Many people have already commented on the death and apparent suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. It is certainly a sad and tragic loss for many of us and a tribute to his greatness that we feel the loss so acutely. I would like to offer a few reflections of my own as a pastor and person of faith.
The reaction to the death of Robin Williams is a powerful witness to the crucial place of story in our lives.
In a sense, it is odd for us to profoundly feel the loss of someone we didn't know personally. Yet, Robin Williams was a part of many of our lives through movies and TV. His comedy made us split our sides laughing, and the varied characters he portrayed tugged at our heart strings in films including "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting." His characters were all so different, but each was also a unique expression of himself.
A large part of what we grieve here at Williams' passing is the loss of one of our great modern storytellers and interpreters.
Our inner life is often very different than the self we present to the world.
Part of our shock is grounded in the fact that someone who was able to bring joy and meaning to so many was apparently also in so much pain. Although he was fairly open about his struggles with addiction and had admitted to sadness, most of the time we saw him in an interview or a show, he was "on" — playing a character or the public part of Robin Williams, the manic and outlandish funny guy.
We are all actors in a manner of speaking. To some degree we all choose the "self" we present to the world and do not fully reveal our inner lives to those around us. But the difference between our outer and inner selves is worth noting and reflecting on. For one, it reminds us that even though a friend or loved one may appear confident, happy and fulfilled, it does not mean that they are not struggling on the inside. We never know what others may be dealing with internally, therefore kindness and compassion should be our default orientation toward others.
Clinical depression is a serious mental illness and not a reflection of life circumstances or personal disposition.
Robin Williams was brilliant, successful, famous and incredibly wealthy. We often think of such achievements or life circumstances as being the solution to the problems we face. Yet, none of these factors could help Robin Williams overcome his depression.
Clinical depression has many causes, such as imbalance of chemicals in the brain, hormone shifts, genetics and other factors beyond individual control; one cannot simply will oneself to feel better. Clinical depression should be treated professionally, through therapy and often medication. While we may all experience some circumstantial depression at some point in our lives, those who battle with clinical depression often do so for a lifetime. If you or someone you know might suffer from untreated clinical depression, the best thing you can do is seek or suggest professional help. No one can or should go it alone. Treatment is not an immediate fix, nor is it without its own work and struggle, but it is the best available path out of the dark woods of untreated depression.
Suicide is a tragedy with devastating consequences for the survivors.
In anger, grief and misunderstanding we often lash out at those who take their own lives. We accuse them of giving up, of being weak or of taking the coward's way out. The truth of the matter is that suicide is a true tragedy for all involved.
For some, the act of living is simply no longer bearable and dying seems like the only hope of relief. In such instances, the taking of one's own life is an act of desperation, not a calculated, rational decision. We should have compassion for those who take their own lives — and for those who are left behind; they will deal with a lifetime of grief, anger, questioning and remorse. Guilt and anger are all a natural part of the grieving process. They must be worked through, but much of the stigma around suicide stands as a barrier to that grief work.
We also should have compassion for those who may be currently struggling with depression or are having suicidal thoughts and feelings when we speak of those who have taken their own lives. While no one wants to glorify suicide, shaming does nothing to help the fear and isolation of others who are struggling with similar ideas. We would never dream of shaming or deriding someone who makes the heart wrenching decision to cease treatment after battling with terminal cancer. We would celebrate his or her life and do everything in our power to support those who are left behind. We would reserve our anger for the disease and not the individual. Such should be the case with suicide as well.
Mark W. Hanna is pastor of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church. His email is email@example.com.
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