As I was on Twitter last night following the commentary on the death of Robin Williams, I saw someone post a quotation from Stephen Fry which began, “If you find someone suffering from depression, never ask them why.” I think I know what Fry’s point is. Oftentimes, if not all the time, the depressive cannot begin to explain the cause of his symptoms.
But there is a deeper level at which Fry’s advice seems to be the worst possible. For while someone suffering from depressive symptoms may not be able to explain the organic or psychological roots of his pain, he still has the ability, and I would underscore the opportunity, to ask: “Why is this happening to me? What is the point of this suffering? What could possibly be the basis of a real hope for satisfaction and fulfillment in my life?”
Depression is a disease that needs to be attacked on many fronts and with many different kinds of support, but such philosophical and indeed theological questioning should not be left out of the equation. Walker Percy liked to suggest that the depressed person might be the healthiest person among us, in the sense that he has become acutely, painfully aware that something is radically unstable about the world.
When celebrities such as Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman take their lives on account of their depression, we have a laudable impulse to show our compassion for their malady and to praise their talents. This is right to do. Yet as I was listening to the retrospectives on Robin Williams’ life on the news this morning I became concerned that perhaps we were moving by Williams’ suffering too fast. I make no judgments about Williams’ psychological problems and how he was handling them–I have no knowledge of that and no wish to judge. My point is that we should not move too quickly past the question: “How is one to live with apparently unbearable suffering? How is one to find any positive meaning in it?”
There is only one answer to these questions. The meaning of suffering can only be found in the heart of Christ. Christ takes our suffering up into his and gives it an eternal value. In saying this I don’t mean that psychological and medicinal remedies are not important for the person suffering from depression. I mean, rather, that artists and others suffering from depression need also to benefit from the spiritual aspect of their struggle. Artists are not special in this regard, but the cultural prominence of celebrities like Robin Williams highlights the crucial need of exploring the question of suffering in the only context in which the question can be answered: a Christian theological one.