The Crisis of Purpose
Kari Atalla, Writer, Singer-Songer Writer
7 June 2018
Twelve of the world’s loveliest square miles are those nestled against the northwestern base of Mount Fuji in Japan. It comes as no surprise that Aokigahara, or the Sea of Trees, would attract both new and seasoned globetrotters to experience firsthand the flora and fauna flourishing in the nutrient-rich environment after the volcano’s eruption nearly a thousand years ago.
The locals, however, are discouraged from childhood to spend much time there for a tragic reason.
Though many forests offer peace and quiet, the porousness of Aokigahara’s lava floor is especially sound-absorbent, isolating visitors in the immediate ranges of hearing. The result is an enhanced feeling of seclusion, and the psychological effects thereof are undeniable on as many as a hundred desperate people each year who journey there only never to return. This is why Aokigahara is also known by another name: Suicide Forest.
In historical Japanese culture, suicide was primarily the noble death of heroic samurais and the very elderly. The ghosts of these people continue to roam the forest, the locals teach their little ones, assuredly frightening them out of any serious exploration for the sake of curiosity. True, the density of the forest would make search and rescue a great challenge for a wandering, curious child, but the persistent reputation of Aokigahara lends a subconscious credibility to the lore for even the adults there. To approach the forest as almost anything beyond a tourist attraction is just asking for trouble— so much so that there are signs posted at the entrances to the forest trails, encouraging people to rethink taking their own lives and to consider those they will leave behind, much like the notices we here in the U.S. see posted along bridges. Park personnel must exercise extra vigilance around the country’s fiscal year-end. In fact, in 2011, Vice.com published a walking interview with geologist Azusa Hayano as he cautiously led the camera crew through the territory known only by a few, discovering both people dead and living beyond the beaten paths.
As heartbreaking as the reality of Aokigahara is, the truth is that its suicide rate is only record-breaking in terms of geography. According to Suicide.org, more than a million people take their own lives each year. That is nearly two percent of all global deaths annually, more than 2,000 people every single day.
And those are just the numbers for the people who do manage to take their own lives. In Exit: The Appeal of Suicide , the Living Waters doc-evangelism movie, Ray Comfort interviews a number of young people about their value as human beings. Not only did these people confess contemplation of suicide at one time or another, but some even admitted acting on it. Undoubtedly, there were many tearful prayers brought before the Lord by believers who watched the conversations in heartache for these perfect strangers, perhaps even (and especially) in their own personal empathy.
By no means a merely modern revelation, Exit reminds us that the desperation felt in the Sea of Trees can be as presently felt in a sea of people, particularly in the wake of losing a loved one. Faces that once felt familiar in their dignity and worth to others— someone’s sister, someone’s uncle, someone’s someone, though not our own— now only remind us of the someone we lost. For the believer, such grief is tempered by the promises of God, guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection, and we do not lament in hopelessness (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Until yesterday, I had only thought of life in terms of an afterlife, abstractly assuming the hopelessness of unbelieving others was the natural end of futile idol worship. Then, in Dennis Prager’s recent book The Rational Bible: Exodus, I read an excerpt from Joseph P. Carter’s perspective published last July in the New York Times:
“Eventually everything ends in heat death. The universe certainly started with a bang, but it likely ends with a fizzle. What’s the purpose in that, though? There isn’t one. [The] universe as we understand it tells us nothing about the goal or meaning of existence, let alone our own. In the grand scheme of things, you and I are enormously insignificant. I will never see my Papa again. One day I will die. So will you. [Everything] in the universe as the fundamental particles we’re made of return to the inert state in which everything began. Entropy demands it.”
Yes, I’d heard it a thousand times before, but for the first time in my life, that verse clicked not in the abstract but in the tangible: the utter meaningless of life if the universe has no Creator. Mr. Carter holds no hope that his Papa is in a better place or any confidence that there is another place at all. To be sure, he finds comfort in the stories and memories of his grandfather, but this, too, is fleeting. No matter how we philosophically distract ourselves, “If only matter is real,” writes Prager, “the mind is merely another physical part of the brain.” Mr. Carter’s memories, upon his own death, will be subject to the same death that erased his Papa. Falsely converted as I was before I was saved by Christ, I never once doubted that heaven and hell existed. I had hope (although it was not yet truly mine until I was saved), but Mr. Carter does not. By subscribing to the Big Bang theory, he definitively deprives himself of the very notion of hope, as though the ephemeral present were any sort of sound substitute for ultimate purposelessness.
We give it our darnedest, though. “How Death Got Cool” is an article from The Guardian in step with Mr. Carter’s worldview. “Once merely the inevitable, death has become a new bourgeois rite of passage that, much like weddings or births, must now be minutely planned and personalised,” Marisa Meltzer explains. With no help from the universe, people have had to get creative. In a Ted talk, artist Jae Rhim Lee sported a “black hooded one-piece threaded with white veins infused with mushroom spores [that] she is training to eat her when she dies by feeding them her hair, nails, and dead skin so they recognise her body.” In an update on the living will, “death cleaning” has caught on Sweden; a person goes through all his possessions one-by-one, considering, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” in order to preserve one’s memory and protect his privacy, though the opposite effect can happen to people who discourage sentimental souvenirs in general, like the counter-swing to hoarding. Some folks hire death doulas or grapple with tough questions in Jon Underwood’s Death Café. As Meltzer puts it, the spike in commercialization for death planning is all “to prove just how well you lived.”
Still, even with the most meticulous of planning, “Everything is vanity, says the Preacher. All is vanity.” But Solomon is not a nihilist. In Ecclesiastes, one of the most brain-aching books of the Bible, Solomon explores the same struggle that Mr. Carter does, and on the surface, it sounds like the two men have drawn the same conclusion. The doctoral student at the University of Georgia suggests that although we are consoled by the “vestiges of and memorials to the people, places, and things we stand to lose and strive to keep, [purpose] is the index of impermanence.”
In other flatter words, we’re falling to our deaths, but it’s okay because we won’t look down. In two, with Edna-Mode emphasis: “No hope!”
So, how in the world can the Preacher spend a dozen chapters describing everything as vanity and find hope? Is it all about just psyching ourselves out? He tries everything from unbridled self-indulgence to just consciously enjoying the people he loves, but he does not stop there, as Mr. Carter does. Solomon takes the leap of faith that all believers take: nothing in life matters apart from what lies thereafter.
That’s seriously scary, lose-yo’-mind stuff. It’s the brink many are too afraid to acknowledge on even a subconscious level, and as terrifying as the ledge is, I do believe that there is a transparency of spirit in anyone courageous enough to face it. It’s this crucible of understanding our essence that shatters every construct we have ever made. Mr. Carter and other precious souls like him break my heart because they have the answer to it all at their fingertips:
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
What’s the meaning of life? It’s God glorified for His supremacy in perfect holiness, love, and justice. There is a point to our present. We are to live with our Creator in mind (12:1), fully confident that all stand before Him on the other side. It’s not a cop out. It’s all there is.
I am so very grateful for the ministries that try to reach people in their most desperate hours. Only the truth of the gospel can cure the terror of our wretched condition, and frankly, at times, it’s the only thing that gives me peace at night. I know that I am not alone: as a singer-songwriter, I once released a song called “The Savior Knows” (seen as the Featured Video at my official Facebook page) The basic gist of it is that even the worst pain, whether by our own efforts or inflicted upon us, should not keep us from penitent faith in the Lord. Dealing with abuse, battling addiction, or whatever else is sadly too often reason enough to contemplate ending it all, especially when the antagonists of one’s life are the very people we’re supposed to be defining our purpose by. At that point, if life is fundamentally devoid of hope, the brokenness of pain and sin starts to tip the scales for some people. Lots of people. Google “why I shouldn’t kill myself” to find more than three million results.
By God’s grace to His glory, the video has been viewed thousands and thousands of times (though some major hassle about Facebook’s community standards resulted in some of the posts being irretrievable). More importantly, based on the notifications I got from my Facebook page for weeks, almost all of the watching and reacting happened in the 12-4 a.m. window. Of course, I had hoped that the song would reach hurting people with the truth of the gospel, but knowing when they were watching brought me to my knees. It’s staggering to understand that there are that many people plagued by pain and guilt into a sleepless search for truth.
As Christians, we should do everything we can to get to the top of those three million Google results. Heck, we are those results in the flesh, living testimonies of the hope that lies within us. Literally anyone we encounter may be wandering deeper and deeper into a personal Aokigahara.
I am reminded of a visually stunning anime called The Garden of Words. (Caution: there’s little profanity, but the words are indeed zingers). Two broken people meet by chance when rain persuades them to skip a day of their unhappy lives to recover in the peace of a gazebo in Tokyo’s breathtaking Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. My husband and I were so moved by the 45-minute film that we watched it three times, including the commentaries in English and subtitled Japanese. The zenith is flawless, and some of the voice actors admitted that they were unsure whether they could even execute such a powerful scene. We wanted to know the mind behind the movie, and sure enough, writer-director Makoto Shinkai explained that the movie is about “people saving people.”
“As Christians, we should do everything we can to get to the top of those three million Google results.“
Ambitious intentions for a movie, and admirable at that. Obviously, Shinkai perceives that people are facing a major crisis of purpose. I would be shocked if he knows nothing of Aokigahara. In fact, it’s a quite remarkable exercise to compare his garden of life and the forest of death, both beautiful respites from the bustle of society. The line of distinction is paper-thin. With the same feature, one inspires; the other overwhelms.
Certainly, there can be joy in the common graces of observing beauty in nature and experiencing uplifting community. Nevertheless, without an ultimate purpose, The Garden of Words can become Aokigahara in the blink of an eye.
May Mr. Carter be as courageous as Solomon. May more hurting sinners discover the only remedy to the conundrum of life: seeking with abandon and finding the bountiful truth according to the Savior’s promise (Matthew 7:7-8). As I and so many before, may you.
“For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
“As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”