Hilary White

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Love the comedian: hate the act that took him from us

How are we to deal with the conflicts created by the suicide of someone we love?
Thu Aug 14, 2014 - 5:43 pm EST
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How are we to deal with the conflicts created by the suicide of someone we love? How are we to approach the apparently conflicting demands of moral justice and compassion, empathy for almost unimaginable emotional pain and mental turmoil?

I was surprised at how sad I was on Tuesday morning when the first thing I saw in my daily news feed was a piece from the Times of Malta telling me that Robin Williams had died in his California home, a “suspected suicide” - that terrible terse journalistic phrase for an act of almost cosmic enormity.

Robin Williams had been a staple feature of our cultural landscape since I was a child. He stepped onto the cinematic screen when I was in my teens, and through his acting roles started taking on a societal role that, in many cases, our Baby Boomer parents had relinquished.

Many people my age spent those formative years, between the end of childhood and our mid-twenties, struggling to figure out how we ought to live, what we ought to value, our priorities and hopes for life. Robin Williams might seem like an odd choice for mentor and guide in life, his manic comedic style and his dramatic work having been fuelled, by his own admission, by cocaine and a tangle of emotional and psychological troubles.

But in his film oeuvre, once he dropped both cocaine and the manic edge of his comedy and embraced his dramatic talents, that was precisely what we found: a man who was sympathetic to our struggles, offering a set of values that we at least understood.

I expect that this week, this YouTube video of his “Carpe diem” speech in Dead Poets Society has seen a huge jump in the number of views. It was a seminal moment for many people of my generation. The world we lived in seemed to have erased the societal rules we all had to know in order to construct our lives, and for many of us, Robin Williams had become a trusted figure pointing toward a method of figuring out, simply, how we were to live.

Ours is a generation who had no one to tell us how to get on, what life was for and, for many of us prone to depression, why we ought to continue struggling through it.  He might have been a “clown,” but we knew that he was clowning to cover up his confusion and difficulty in navigating a path through the world, all of which we shared. And he cheered us up in the process; he helped us laugh at it all.

Yes, as many have pointed out this week, we could see “the sadness in his eyes.” And even if we had missed that, he was always up front about his flaws and struggles. He never claimed to be perfect or to have it all figured out. His roles in film all had a similar theme: as a teacher, a psychiatrist, nanny and doctor, supportive husband, and single father. All flawed characters, all struggling, but all reflecting our lost, absent or inadequate fathers, at (in my case at any rate) exactly the developmental time in our lives when we needed that fatherhood the most.

As I grew older, I admit that his political and philosophical message became less attractive. In the end, I rejected much of his secularist worldview, particularly reacting against the acceptance of the new sexual cultural paradigm. But it was easy to continue to like him, to respond to his obvious warmth and passion, and often laugh at his jokes, however flawed his political ideas might have been.

So it perhaps should not be a surprise today, when this beloved figure has done the unthinkable, that many have reacted with a powerful desire to pay tribute to him. But this desire to honor the man and the artist has at times also been expressed in careless, and arguably dangerous, language about the means of his death. Yesterday, as I started writing this piece I was surprised at how many expressions of grief were paired with the assertion that his death was as morally neutral as a death from cancer.

As a Catholic, I know that the only responsible position is on the one hand to unapologetically condemn suicide itself as an evil act while refraining from judging the specific culpability of the individual. We have not only no “right” to judge the state of his soul, we have no ability to do so.

It is true that in the past, our culture has dealt harshly with suicides; churches refused to bury them in consecrated ground, preachers and priests said they were automatically consigned to hell. Theologians would talk about the “sin of ultimate despair,” being the one unforgivable transgression. Fortunately, we have seen a sane and scientifically based development of this past condemnation. We hold that we do not dare, ever, to judge the condition of the soul of any person. Indeed, our only duty in the case of suicide is one of spiritual mercy: prayer for the soul of the deceased.

At the same time, we must be cautious in how we speak of suicide. As I was reading many of the reactions to Williams’ passing, I started faintly detecting the familiar strains of the Utilitarians’ materialist playlist, that vast, deadly philosophical background hum that is barely audible under the noise of the daily news cycle, but that pervades nearly every aspect of it. One of Utilitarianism’s most cherished tenets is that there is no such thing as free will, and that we are all simply biological machines, deterministically driven by material factors like brain chemistry.

Much of what is being written, posted and tweeted about Robin Williams’ death implies that because he suffered from a severe mental illness – depression and/or bipolar disorder – the act cannot be judged. I was amazed at how some very good people, pro-life people, had posted expressions like, “depression kills,” that could be read to imply that suicide is not an act of the will, but more like getting tragically killed in an accident.

Perhaps the most blatant, and clearly deliberate, apologetic for this view came from Dean Burnett in the Guardian newspaper (a longstanding campaign organisation for the euthanasia lobby in Britain, by the way) who opined on how good it is that we no longer describe suicide as a “selfish” act, because that “stigmatises” the mentally ill. Burnett’s argument can be expressed as a syllogism: people can’t help being mentally ill; suicide is nothing more than an unfortunate symptom of mental illness; therefore no one can be blamed for committing suicide.

The effect of this assertion on potentially vulnerable people could be seen in the response I had from an old friend of mine, who suffers from periodic bouts of quite severe depression. My friend linked to the Guardian’s piece on Facebook, saying “yes!” there is no “culpability” in suicide, it’s just a symptom. “If depression kills you, it’s no different than if cancer kills you. A disease killed you. The problem is that our society still demonizes mental illness as somehow more shameful than physical illness… It’s as selfish as cancer.”

But I had to ask him if he thought there was nothing to separate the illness from the act of will that suicide necessarily is. I responded, “And yet, by removing the guilt for a person contemplating the act, do we not remove one of the most powerful blocks against it? If we can never say, ‘Don’t do that, you will hurt all the people who love you for the rest of their lives,’ do we not simply clear the path for them?”

It sounds ironic, but if we do say that, it means we have dehumanized the person who commits suicide. We have said that a depressed person is not a moral actor, that he has no free will and cannot be held accountable for any of the good or the ill that he has done while depressed. Under the Utilitarian view, even to describe the act as “selfish” is, essentially, meaningless. But this is the blamelessness of a machine, and I hold we are not machines, but human beings with souls, and all the faculties of the human soul, including intellect and will.

In the end, there is a trick to continue loving Robin Williams, and keep hoping and praying he might make it to heaven, while avoiding condoning, or appearing to condone, his suicide: separate the man from the act. Or, as Christians would say, “love the comedian; hate the sin that took him away from us.”

As a Catholic, I know that the only responsible position is on the one hand to unapologetically condemn suicide itself as an evil act while refraining from judging the specific culpability of the individual. We have not only no “right” to judge the state of his soul, we have no ability to do so. But his act is one that, however paradoxical it might appear, we have a duty to judge, and yes, condemn unequivocally as one of the gravest sins.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, speaking only of the act: “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.”

Now, having fulfilled the solemn duty of Christians to condemn evil, the book turns its attention to the pastoral needs of the person, saying, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

Then, addressing the confused, distressed and often angry survivors, it gives us a way forward: “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.”

We have a very natural desire to believe that everyone goes to heaven, and the Church teaches that even God “wishes” (if such a thing could be said of the omnipotent and omniscient deity) that every human being should enter the Beatific Vision, and certainly intends all human beings for this ultimate happiness. “Say unto them: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” It is certainly something worth the effort of praying for.


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