Was Robin Williams selfish?

The following reflection came in response to an online discussion by a group of Episcopalians about a bishop of the church’s statement that Robin Williams’ death by suicide was selfish. This is very delicate territory, so I advise readers to be gentle with themselves if they choose to read. It is not usually helpful to think that there is a ‘wrong’ response to such a trauma–nor do I think the bishop in question is wrong in his expressions of anger and anguish, feelings that so many of us have felt about the loss of a brother (Williams was Episcopalian). In fact, I admire him for his bravery in speaking from his heart.

Is suicide selfish? The question itself puts the matter immediately into the realm of moral theology, which is where the church has often put it. But I wonder if there’s a better way. Christian thought has often struggled with dualistic assumptions regarding the mind and the body, with the mind thought to be something completely other than the flesh and not subject to its limitations.

Recent work in neurobiology has challenged this assumption. The brain is of course a part of the body, and our thoughts are themselves inextricably bound to our bodily states. This is something the desert monks knew as well as today’s neurobiologists and body-oriented psychotherapists, of course, but alas, it is too often forgotten. Ravaging physical illness can lead the mind astray, and severe depression can leave the body utterly listless and undone. 

Here’s a thought experiment, then, regarding suicide, one that assumes that our brains, and the thoughts produced by them, are a part of our embodied, material selves. What if we thought of severe mental illness, like the depression that afflicted our brother Robin Williams, as akin to cancer, cancer of the mind. It is unbidden, unwanted, and produces horrific physical, neuro-chemical effects in the mind, leading to thoughts often utterly divorced from reality. Just as some forms of cancer are so ravaging that they lead to death, so some forms of depression and mental illness do the same. And just as we would never dream of calling death from most forms of cancer “selfish,” so to it is perhaps a mistake to think of suicide brought on by extreme mental illness as selfish. The mind-body has utterly betrayed the suicidal person, so much so that even the thought they may have that they are making a choice is itself misleading (and this point, for theologians reading, is the Augustinian one about true freedom).

Now there is one caveat I see here, and it is a very crucial one. When we first receive a diagnosis of a life threatening illness, we are usually in the early stages of its effects. The cancer patient will be given a whole host of treatment options, from change of diet, exercise and life-style habits, to chemotherapy and radiation. If one wants to live, to ‘beat cancer’ as we sometimes say, great effort must be made, and this of course is a choice. Some people refuse to change their life, and this does lead us into the realm of moral theology. But again, surely, when they have done all they can, and the brutality of the cancer nevertheless takes their lives, it would be inaccurate to accuse them of dying ‘selfishly’ of a disease whose provenance and meaning is simply inexplicable.

So too, I would say, with mental illness and the risk of death by suicide. Sufferers of severe mental illness are often well aware of the disease they suffer under, and the resources available to them to fight it. Taking full advantage of medicine, cognitive-behavioral therapies, healthy diet and exercise, prayer, are crucial for this. What makes this fight even harder than the cancer patient’s fight, however, is that the very organ that is afflicted, the mind, is the organ that is needed to recognize the need to continue these therapies and to act. Extremely vigilant discipline is needed to fight mental illness because the mind betrays one into thinking such discipline is not needed (we read continually about bi-polar sufferers, for example, refusing their medicine because they feel better during their high cycle). Here the mentally ill person has as much need, if not even more, for a circle of close friends, doctors, spiritually mature advisors, etc, in order to help keep them accountable to the treatment plan that has been agreed upon during his/her more lucid moments.

And yet. And yet, even when all of this hard work is done, as it is being done by so many heroic victims of the diabolical disease of mental illness, sometimes the disease overwhelms. In my own ministry with young people, I will never forget the young man whose funeral I facilitated after his death from suicide. He suffered from not merely one, but multiple mental and physical illnesses, and the physical, emotional and spiritual toll this took on him and his family is simply incalculable. When I preached at his funeral service, I reminded everyone there, many of whom were his friends who knew of and shared in some of the same mental illnesses he did, of how important these resources are to those who survive.

And yet, in that moment, we had to acknowledge that a disease like cancer, whose ravages every effort sometimes is simply no match for, had killed our friend. He had not killed himself, had not ‘committed’ suicide (a morally laden term that every suicide counselor I know refuses to use), but he had died from the scourging effects of mental illness. And so we celebrated his life, his loves, and his courageous battles he waged over the course of his all too brief life. And we mourned. We mourned over the power of death, its dark pull, which even for those of us who count the resurrected Christ as liberator, is still among us in so many forms, mental illness being one of the most insidious of them.

It strikes me that as Christians, we must, as William Stringfellow so brilliantly taught us, acknowledge the terrible powers of death among us, not minimize them, nor accept them as anything other than alien to God’s kingdom. We can be angry at the death of our brother Robin Williams. But not, ultimately I think, at him. Rather, in language Stringfellow did not hesitate to use, we must deny, rebuke, reject the powers of death their meaning, their moral authority, their reason. To reject Robin Williams’ death as a defeat is to reject the powers that overcame him in his final moments, to acknowledge that we live between life and death at every moment, that the heart, as Dostoevsky and the desert monks put it, is a battleground. I am here reminded of one of my favorite prayers in the BCP, the one for young people, in which we acknowledge that in this life there is still failure (not necessarily moral failure), that death sometimes wins and that the kingdom of God’s reign is not yet complete. “Let us take failure, not as a measure of our worth, but as a chance for a new start.” I take it that this prayer holds for our brother Robin, but even more, for those of us who remain.

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