If there’s anything more saddening than hearing about the death of Robin Williams, it might be hearing some of the commentary about his demise that came from certain clueless and classless ideological fanatics. Civilized and civil behavior requires a certain amount of respect toward the newly deceased, at least for a few minutes. But no sooner had rigor mortis set in than certain individuals began vying furiously for the honor of having produced the most insensitive and idiotic response to the news
The ever-dependable Rush Limbaugh concluded that Williams killed himself out of the “guilt” attendant upon “political leftism”; and when there was an outcry over his utterances, he blamed the whole thing on — what else — the librulmedia. Shepard Smith at the ever-dependable Fox “News” suggested that Williams killed himself because he was a “coward”. (Smith, unlike the others mentioned here, at least had the decency to apologize later.) . Chris Fields, an official with the Minnesota GOP, thought the mourning of Williams’ fans was, somehow or other, a golden opportunity for him to urge them to vote for the candidate of his choice — and he continued politicizing repeatedly even after a fellow Republican admonished him to “Shut. The Fuck. Up.” because he was “making an ass of all of us”.
Not only political hucksters, but religious hucksters, weighed in and cashed in. The ever-dependable Westboro Baptist Church Tweeted hateful comments about Williams and threatened to picket his funeral. Popular Christian blogger Matt Walsh declared (as one of his “absolute truths and alpaca grooming tips” — I’m not sure which he was intending) that “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice”, and went on to say some other insulting things about depressives (more about that in a moment). The Family Research Council — DING! DING! DING! (sorry, that alarm always goes off whenever the word family appears in the name of an ideological organization) saw the opportunity to hawk a supposed cure for homosexuality. WorldNetDaily, not content to refer to depression and substance addiction as figurative “demons”, posited that Williams literally was in league with “demonic powers” that eventually destroyed him — and oh by the way, they just happen to have little video that tells you all about other celebrities who’ve done the same, available at the special low price of only $15.95.
There’s nothing new about this type of exhibitionist opportunism. That’s just the kind of thing these people do, and they’re never going to let a perfectly good tragedy go to waste. Ever. But it underscores just how little the American public understands depression and suicide — which are inextricably bound together. Smith and Walsh are symptomatic of a mindset that holds that depression and suicide are voluntary; and that Williams should have been able to just step back and look at his life in perspective, and make the correct choice. But at its worst, depression is something that totally takes control of you. Williams in his final hours probably was no more capable of being rational than a Fox anchor or a holier-than-thou religious blogger.
We have pious religiosity to thank for much of the current attitudes about suicide and mental health issues. But these attitudes are more of medieval than biblical origin. The Bible contains no specific injunction against suicide; moreover at least two of its most vaunted heroes — Saul and Samson — did themselves in. The notion that suicide is a “sin” for which one will “go to hell” originated with writers during the Middle Ages — most notably Dante. And as for the mentally/ emotionally imbalanced, they were often presumed in the good ole days when religion ruled the world to have been possessed by or in league with evil spirits, and subjected to whippings or worse.
Christian fundamentalism has not evolved much, if any, beyond the medieval phase. (Fanatics no longer burn “heretics” at the stake, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they could still get away with it.) It’s still a jarringly contradictory combination of fatalism and free will doctrine, stitched together by the conviction that prayer can alter anything, including the will of God — unless He invokes His power of veto. No wonder Christians are so often confused about what is or is not within their control. No wonder people like Matt Walsh can be so condescending toward people like Robin Williams.
Religionists passing judgment on suicides are likely to point to a set of stone-engraved rules for living that they inaccurately call The Ten Commandments and mistakenly believe are to be found in the Bible. (See previous post, The Myth(s) of the Ten Commandments). One of them admonishes flatly, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; and the traditional inference is that this applies even when the killer and the killee are one and the same. Your life, folks believe, is not your own, and it’s inexcusable for you to deprive God of the fiendish delight of tormenting you indefinitely.
You know as well as I, however, that there are asterisks on the stone alongside the words. The same God who commanded his people that they shalt not killeth also instructed them to slaughter their enemies by the thousands and stone to a pulp anyone who ran afoul of this or that tribal taboo. Likewise, even today many people who consider themselves Good Christians have no problem with capital punishment or aggressive warfare that annihilates innocent men, women and children all over the place.
Suicide still remains strictly taboo, under any circumstances. Walsh declares it to be a “bad decision. Always a bad decision.” In part because it entails a “willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.” Notice that word willingness. While Walsh insists that he doesn’t consider depression to be a sign of weakness, he also says:
I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.
No matter how you slice it, it’s still that time-honored smug WASP pastime of blaming the victim. (Indeed, many smug WASP neocons refuse to acknowledge that there is any such thing as a victim at all.) I recall reading about a woman who had been molested by a relative as a teen, and when she confided to her minister about it, he replied, “Let’s pray for your forgiveness.” That’s the kind of lunacy that results from a worldview that maintains that on the one hand God and His agents have total authority over you, and yet on the other, that you are totally responsible for whatever circumstances you find yourself in. The kind of worldview incorporating the notion that, just by committing the offense of being born, you’re graded a sinner by default.
To be sure, there are indeed some suicides that (apparently) are willful acts. These include those situations when an individual has a painful terminal illness; and it is their conclusion that their protracted living under those conditions will cause unnecessary pain, grief and expense to both them and their loved ones. Which doesn’t seem to be such a problem for the anti-suicide moralizers.
But the vast majority of suicides are the result of depression, which is a topic very close to home for me. I had a severe struggle with it myself. It runs in my family. I even had a cousin who committed suicide at age 17. None of which qualifies me to determine what is in someone else’s head unless they tell me. And to the best of my knowledge, Robin Williams wasn’t talking to anyone as he tied the knot around his neck. Walsh claims to be able to speak authoritatively about depression because he’s suffered from it himself. It’s hard to imagine, however, that he’s endured any but the mildest emotional turmoil if he can be so presumptuous and judgmental. And even if we assume that he’s really been through the mill himself, that does not put him in anyone else’s shoes. Depression is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon; nor, for that matter, is suicide.
Yet he professes to know beyond a doubt that Williams died of “choice” His ideology demands it, so it must be true. He joins the ranks of such experts on the topic as Tom Cruise (a religious fanatic of a different stripe) who know more about depression than do the professionals. He doesn’t go so far as to say, as Cruise did, that “there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the body”, but he does insist that it has a “spiritual” element, whatever the hell that means. Well sure, depression has a spiritual component if you choose to look at it that way. So do mud wrestling and nuclear warfare. And how exactly does that change anything? People still slit their wrists, get dirty, and fry.
For Walsh, the prescription for depression is simple: “joy”. It’s the only thing that really defeats depression, he says. Just inject more joy into your life, and you’ll never succumb. Well, yeah — and the key to immortality is simply to refrain from dying. But telling a severely depressed person to experience joy is like telling a blind man to go out and gather some yellow flowers.
The law has long recognized the validity of an “insanity plea”, based on the premise that people sometimes commit atrocious acts that they are not responsible for because they are not in control of their faculties. Most people accept this as reality, as long as you’re talking about one person killing somebody else. Yet when it comes to suicide, we’re still in the Dark Ages.
Suicide and depression have always been with us, but that doesn’t mean we have to view them as they’ve traditionally been viewed. It’s the Twenty-First Century, folks; and we have unprecedented tools at our disposal to save people from this horrible affliction called depression, and to prevent many suicides. But our feet our still mired in modern medievalism.
Don’t believe it? Cool. Let me tell you about an informative little video that details how many entertainers have sold their souls to the devil. I can sell you as many copies as you like for the amazingly low price of only $49.95 each.
(UPDATE: Matt Walsh has done a followup to his original piece, in which he backtracks a bit, and tries to clarify some false inferences some readers have made, and tries to distance himself from the medieval mentality. But he still insists that he knows beyond all doubt that suicide is always a choice.)