How much of one’s desperation comes from apparently having it all, according to the precepts of secular humanism—the great false religion of our time—and yet having nothing at all to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?
Growing up in a small Montana town the 1980s—no stop lights, no fast food, plenty of guns—I was mostly free from any direct contact with the serious ills of modern life, both culturally and existentially.
My first guide to the subtle ugliness of secularism and its banal nihilism was T.S. Eliot, whose Selected Poems fell into my thirteen-year-old hands and whose images of “certain half-deserted streets” and “muttering retreats” captured my imagination, even if I failed to fully comprehend the early twentieth-century context. The Hollow Men was especially captivating, and I later found, during my college years, that Eliot had captured with brilliant precision the vapidity of living while unmoored from transcendence and the permanent things:
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;
That poem and those lines came to mind recently while reading about the tragic suicide of Tara Condell, a twenty-seven-year-old Manhattan dietitian who hanged herself in her apartment after posting a note online that is, in so many ways, a damning indictment of the widespread lie that health, a good job, a comfortable life, and an eclectic range of interests and pursuits are sufficient to provide meaning and purpose in this life.[*] There will undoubtedly be plenty of talk about Ms. Condell’s mental health and the possible effects of depression, but such conversations, far too common and too easily used as buffers, will only obscure how ordinary it is for the full and robust secular life to actually be a life of despair and detached bewilderment.
The despair is evident in Ms. Condell’s opening paragraph, where she admits she has “written this note several times in my head for over a decade” before flatly stating; “I have accepted hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment, and I am just plain old-fashioned tired of feeling tired.” She could well have been a character in a Walker Percy novel, knowing that something is seriously—apocalyptically!—wrong, but incapable of pursuing or identifying the source of weariness, malaise, and anxiety.
In Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer (which won the National Book Award in 1962), the young movie-going Binx Bolling states that “the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” Ms. Condell, for her part, readily admits having “a great life on paper,” filled with good meals and wide travel, but confesses: “However, all these facets seem trivial to me. It’s the ultimate first world problem, I get it. I often felt detached while in a room full of my favorite people; I also felt absolutely nothing during what should have been the happiest and darkest times in my life.”
Percy, like Eliot, recognized that the core problem is not one of mere morality—even though the jettisoning of basic Judeo-Christian morality is a key symptom and “an ontological impoverishment”—but a failure to really know what it means to be human. Secularism assumes that comfort is a necessity, but the Judeo-Christian tradition warns that comfort and the belief that one has “arrived” are often just strains of an undetected poison. The average person, wrote Percy in the essay “Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” “has settled everything except what it is to live as an individual. He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon… What does this man do with the rest of the day? the rest of his life?”
These questions seem to have haunted Ms. Condell to some degree. Her suicide note provides numerous details about what she will miss: NYT crosswords (“I was getting really good”), real true authentic street tacos, Cherries in July. Tracing a sleeping eyebrow. Smoking cigarettes. Jeopardy. Saying I love you.
It is heart-breaking, truly, to read and to contemplate. While Percy’s fascinating character Dr. Tom More—the “bad Catholic” who appears in Love in the Ruins (1971) and reappears in The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), grappled with the malaise in fits of terror, lust, and bourbon-gulping, Ms. Condell appeared ready to fade away, with hardly any indication that maybe there was something beyond food and cigarettes and crossword puzzles. And yet, there is a hint at something more when she writes, with a sort of desperate incoherence, that, “It’s selfishly time for me to be happy and I know you can get down with that. Please try to remember me as a whole human you shared memories with and not just my final act.” Her final words are both deeply illogical and deeply poignant:
This is not your fault. It’s not exactly easy for me either, I’m here for you. I love you. I always have and I always will, I promise. Shikata ga’nai. [Japanese for “there’s nothing that can be done.”]
This, as Eliot wrote, “is the way the world ends | Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Eliot and Percy alike struggled mightily against the darkness of doubt and nihilism, both of them eventually embracing orthodox Christianity. “This life is much too much trouble,” wrote Percy in a self-interview, “far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i.e., God.”
In reading about Ms. Condell’s suicide and reading her note, I have to wonder: how much of her desperation came from apparently having it all, according to the precepts of secular humanism, the great false religion of our time, and yet having nothing at all to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?
And, in fact, Ms. Condell’s body was discovered around 4:30pm on Wednesday, January thirtieth.
My favorite poem by Eliot has long been “Ash Wednesday,” which captures, with remarkable power, the struggle to embrace life and the gift of grace, to be purified of desire even while clinging in faith to God:
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
God alone, in his great mercy, understands and judges the intentions and soul of the young Tara Condell. Let us say a prayer for her, even as we point out the hollowness of secular humanism, which simply won’t do.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Young Man With a Skull” (c. 1626) by Frans Hals (1583-1666), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.