I’ve been running each morning for the last 33 years, a happy habit that has spawned all kinds of experiences and memories ranging from enjoying stunning sunsets along the ocean to navigating blinding blizzards in the mountains. But running in the predawn dark also means that I sometimes see evidence of what went on the night before, and it often hints at troubled people navigating addictions and other demons.
For example, this very morning, I came upon an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Whiskey. It was right there on Flying W. Ranch Road here in Colorado Springs, right beside a dirt trail bordering our neighborhood. Several empty smaller bottles of some other liquor were nearby.
To be sure, I don’t know the story behind my discovery, but empty bottles of booze on a walking and running trail hint at someone trying to hide something from someone – and trying to numb the pain of something else.
I thought of that nameless person or persons a few hours later, when I read about a new study drawing a correlation between “deaths of despair” and an increasingly secular society.
“Deaths of despair” are identified as those caused by drug overdoses, suicide, or alcoholism.
The professors behind the research, Tyler Giles, a professor at Wellesley College, along with Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame, and Tamar Oostrom of The Ohio State University, have crunched the data and have discovered that people who succumb to these challenges tend to claim no religious faith.
“These results underscore the importance of cultural institutions such as religious establishments in promoting well-being,” they said.
Faith is much more than a soothing social elixir, of course. In particular, faith in Jesus Christ grounds us in this life – and gives us something to look forward to in the next.
Decline in church attendance and overall belief in God are often treated as indices akin to other social changes, like people giving up home phones for their mobile devices, or eating out more than previous generations. But it’s much more than that, and as this research indicates, it’s really everything.
It was the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who famously observed, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Long before Pascal, Augustine of Hippo wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
It saddens us but it shouldn’t surprise us that people are looking to fill these voids or numb the pain with alcohol or drugs – or end it all by suicide. After all, we’re wired for a sacred relationship and need to see purpose in our existence.
I’ll likely never knowingly cross paths with the owner of that Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle, but we might nevertheless collectively pray for him or her. And you know what? These individuals are likely right out in the open. They’re our neighbors and even our family members and friends. You really never know what people are struggling with – but you can get a hint or be asked to help if you ask with genuine interest about them by going beyond the conversational shallowness of subjects like sports and weather.