Chris Cornell, Dead at 52, and Deaths of Despair

Live fast, love hard, die young. Rather than an admonition, these words are a prescription for a powerful life of impact. Better to burn out than fade away, right? Cornell’s mysterious death points to an alarming trend in American society of suicides or accidental drug overdoses by middle-aged non-Hispanic white men in the U.S., a phenomena that researchers have deemed Deaths of Despair.

Cornell’s music carried me through some rough years back in the 90s. His work with Eddie Vedder and Temple of the Dog kept me pushing forward, realizing that suffering is a part of life. But everyone has a breaking point. Was this a suicide? Overdose? Either way, this event underscores the growing trend of suicides and drug overdoses in the U.S., resulting in the so-called Deaths of Despair.

The map below, published by Brookings Papers on Economic Activities, illustrates by region the number of deaths by suicide and drug/alcohol in the U.S. among non-Hispanic white males, aged 45 to 54, comparing the years 2000 and 2014.

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So where do we go from here? Henry David Thoreau wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Perhaps this is not a modern dilemma but an age-old truth of existence. Mark Manson writes in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck that life is suffering, and the sooner we understand this, the sooner we can learn to live a better life.

Mark Manson’s advice is a modern take on the teachings of Buddha who famously recognized the suffering of others as it compared to his previously lavish one lived inside the palace walls. We all have our walls that shield us from the ugliness of life, and maybe that’s one way to keep out the demons of despair. But sometimes those walls can also be a person’s prison.
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The question to ask yourself is are you on the inside or the outside? It might be a good idea to keep a ladder or two handy so you can see over the wall every once in a while. It’s helped me in the past and probably will again one day.