Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

The Life of the World and the Death of a Comedian

The first I heard of Robin Williams’ death was a Facebook post from my friend Shawn. He posted all of “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman, re-popularized by Williams’ movie Dead Poets Society. Shawn, like the students in the movie, was mourning the loss of a hero.

For my part, I posted a short reflection and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

“[I am] giving thanks for the life of Robin Williams, who amazingly took all of his pain and allowed it to illuminate and delight us. The best comedy has always come from troubled souls, who see more clearly some of the tragedies of life. He will be missed.

Into Your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Robin. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”

It amazes me how much the internet has become part of our lives; both Shawn and I felt a need to share our grief online.

It was not until the next morning that I discovered how concerned some people were about the whole affair. Robin Williams committed suicide. Matt Walsh wrote a blog emphasizing this. He wants us to know that Robin took is own life; there is nothing heroic about that. It made me think hard about how I feel and what I mean when I celebrate the life that has just ended. It conjured questions of disease and free will and the meaning of life, something I study. It also touched on my faith and my belief that suicide is a bad choice.

When another friend asked me my opinion, I had to sit and think. It’s not an easy matter. Daniel McInerny criticized Walsh. He wants us to know how much our biochemistry and our health impact our choices. It was more than just a “bad choice.” It was influenced, perhaps even brought about by depression. Chris Attaway, argues against a too simple morality that judges people on what they cannot control. “We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level.” Is there such a thing as not-guilty by reason of depression?

Walsh and McInerny and Attaway all make great points, but they have confused mourning and understanding. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I want to remember the good he did. I want to speak about what he meant for me. I want to pray for his soul, for his self, wherever it may be. I don’t think understanding what happened will help with any of that. And I fear worrying about it gets in the way of dealing with my own loss.

Let me say for the record – as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a theologian – I think suicide is a bad choice. It doesn’t work. It seems like an option when we are in pain, when we feel alone and powerless, when we don’t want to be where we are. And yet, suicide closes options for the future, it hurts people and pushes them further away. Suicide takes away what it promises to give – our chances for getting better. And that has real important to me, as one who’s considered it, one with friends who struggle with it, and others who, sadly, have made such a choice. This is a very important issue, but now is not the time.

Why do I focus on Robin’s life and not his manner of death?

First, publicizing suicide is a bad choice. We know that the idea of suicide is contagious. Prominent coverage, particularly for celebrities, makes the idea seem more feasible. Public condemnation may be better than public praise, but a brief informative report is better than both.

Second, I favor love over judgment in all cases and for all events. This can be a tough principle, but I find it really important for Christians. Before an action comes a time to discern, to debate, to persuade. After an action, we work at love and reconciliation. If I hope to change someone’s behavior in the future I might tell them how much harm they’ve done. With Robin, I wish him the best as he moves on.

Third, I must not confuse my own needs with those of others. Walsh tells us how important it is to him that he has a choice. I honor his sharing of that about himself, but I don’t think judging Robin empowers Walsh or anyone else. There’s something existential about choice and we have to grab it for ourselves.

Science and medicine can tell us something about our choices. We know that. Doctors treat depression as a medical condition because our biochemistry and mood are intertwined, and they influence our choices. Chemicals like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), epinephrine, dopamine, and oxytocin profoundly impact the way we feel. It’s valuable to know that the drug Ecstasy can cause euphoria (serotonin high) and that it can also impair your ability to feel the same thing in the future. It’s helpful to know that our environment and choices change who we are and the choices we make – maybe even the choices we can make.

When the time comes, I’ll be happy to talk about the will we have and the will we don’t. I’d love to recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow all about the heuristics running in our heads. I’d love to recommend Kathleen Norris book Acedia and Me all about depression and despair, choice and spirituality. I’d love to tell you how important it is for us to know that we can make choices. Perhaps it will prevent us from making bad choices in the future. Cieply and Barnes point out how important work was for Robin. It was a way to fight depression. So, if I must talk about Robin’s demons, I will say this, he channeled the power of their attacks into making the world a better place.

To everything there is a season. I believe passionately about free will and our need to study and debate how much control we have over our lives. I care deeply about theology and meaning and the value of life. We must reflect on our priorities in the summertime, so that when winter comes we know what matters. And, when a beloved friend dies, it is time to mourn. It is time to affirm the life he led and the lives we lead. That too is a choice.

For now, I come to bury Caesar and to praise him. For myself and for my readers, I’ll choose life. That’s were our attention should be. I’ll praise what was praiseworthy and forgive that which was hurtful. I remember the good he did and the good I may do. And I pray, as always and with the grace of God, that that will be enough.

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Responses

  1. Excellent Lucas.

  2. Thank you, Lucas. Judgment comes to people like Robin and my son by rational people trying to understand the unrational mind, and it can not be done. I would also ask for prayers for the family and friends left behind. They are beginning a journey into a “new normal”-beginning the rest of their lives where they never asked to be. Grief from the suicide of a loved one is like no other grief and can not be understood by anyone who has not journeyed that path. I simply ask for prayers of love and support for Robin’s family and friends, and for the ones left behind in all completed suicides.


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