The other day a friend gave me the tragic news that a former colleague of ours had died. He had recently lost his job, and so he rented a room at a cheap hotel off the turnpike and hanged himself. He was 46.
I was stunned. This man had everything going for him. He was one of those larger-than-life personalities – booming voice, evergreen smile, not the kind of guy who gets depressed. Or so I thought.
I got to thinking what my former colleague might have been going through. Losing one’s job has a way of shaking your foundations, especially for men.
Here’s a sobering statistic: each year in the United States, about 40,000 people kill themselves, and four out of five suicides are male. While more women than men attempt suicide, men are more successful in completing the act.
Why are men more susceptible to suicide than women?
Is it because we are less likely to open up about our feelings? Is it because our machismo pride keeps us from seeking help for depression? Is it because we have easier access to (and more familiarity) with firearms than women?
I suspect all of these factors play a part. But speaking as a man who has struggled with depression for a good chunk of my life, I think the higher rate of suicide for men has a lot to do with how we identify ourselves.
Much more so than women, men tend to identify ourselves with our careers. Our work is our mirror: we look into that mirror every day to see who we are. We measure our self-worth by the financial success and security that our work creates for us and for our families.
As long as our job title continues to broaden and our salary keeps growing, we are secure in our value in the world.
But when we lose a job, or our career takes a nosedive, or the business we’ve started doesn’t work out, that mirror is suddenly empty. Our entire basis for identity is gone. The great arbiter that is the Market, which before placed such a high value upon our talent, now has rejected us.
Who are we then? No one. We’re a failure. A nobody. The world is better off without us.
That’s not all men, clearly. But many of us, for sure. I’ve seen it again and again with men I know – friends, family members, colleagues.
It was true for me too for a long time, although in my case it wasn’t financial success that I was after so much as fame. For twenty-plus years, I defined success as becoming a famous novelist. I pushed myself mercilessly toward that goal in order to sate some demon inside me that craved recognition.
When year after year went by without publication, I saw myself as a failure. I became so severely depressed and anxious that I could think of nothing else but driving my car into a quarry to end my pain.
Thankfully, I never took action on these impulses, and I’m here today – happy, peaceful, and able to enjoy this incredible blessing called life.
It took an awful lot of suffering for me to get to this point. My awakening came slowly – agonizingly so. My ego-based notions of what determined my value were so deeply entrenched that I needed to ask myself whether it was worth sacrificing my peace to continue holding onto them.
To get out of my self-made identity trap, I needed to get to the point where I was stripped of everything I thought life should be and saw instead life for what it is.
I’d like to say all of that suffering wasn’t worth it. But if I needed to go through it to reach the level of peace and understanding where I’m at now, then yes – it was worth it. Joy is all the sweeter when it once was lost and is now regained.
What lessons have I learned on the road to peace?
I have learned that one’s worth has nothing to do with your career, job title, business, bank account, lifestyle.
All of those things can be taken away. To put your identity in them is to write your name in sand.
You are a child of God: unique, inherently worthy, inherently beautiful. You don’t have to do anything, be anything, or achieve anything to earn your worth. It is your natural right.
That doesn’t mean you can’t set goals for yourself and what you want to do. By all means, do! Just be careful not to base your worth and happiness on the achievement of those goals. Make sure you have fun along the way. No future goal is worth sacrificing your present peace.
Question worth pondering: Where do you place your identity? Do you base your self-worth on something that must be earned or can be taken away?