along with it. We will be able to admit, publically and to ourselves, that

  • decent people can fail in their outward circumstances and, therefore, that professional success

  • isn’t the only, or even, the crucial marker of the merit of human beings.A Tragedy, as

  • it originated in Ancient Greece, is the story of a capable and intelligent person who happens

  • to make a small mistakewhich, however, leads to appalling consequences. The point

  • of presenting such stories in very public ways (at Greek festivals the entire community

  • had to attend) was to continually renew acquaintance with a hugely important idea: that one can

  • be a likable, even admirable person, and end up in an utterly desperate situation. Tragedy

  • is the careful telling of how disaster can come into the lives of people like (or even

  • a bit nicer) than us. Theyand hence weare always deserving of compassion rather

  • than contempt. Durkheim knew that it is not prosperity by itself that increases the suicide

  • rate, the toxic element is an unwittingly cruel culture that assigns a high burden of

  • responsibility to us, while seeming to deny the truth that chance and tragedy will of

  • course always continue to affect our destinies. The real solution to a high suicide rate lies

  • in an unexpected place: an ideology that firmly reminds us that we are never the sole authors

  • of our destinies. and therfore should neither panic nor celebrate when we win or loose.

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One of the most surprising aspects about one of the saddest of all human possibilities,

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