The Dying of the Light

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams. He is, in one sense, merely the latest in a string of tortured entertainers who eventually were overcome by their inner demons. I don’t plan on having a tearful “we’ll miss you Robin” Marathon of his movies. And while I do feel a sense of sadness, it is not for the loss of his art, but for the loss of his humanity.

I wasn’t going to comment on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams, because I didn’t know him, I feel no connection to him, and I honestly didn’t see how it would do any good.

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams…until…

…Until some popular commenter decided to put his [ignorant and/or poorly articulated] thoughts online. This popular commenter intoned in his article that, because he has experienced some depression in his life and has overcome it, that he can speak to the hows, whats, whens, and whys of Robin’s depression. Since there are apparently still some very uninformed opinions about depression out there, I feel the need to weigh in.

What follows is not an approval of Suicide, but rather an appeal for compassion. The Catechism, in speaking of the sanctity of life, has this to say about Suicide:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

I agree with that unnamed commenter, that there is an aspect of the will involved in the act of suicide. I also agree that we shouldn’t speak of suicide in a way that makes light of it or causes others with depressive tendencies to believe that they are justified in desiring it. However, (and this is the place I diverge from the commenter), the catechism goes on to say:

2282 (cont.) Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

When I was in Seminary, I was diagnosed with Dysthymia, which describes as “a mild but long-term (chronic) form of depression. Symptoms usually last for at least two years, and often for much longer than that. Dysthymia interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life. With dysthymia, you may lose interest in normal daily activities, feel hopeless, lack productivity, and have low self-esteem and an overall feeling of inadequacy. People with dysthymia are often thought of as being overly critical, constantly complaining and incapable of having fun.

As I look back, I can now pinpoint when I first began to deal with it, a full two years prior to my diagnosis. Thankfully, with the help of a counselor, I was able to dig out from under the sedimentary layers that had buried me in this “mild” form of depression that had caused me to sleep through my senior year of college, and avoid any relational connections. I would tell myself that I was just sad, and I needed to exert my will and just “do” things that would make me feel better. But it didn’t work that way. I had to unravel a tangled mess of causal events, and I couldn’t do it on my own.

And here we come face to face with society’s biggest problem surrounding depression — it is a problem of words. If you have a bad day, you might tell your friend that you’re feeling depressed. Then, in the same conversation, I might join in and say that I’ve been depressed too. Lastly, a fellow like Robin Williams may (if he has the energy to do so) say that he too has experienced depression. But the blues and Dysthymia and Major Depressive Disorder are not three points on a single scale, they are not three different degrees of the same emotion, they are not three breeds of a single animal, they are three different species altogether. A person who has a bad day cannot ever understand the helplessness and listlessness of Dysthymia. Similarly, someone like myself can never fathom the complete and utter hopelessness of someone with Major Depressive Disorder. My experience was brought on by deep and abiding emotional pain that had to be worked through, but there were no chemicals involved. I didn’t have to take medicine to correct an imbalance. I simply cannot expect to understand the motivations and actions of a person who is chemically unbalanced.

Now, I’ve heard some folks (including our commenter from above) who intone that “Chemical Imbalance” is a cop-out of some kind. I’m thinking that these people have never visited a hospital or needed their wisdom teeth extracted. A quick youtube search for “wisdom teeth” will show you how powerfully effective chemicals can be at breaking down our will and our inhibitions. If you’ve ever had to care for someone just out of general anesthesia, you are well aware of this fact. While I do not disagree that there are factors beyond the chemical imbalance that contribute to the depression, it is naive to expect a person to simply exercise their will to escape from the depression.

Another powerful truth is that every person responds to chemicals in slightly different ways. What may be nothing to one person could be fatal to another. Therefore, it is especially important for those of us who do not experience deep depression that we avoid generalizations. We would be foolish to say “Robin Williams made the choice to commit suicide,” since we do not know how his body reacted to the chemical imbalance he faced. We know neither how crushing his depression was, nor how fully the chemical imbalance compromised his will. I think that we would be equally foolish to say, “People who experience deep depression are at the mercy of their disease, and have no hope of anything better.” The first foolish statement speaks without intimate knowledge of the situation, the second speaks in a generalization that doesn’t take into account the many different ways that people respond to chemical imbalances. The first dooms Robin, the second dooms those who share his affliction.

So what can be said without crossing into either ignorance or naïveté? Be aware that everyone is fighting a difficult battle. Act in charity toward all. Be kind. Be aware of those around you. Pay attention to their needs. Recognize if they persist in sadness, and attempt to draw them out. If they won’t come out, get them help. And lastly, remember that you don’t have to understand them, you probably never will, just be with them.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
–Dylan Thomas

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2 thoughts on “The Dying of the Light”

  1. Thank you Timothy. I was disturbed by a comment that suicide is selfish and I really appreciate your very articulate explanation. I have been closely touched twice in my life by suicide and have spent some time trying to understand as much as I can about what drives a person to it. Thank you again.

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