On New Year’s Eve, 31-year-old Australian soldier Paul McKay walked into the wilderness of upstate New York and disappeared.
He had never been to the US before, and had no known contacts there. He flew to Newark from Australia, took a bus to the town of Saranac Lake near the Canadian border, and checked into a hotel. He left clothing and a camera there before walking – with a large backpack and winter clothing – along train tracks into the Adirondack Mountains.
The temperature during this time was reaching minus 30 degrees Celsius, but authorities remained hopeful that his military training would help keep him alive.
Captain McKay was on leave from the Australian army, and was believed to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a tour of Afghanistan. (Some media reported that he was serving at Sorkh Bed Forward Operating Base in 2011 when an Afghan soldier shot and killed three Australian soldiers and an interpreter, and seriously injured seven other Australian troops.)
A large search by volunteers, rangers, dogs and helicopters began after his family reported that he wrote his father an email on December 30 in which he left his father all his possessions. His family did not even know he was in the US.
The search continued for two weeks, during which time authorities remained hopeful he would board his January 15 flights from either Newark or Los Angeles. He did not board either of them.
On January 17 his body was found near the top of Scarface Mountain. He was without tent or shelter. An autopsy found he died of an irregular heartbeat due to hypothermia. The coroner ruled the manner of death to be suicide.
Such an event as this gives rise to many questions, as well as – with good reason – much sadness.
One thing is relatively clear, however – that this young man, having experienced the horrors of war (and, one could say, life in general) chose not to live as a human being in the world he encountered but, rather, to walk into the wilderness, alone. The world, as his destiny had revealed it to him in experience, was such that he would rather turn away from it.
Part of the tragedy of this story is that it does not take much effort on our part to empathise with Captain McKay. Still, most of us can only imagine the horrors that war brings. For others, it is more real.
More US soldiers now take their own lives than die in combat. It is the same in Britain. That is, suicide is now the biggest killer of US and British troops. The war without continues and escalates into the war within. This is the great unseen world war of our time.
And yet, it is not only military personnel who suffer such a fate – who are engaged in such a war. The reason, in part, why the story of Captain McKay is so tragic is that we can identify something of ourselves in it, even if the outer circumstances completely differ.
Globally, each year, around one million people take their own lives. Add to this all those deaths which are not actually reported as suicides. And considering that only around one in 20 suicides are ‘completed,’ we can say that each year around 20 million people – or, roughly, the population of Australia – attempt to take their own lives.
Many more, of course, suffer, but do not go to such extremes. There are gradations of mental health problems that lead, ultimately, to suicide.
Such problems – problems, for the most part, of the inner life – problems of whether or not we actually want to be here on earth – are not escaped by anybody. For, it seems, almost everywhere we turn in our time – not just on the battlefield of war – we find a social situation which is fundamentally antipathetic to the human being – to that part of us which decides, every day, at whatever level of consciousness, that we actually want to be here.
Almost wherever we turn, the world presents itself today as something fundamentally at odds with the human being. Just as there are gradations of challenges – or battles – faced in the inner life of man, so too do we encounter the world around us as a kind of battle – a kind of war. This, at least, to some degree or other, depending on our individual circumstance, is the reality – that the outer – and with it, inner – world presents itself to us as a kind of battlefield – as war. This is the given situation – the default setting – of our time. No matter what field – from economic activity, to political and rights issues, to education, food and popular culture (with all the advertising and marketing that go along with it – including the lucrative educational and economic opportunities offered by military service, not to mention the general glorification of war) we are continually under attack – and we face it at the level of relationships, family, race, religion, nationality, gender, class – all the way to the global level. The global paradigm of our time is the self-fulfilment of our abstract theory of Social Darwinism – of survival of the fittest. And yet, we are all losers in such a battle as this.
This global paradigm is not the right fulfilment of the French Revolutionary ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood. It is, rather, one of cultural subjugation/slavery, political and rights inequality, and economic war of all against all. (All of these issues are present, in one form or another, in the many military conflicts and other violence we see in our time – indeed, each of them is itself a form of social violence.) And every day we suffer – to varying levels – the inner consequences of these outer realities.
That is, unless, we actively cultivate going another way.
What is this other way?
Currently, many of us walk into the battlefield of the world with little conscious awareness (or recognition) of the inner realities of the experiences we face. Those who do feel, all too fully, this inner reality, however, are continually tempted to walk away from this battlefield into the ‘wilderness.’ And with the world as it currently is, this is all too understandable.
These are the two extreme paths of our time – into the war of the world, numb to the reality of its connection to inner life; or, alternatively, at the other extreme, into the wild. By human beings choosing – consciously or otherwise – one of these two paths, the global paradigm of our time – the global war, or retreat from it – is not only upheld, but actually gets worse. If these continue to be the only chosen paths, things will continue to deteriorate, and will do so in such a way that war, including the terrible experiences Captain McKay underwent in Afghanistan (and afterwards), will become even more common.
The reality, however, is that another – a third – path exists for the human being today. It is neither a blind walking into the world-war, nor a resigned walking into the wild (in truth, there is no longer anywhere we can go to escape the situation – there is no longer any ‘wild’). This third path is, rather, a walking into the battle of the world with eyes of the inner life fully open. Meaning, we can attempt to strive today, as human beings, to see through, with an awake inner life, to the inner, essential, workings of the world as it presents itself to us. No doubt, we will at first see social life for the reality that it currently is – a war waged upon the human being. But if, without turning away from this, we continue to walk – nay, stride – through this battlefield, we can also come to such experiences whereby we encounter something of how social life – in essence – seeks to be; we can experience something of the reality of social life which overcomes the current global war we encounter; we can, with eyes of the inner life open, experience something of the health-bestowing qualities of the social organism as they reveal themselves in us; and then, armed with this experience and knowledge, we can begin to rebuild the world in accordance with its inner lawfulness. More – we can see where others are also engaged in this building even as war wages all around them, because they have some sense – or sense-organ – for a better, more ‘lawful’ – and thereby, human – way of shaping the social realities of our time. In joining with others in common perceptions of healthy, lawful, social realities we can – in and through the spaces between us – begin to build a new world, and do so in such a way that disproves the one-sidedness of Social Darwinism and, instead, encompasses the whole social picture. We can find one another as human beings in conscious service of a commonly perceived ideal, and in so doing continue building a world in accordance with the realities of our age – with the true spirit of our time.
In such a striving as this can we begin to turn to a more positive end stories such as Paul McKay’s – stories which, in reality, concern us all.
 See, for example, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/01/us-military-suicide-epidemic-veteran and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/mod-confirms-more-british-soldiers-commit-suicide-than-are-killed-in-battle-8707958.html