The work of dying well,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus , “is, in largest part, the work of living well.”
Unlike Neuhaus, we no longer know how to live—or to die—well. The cancer of loneliness spreads through the nation, crippling our people with depression. New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaim that suicide is on the rise in America and is now the tenth-leading cause of death. The numbers were given names and faces last week when both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain hanged themselves. Self-slaughters have gone up by more than 30 percent in nearly every state (and almost every age cohort) since 1999, with a staggering 45,000 Americans murdering themselves in 2016.
Our founding editor wrote on the good life—and the good death—in As I Lay Dying, his much-loved reflection on his battle with colon cancer. As he slumped in a hospital bed, Fr. Neuhaus prepared his mind for the possibility of impending death. He took comfort in the knowledge that he had lived well: “To the extent that my life has significantly influenced the life of another, I continue to be part, in myriad ways … of the living of that life.”
It was knowledge of the permanent and eternal—of the first things—that enabled Neuhaus both to live and to die well, neither fearing the end nor rushing to it. The American suicide epidemic should urge us to return to first things: to speak lasting truths against destructive secular creeds, to offer community to the friendless.
Though First Things is not in the business of working miracles, we are committed to affirming and upholding those things that make for “living well”—not only so that religion might influence the public square, but so that fewer might succumb to despair, and our society might remember what it is to die well. And we are committed to bringing attention to the plight of the vulnerable, as in Aaron Kheriaty’s bracing account of “deaths of despair” (August/September 2017) and Christopher Caldwell’s groundbreaking exposé of the opioid epidemic (April 2017).
To continue in our efforts, we need the support of our readers. This is why, every spring, we ask you to join our mission by donating to our fundraising campaign. Stand with us in our commitment to life, and to the first things. Make a donation to our spring campaign today.
Ramona V. Tausz is assistant editor at First Things.