50 years of hurt… well, actually I think they have been pretty good to me thus far

“Three Lions on a shirt,
Jules Rimet still gleaming,
[50] years of hurt,
Never stopped me dreaming…”

Three Lions
Song by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and The Lightning Seeds

I turn 50 today. 18th December 2022. By coincidence a football World Cup Final plays out today, too: France vs Argentina. As a 50 year old Englishman, that is not my birthday choice of World Cup Final. If I were to dwell upon that English stereotype, my 1980s are well defined by the “Hand of God”. So too is the Falklands War (“guerra de las malvinas“). My father was still in the Royal Navy in 1982 – albeit behind a desk by then. When that first French-made Exocet Missile hit HMS Sheffield on 4th May, a reality of war sank deep into my psyche all the same. On balance – and I am more balanced than to let history define my day – I will lean more towards François Mitterrand than Diego Maradona today. But it is my birthday, so I’ll cry if I want to.

Two topics will be addressed in this blog: three if we are counting football. The other two topics will be less melancholy than may first appear. Please don’t be put off therefore, as I reveal those topics to be [1] suicide, [2] death. Both I and this blog will be more upbeat than these topics suggest.

If you know me at all, you will know why suicide is fitting to mark this birthday {here}. In mid-July 2019 I was not thinking of any future at all. However, life 2.0 has come about by that prompt. I began an MSc within a few months of that lowest day. I graduated with distinction the next year. Another MSc soon followed, and here I am in 2022 turning 50 as a full-time PhD candidate. I am probably as happy as I have ever been. Doing precisely the one thing that I thought beyond me. And all that because of those many challenges over so many years, not despite them. I am now so much better mentally prepared.

The sense of disconnection I felt in 2019 is not unusual. Over 1,000 men aged 45-54 die via suicide year-on-year in England. This is around 20% of all suicides for all age and gender groups (better statistical insight here). I could write for days on this subset of the population who seem set towards self-destruction. However, this wider social crisis is one we all share. Around 1,000,000 people in England remain diagnosed with depression each year. Table 1 below presents the numbers. This table reports the total number of people diagnosed with depression via GPs. The table reflects age and gender. Please note that the age spread, which shows depression effects all ages, hits hardest in the working and family rearing age in life – so most everyone. It can also be noted that for every 5 people depressed, 2 are men but 3 are women. That’s significant, and alarming. So, why do I think we should be more candid in our self-reflections on matters like death? Well, for me at least, it proved invaluable in my return from the brink, and therein finding my better cause.

GenderAge group2017201820192020
Males16 to 24 years51,07756,63662,92245,356
Males25 to 34 years86,25396,432106,73078,825
Males35 to 44 years78,20883,07089,24265,489
Males45 to 54 years81,97683,98085,21658,138
Males55 to 64 years53,81554,94658,93941,757
Males65 to 74 years19,16520,01721,03416,166
Males75 year and over 10,04211,45913,29911,814
Females16 to 24 years98,935109,967119,82599,229
Females25 to 34 years141,516152,384165,591136,739
Females35 to 44 years125,347124,836130,572103,990
Females45 to 54 years128,280122,479123,63987,887
Females55 to 64 years82,58883,99187,38865,650
Females65 to 74 years37,31137,55438,27528,208
Females75 year and over 25,55326,42429,13224,330
Table 1: Year-on-year clinical depression numbers in England by age group and gender 2017-2020 (Source: Office for National Statistics, General Practice Extraction Service Data for Pandemic Planning and Research (GDPPR), NHS Digital)

Finding purpose is a core theme of existential philosophy. Albert Camus describes the absurdity and meaninglessness that can arise in the face of life’s challenges and hardships. He argued that individuals must find their own meaning, rather than relying on external sources or guidance. Martin Heidegger’s concept of authenticity, or “being-toward-death,” is closely related to this too. We are each “thrown” into the world, and we must confront our own mortality if we are to be authentic and true to ourselves. The Frenchman, Albert Camus perhaps followed the Friedrich Nietzsche concerns for finding meaning despite the absurdity and meaningless. Whereas the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre was perhaps more aligned to Martin Heidegger in seeking the meaning that is there to be found. Other philosophers who guide such thought include Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. Each of these philosophers approached the question of meaning in life in a somewhat different way. All have helped me. From 2019 to now, I have been retraining and learning anew, taking responsibility for creating new meaning for myself and what new possibility that can thereafter reveal. Whenever I am unsure, I just think on what I will look back upon with pride or regret, and that helps shine a light upon my path.

This blog, marking my 50th birthday, therefore faces both of these topics in good cheer. In my first 50 years I have served, I have consumed, I have built and I have experienced. I am fortunate that my love is reciprocated and continues to be cherished and nurtured. The second half of life will involve more loss, and who knows how many more years that represents. But whatever that count, these are years left to become more than I am today. What I do know is that I need less going forward than I did in the first fifty years. I now have pretty much all that I need. I have a handle on my wants and know them all to be near. Any more wants than that are increasingly labelled as unnecessary greed. My platform is built, so it is contribution that comes next. And that possibility is good enough for me.

Back therefore to the world, and to cups only one can own, and other such zero-sum games. It is right to remember football is not life or death. Both Argentina and France may be permitted to misquote Bill Shankly today, and say that football is more important than that. Philosophically, I find myself existentially supporting individual meaning. My personal raison d’être, but perhaps beyond the purity and chastity reflected in the fleur-de-lis. I can muster more French than I can Argentinian it would seem. Argentina have other philosophy and culture to admire. They do claim a hand of God, and are blessed indeed by the feet of Lionel Messi. But on this, the first day of my 50th year, I am responsible for my own goals: so don’t cry for me, Argentina.