I’ve found that I tend to approach these huge celebrity news stories a little bit differently than most. Like every other human being on the planet, when I found out that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I had my normal knee-jerk reaction of empathy, sorrow, and even some confusion. I was never the biggest Robin Williams fan, but I did enjoy his movies so it was devastating news as I believe anyone can attest – a comedian, a seemingly happy man shouldn’t have any desire to kill themselves, right??
As I started working through my own thoughts and feelings, I noticed that I made a switch pretty quickly, as I often do. Into observation mode. I perused the news articles, blog posts, and social media arguments and listened to how people process and react. Unlike the whole Miley Cyrus debacle last year, this news was actually quite devastating so naturally people feel very strongly about their viewpoints and a lot of people are walking away both angry and hurt by some of the discussions.
What I find curious about our evaluation of a tragic incident such as this is that we tend to talk about it in terms of what is a valid reason for killing oneself, and what is not a valid reason to kill oneself; as if we’re trying to find a way to resolve our shock as quickly as possible. If their reason for killing themselves is not valid then we can be angry at them, reassure ourselves that it was a deliberate choice and not an accident, and close the book on the “why” question.
Perhaps so we can move on? Perhaps so we can avoid the emotional asymmetry of contemplating something as complex and nuanced as suicide? Maybe. This would appear to be a result of human nature. In a world of survival of the fittest, it is incumbent upon any human being to deal with emotions and move on quickly as a matter of survival. But while this is natural and instinctual to jump to the quickest conclusion we can find and move on, it does us a disservice because it distorts the picture. In an world where thoughts and feelings are of exponentially higher value than physical safety, it doesn’t matter so much anymore that we complete as many puzzles as possible; it matters that we complete the puzzle correctly.
So I observe. I analyze. I try to understand. And I begin putting together the pieces of this mysterious puzzle. Because what I typically see is that a lot of people are trying really hard to understand this thing called suicide and in an attempt to find a comfortable answer quickly, they end up haphazardly mashing two pieces of the puzzle together that look like they fit, but in reality distort the entire picture.
So let’s find the bits of truth scattered throughout the canvas and see if we can’t line some of them up together.
Suicide Is Selfish
The most common and upsetting argument I’ve seen so far is that Robin Williams’ choice – and yes, it was a choice, however it was informed by mental processes most of us can’t even fathom – was selfish. Okay, I admit, I find this upsetting as well. So here’s what I have to say to all of you who assert this opinion: you’re right. It was selfish. From a completely objective point of view, committing suicide is a selfish act that causes great pain and anguish to those left behind. Let’s make sure we understand that. But it is not motivated by selfishness. I can’t emphasize this distinction enough. Depression causes the state of a person’s emotions and logical brain to be out of whack in these situations. Selfishness is not even a consideration; escape from intense pain is. You might compare it to a person who is being tortured as a POW and asks his torturer to kill him to put him out of his misery. Do you think he’s in a sound state of mind to contemplate how that choice might effect his family? No.
It’s a place few of us go, some of us return, but leaves us mourning for those who don’t make it out.
Suicidal Tendencies Can Be Cured With Faith
Another argument I’ve come across is this idea that somehow the person who commits suicide was not spiritual enough, or didn’t have a strong enough faith in God, or should have prayed more. I have a REALLY hard time with this one. I don’t see much logic in it at all. But, if I dig really deep, I can maybe find a place for this puzzle piece. I suppose that if we’re seeing “God” in this context as a spiritual/emotional/mental connection to the value of one’s inner self (through whatever type or image of God one believes in), then yes, I guess we could say the connection to “God”, or awareness of one’s own personal value, was broken. But no amount of praying, going to church, or worship can fix something borne of a physical ailment. I know some people believe in miracles of healing and I think that’s wonderful, but even in that context, 99% of the time you can’t spiritually fix something that is borne of a physical ailment. And let’s particularly avoid calling this a moral deficiency. It’s not. In fact, suicidal people are sometimes described as being exceptionally moral.
Suicide Is a Result of a Chemical Imbalance
Which brings me to the next argument: suicide is the result of depression which is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. This is TRUE! This is the one puzzle piece that I love seeing placed on the board because this one is in the right spot. Science has proved it, and if you don’t believe science, then believe the millions of people who have gained a higher quality of life through slight alterations of their chemical makeup. It’s not that they didn’t have the desire to better themselves before, it’s that the medication allows them to finally be in a place where they are able to face the thought processes, angry feelings, and self-loathing that they’ve always experienced. And they can begin to heal. It’s no different than a person who takes medication for high blood pressure or thyroid issues or any number of other physical ailments.
Suicidal People Should Just Be More Positive
And then there’s this lovely one: suicidal people just need to start thinking positively. Well, okay, I suppose technically this is true. A more positive outlook on life would certainly alleviate much of the suffering. The problem is in the assumption that this can be accomplished without help. Or that it can even be accomplished easily, or in some cases at all. I don’t care if positive thinking is easy for you; that doesn’t make it easy or even possible for others.
Suicide Happens to People With a Difficult Childhood
And the last argument we’re going to look at: suicide is a result of a difficult childhood. This is certainly a possibility but by no means true across the board. There are many whose depression is triggered by abusive or traumatic events in childhood (or adulthood, quite frankly), but not all depressed people had a difficult childhood. Many have lovely families and lovely lives but were simply born with chemical levels that result in a propensity for depression.
There are other explanations that can help us understand suicide, but let’s be sure to debunk these popular ones now.
Now I’ll be frank: I’ve never been seriously suicidal. I’ve contemplated it, but never been anywhere near to taking action. But I did spend a good chunk of my life in high school talking friends off the ledge, or comforting them after they survived the jump off the ledge, so I’ve seen this stuff pretty up close and personal. And I will be the first person to admit: I don’t understand it. I don’t. I can’t imagine myself being in a place of such misery that I’m prepared to give up everything in my life to stop the pain. The difference between me and a lot of other bloggers out there is that I don’t attempt to understand it with my biased eyes; I take the word of those who have been there. If you believe that suicide is motivated by selfishness or a poor relationship with God or a lazy lack of effort to breed positive thoughts, just listen to what depressed and suicidal people are saying/have said. Because this is a fact: you can’t understand it. Even if you’ve been depressed before, or felt really low, or contemplated suicide, you can’t understand the person who fell so far that they were willing to pick up a gun and pull the trigger. So stop trying and start listening.
Once you start listening you will hear things like this: they were so lost in their misery that they couldn’t even consider whether or not suicide was a selfish choice. They prayed and prayed and prayed and God never took away their sadness no matter how much faith they exerted. They fought tooth and nail for years to change their thought processes and be more positive – they fought so hard that they believed themselves to be a failure for not being able to achieve happiness.
That is the real picture we’re looking at. So let’s hold off on the idea we can understand this, stop applying our own mental processes to other people, and stop making snap judgments. This subject is huge and vast and meticulous and unforgiving. There are no easy answers. And the only answers we can trust are those of the amazing people in our lives that we are grateful to call survivors.
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