Robin Williams’ ability to cheer people was so contagious that it reached me even as I was a kid living in India, thanks to the movies Ms. Doubtfire and Jumanji. Now that I am older, I can’t but help ponder about life’s poignant vagaries that someone who could bring so much cheer to people around the world could himself get bankrupt of hope.
Hearing about Williams death, I remembered an observation that Robert McKnee made in his book about movie script writing, ‘Story’. McKnee said that in hollywood the most depressing parties were the ones where too many comedy writers were invited. Apparently, the best comedy in one that grows as a coping mechanism for the pain the comedians feel in their life. If as Bertand Russell said, ‘life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, then it makes sense that we all need dozes of comedy to put up with it and survive. Of course, even with the best comedic assistance, none truly survives. One day, we all die one day, it is just a question of the time.
Given Williams unique life as a talented comedian, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so much has been written about the circumstances of the demise. It also shouldn’t be surprising that much of what has been written has been on the questions on ethics surrounding suicide. After all, being ethical creatures, we can’t help but debate the right and wrong of things (even when someone disagree that categories of right or wrong, they still are affirming a unique view point as right and other view points as wrong). I do not so much intend to add new twists to the question on ethics as much as try to make sense of the tangled mass (or mess). As I see it, there are 2 broad opinion-camps…
1. Those that debate whether or not suicides resulting from depression should be treated as a disease or as a choice. I’ll call the former group as Debating-diseasers and the latter Debating-choicers.
2. Those who do not want to get into the moral debate on justified suicide, instead want to enjoy the reminiscence of a spectacularly interesting life. I’ll call this group the ‘Rememberers’ hence fort in this write-up.
Easy Little Boxes for Images of God?:
‘Debating choicers’ wish to use Robin William’s suicide as an opportunity to teach other people that suicide is a choice and that none has an excuse to take their life away no matter what. They intend to make this into a cautionary tale to the living, so that the instance of suicide will reduce. On the other hand, ‘Debating diseasers’ see suicide as the result of the disease of depression over which one has no choice or control. They intend to not be judgemental on those suffering depression and suicidal thoughts. Least the feeling of guilt should tip one over into ceasing to live.
Here is my opinion on the Debating Choicers and the Diseasers, I think without enough data we cannot make an assessment of whether or not Williams suicide was a choice or a disease. Man, being made in the Image of God (fallen as he may be) still has a vestiges of the lofty mystery which defies being fitted into any easy categories (unless it is God who is doing the ‘fitting’ which He will on the day of Judgement, on His terms). What is to be noted here is that both of these groups intend to classify the act of suicide into an ‘easy little box’ of choice or disease. Of course, there is nothing wrong with putting things in a box, we all do it, not just when we are moving stuff. The problem with putting things is a box is if the box is too small, we miss the BIG picture life. To not attempt to see the BIG picture in order to fit something into an easy box we are comfortable with is if not stupidity, ignorance*.
To state my position from a different vantage point… To see the BIG picture of life, that takes into account the mysterious image of God we have been made into, it behooves us to not resort to fitting people and events into easy categories and little boxes of choice or disease. Defining little boxes to categorize people in is an attempt to not disrupt something that has already been neatly filed away into ossified cabinets in the mental synapses. A mind which seeks to ossify the experience of mystery is not worth of the deep mysteries imbued in God’s creation.
A Hunger for Meaning:
Now on to the Rememberers… the rememberers because they fear the ossification of their minds, run a million miles away in the opposite direction and commit the other error of defying all possible definitions. They are looking for something more than mere definitions, they are looking for meaning. They want someone’s life to ‘mean’ something. They do not want the circumstances of ones death to rob someone off of the meaning that that life contributed. This urge to find meaning in the midst of pain and suffering is not escapism as some (in the debaters camp) might argue. Rather, this urge to find meaning is a reflection of the deeper reality of the mysterious Image of God in man (fallen as it is, there still is a vestige).
If there is meaning, then human being has a great potential to forebear pain and suffering. An athlete will be willing to undergo pain and suffering in training or olympic because to compete in Olympics means something. A soldier in a the army would throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades because his saving them MEANS something (technically, this soldier’s act is suicide too). In fact, in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, a whole battalion losses their lives so that the son of a widowed mother, who had lost two of her other sons in the war, might be saved. And in his dying words the captain of the battalion exhorts the disaffected soldier to life for the sake of all who died to save him, thus bring meaning to the pain and suffering they endured.
My sympathy is with the Rememberers for in trying to bring meaning into the equation of the experience of loss, they turn the experience into something that is ‘more than a memory’ as C.S.Lewis would call it in his book ‘A Grief Observed’. To have ‘more than a memory’ is to not be bogged down by the loss, but to orient oneself to the bigger meaning of the experience.
However, I do think the Rememberers too like the Debaters, are missing out on seeing the BIG picture of life by avoiding the debate on the causes of suicide all together.
No Brushing it Away Under the Rug:
Albert Camus put the importance of discussing suicide this way…
“There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is whether or not to commit suicide”
Camus was no coward. He was an thinker to be reckoned with. Suicide is not just a problem at the philosophic realm, it is in fact the 3rd highest cause of death among teens in the world. Suicidal tendencies is not a problem of the weak and the stupid. Ironically, the strong ones who ponder suicide too. Winston Churchill, the man with the indomitable will who was happy to fight the Nazis with the skin of his teeth if it came to that told his Doctor, “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through, Churchill told his doctor. A second’s action would end everything”**.
To want to brush discussing the topic of suicide under the rug and not even talk about it as the
‘Rememberers’ seem to want to do is a disservice to humanity. Just like we are told again and again by the media that we should have healthy conversations about sex with kids, perhaps it is time to have healthy conversations about suicide too. After all, sex isn’t killing as many teens as suicide does. I do not think discussions about suicide should be repressed.
The Suicide Mindset – Loss of Hope:
I am not expert in suicide studies. I don’t know enough to discuss how to about about talking about suicide. However, I would like to give a couple of quick pointers on the causes of suicide.
In broad general terms, there are three types of caused for suicide
1. Financial failures -the suicides that happen with every financial collapse.
2. Health reasons -the older people who would rather die than be a burden.
3. Prolonged Trauma – some unresolved issue in ones life that becomes a prolonged trauma and slowly saps the will to live.
The one thing that is common among all these three is the loss of hope for a happy future. When someone feels like they no longer can hope for a better future, then they lose the will to fight for it. Life is a fight. We all need to have a will to fight. We all need a cause that encourages us to fight. When a person experiences trauma through some life event, they begin to value life differently. When they begin to see life differently, the causes (family, a principle, desire for more happiness) that kept them alive suddenly lose staying power. If something else does not happen to snap them out of this spell of losing hope for a better future, they will quickly begin to lose the will to live, someday sooner or later, they will surrender this fight. Surrender takes courage of a certain sort. Only when the loss of hope become so unbearable does on get the courage to surrender the fight.
Basis for Hope – Immanent or Transcended?:
I would venture to suggest that the way to teach our kids to not commit suicide it to teach them to be hopeful. But here is the BIG question. What do we hope for? What is the basis for our hope?
The formidable philosopher of Enlightenment Immanuel Kant said that the most important questions of philosophy are,
1. What do we know?
2. What should we do?
3. What can we hope for? The question of what can we hope for is of crucial importance for a life well lived.
I would submit that there are two ways to think about hope. 1. Immanent hope. 2. Transcended hope.
I define Immanent hope as one in which the hope for one’s well being is entirely dependent upon ones own effort. The ‘American Dream’ is a classic example of immanent hope. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great example of the ‘American Dream’. Born in Austria, the young Arnold told his parents he wanted to be the strongest man in the world, they thought he was mad. But then they were proved wrong. Then after holding on to Mr. Universe title for a record seven consecutive times, he decided he wanted to become a famous actor. Given his heavy accent and wooden mannerisms none thought it credible. But then he again proved them wrong. Then he went into politics to become the Governor of California. He is a man of immense energy who sleeps just six hours each day. This hopeful pursuit of success keeps one alive. The key in this ‘Immanent Hope’ is to choose to make ones life mean something by pulling the bootstraps, working the butt-off, reaching for ones dreams.
There are two potential problems with this ‘immanent hope’.
1. Not everyone can win and be successful.
2. Upon facing failure, not everyone has strength to cope with failure (it should be no surprise that among teenagers suicide is the 3rd highest cause of death).
Immanent hope is not a comprehensive solution, it works for some it does not for other. People always fall through the cracks. When someone falls through the cracks, if nothing happens to stop the descent one may quickly reach a point where one would rather die than live. When there is nothing to hope for, when there is nothing to live for why not just put oneself out of ones misery. After all, Camus wasn’t joking when he said, “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is whether or not to commit suicide”.
Transcended hope on the other hand is one in which ones hope is not buttressed on the choices one makes to bring meaning to ones lives, rather ‘transcended hope’ sees meaning as being given them from an external source that is beyond the immanent world.
For example, in the Bible Abraham’s hope was in a God who promised to make him into a great nation and be his Friend and Protector. This transcended hope that he would be a great nation gives Abraham the courage to fight the conquerors of notorious Kings and to redeem those taken captive without getting any spoils in return. In St. Paul’s life, when life gets so tough and he ‘despairs of living’, it is his vision of Christ’s glory that spurs him on to live and to ‘fight the good fight’. When Hagar wandering in the desert with Ishmael is ready to die, the Angel of God appears to give her a bigger vision of what Ishmael will grown into that fills her with hope and meaning to live on. When the prophet Elisha decides that he is done with this life, God intervenes to tell him about the bigger community of Saints he is a part of to spur him to keep going.
This principle of such hope coming from a transcended source to spur to fight the good fight is seen in a crucial scene in the book “Lord of the Rings”, it is the scene where Frodo and Sam have entered Mordor through the evil marshes. They are tired and desperate. Gollum has given them the slip to plan their murder. At this point of deep despair, Sam looks up at the star of Earendil (the saviour of mankind in the battle against Morgoth – Sauron’s boss). Sam tells Frodo, “Look Mr. Frodo, the light of the phail you have is the same light from the Star of Earendil. We are still a part of the same story (of battle against good and evil). Don’t great tales ever end?”. Frodo replies, “No Sam, great tales never end, we just come play our part and go”. This recognition of transcended hope gives Sam and Frodo the courage to press into the evil of Mordor even to the point of death. The rest is history, at least mythic-history!
This transcended power of the bigger story the bigger vision of hope is what kept Sam and Frodo going on their fight against evil. All human beings, need the the transcended hope of the bigger story and bigger vision from beyond that would draw us from our narcissistic selves, into something bigger that would perpetually enchant us and would perennially fill us with meaning buttressed on the hope that the story we live would be victorious no matter what, that there is Someone outside the system who will guarantee that.
Just to clarify, ‘Transcended hope’ is not about losing hope for this life and then transferring it to the next life in Heaven. ‘Transcended hope’ rather is about meaning ‘incarnating’ into our lives from a Transcended source so that we would live our life ‘to all its fullness’. Jesus Christ incarnated into this world to bring to us a Transcended meaning and a Transcended story to see ourselves in. He did so to set us free and to help us live our lives to all it FULLNESS. He gave us fullness by dying what seemed a hopeless death on the Cross, but He resurrected to bring a new Transcended meaning to Death itself. It is a fullness in which Death isn’t a defeat. A fullness in which hope defeats Death. It is a fullness in which meaning is not limited to looking back at ones life after death (as the Rememberers want to do), but continues on in the flourishing life one will live in Heaven.
A Hunger for Hope:
Every human being, who is made in the image of God (fallen as it is), will have to make a choice about whether they are going to put their trust in some form of ‘immanent hope’ or in some form of ‘transcended hope’. We will have to decide what will truly satisfy our hunger of hope. Ones choice may be dependent on ones own philosophy and experience of life. As for me, I being a Christian, my ontological belief is that human beings are not just made as spiritual images of God, but also as embodied temples of God. So, I see my life as meaningful because I am ‘known’ by a Transcended God who is also Immanent, living within me. Of course, this does not mean that I will not despair. There have been, and there will be moments of desperation. At such moments of loss of hope, I do not have to depend on comedians to cheer me up, rather it is God’s incarational intervention through the Holy Spirit that comes to my rescue to remind me of the hope buttressed on the Truth (incarnated) and orient me toward the BIGGER vision of God’s glory in which is my happiness.
After all as the Westminster catechism says, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. When I was a kid, Robin Williams was enough to make me happy and hopeful for more happiness. Now that I have grown and become more aware of the cynical hopeless of life, my need for wonder and hunger for hope to compensate for the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ life has grown such that I need more than a phenomenally talented Robin William, I need a powerful and loving, transcended and immanent God to make my happy.
Psalm 16:11 You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
*So what is the benefit of seeing the BIG picture and not put things in
easy-boxes one might ask. Answer: To attempt to get a better
understanding of life is to have lived a good life. Of course, that was a
restatement of Greek philosophy, ‘an unexamined life isn’t worth
living’. It is not just the Greeks, the Bible encourages seeing the BIG
picture too, ‘it is the glory of God to hide mysteries and it is the
glory of kings to uncover them’, ‘my people perish for they lack
understanding’, ‘you predict the weather but can’t read the signs of the
time we live in’. (Of course, biblically, seeing the BIG picture has to
be done within a covenental and incarnational context, which is the
topic for a different blog post).
**In fact, Nassir Ghaemi in his book ‘A First Rate Maddness: Uncovering
Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness’ argues that it was
episodes of depressive mental illness which made Great men into who they
were, the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King
Jr., FDR. When a person has stared death in the eye and come out
victorious, they are stronger than before. But then, there are other
people who don’t quite make it out of the staring contest.