Matt Walsh describes Robin Williams’ recent suicide as a “bad decision.” Without any qualification, this judgment presumes too much. Suicide as an objective act is certainly a moral and social evil, but to say that a suicide has made a bad decision at least appears to claim knowledge of that person’s subjective state, and that is knowledge we simply cannot claim to have. In the order of charity, we should in fact presume the very best regarding Williams’ subjective state at the point of his death.
Walsh writes: “Suicide does not claim anyone against their will.” This also needs qualification. It seems plausible that Williams’ illness in a way, and to an extent we cannot know, “coerced” his judgment. Someone I read yesterday compared living with severe depression to living with a loaded gun next to one’s head. Feeling the nozzle of a gun at one’s temple doesn’t take away one’s decision-making power, but it sure puts some serious physical and psychological constraints upon it. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2282: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
Abuse of drugs and alcohol can also contribute to a suicidal impulse, and we know that Williams recently received treatment for addiction, but until more facts come to light we shouldn’t speculate about how all of this might have contributed to his suicide.
I am no authority on depression, and so I am wondering whether depression can become so bad as to be wholly incapacitating, such that we have to say that the suicide did not really make a decision, did not commit a human act, because his rational faculties, through no fault of his own, were totally impaired. I would be interested to hear from experts on this point.
In any event, it is well to keep in mind possible mitigating factors when assessing the morality of someone’s suicide–especially from a distance.
Walsh goes on to argue that we shouldn’t turn the discussion about depression into a “cold, clinical matter.” “Depression is a mental affliction, yes,” he says, “but it is also spiritual.” Here I think Walsh is onto something. Yesterday I too argued that in moving so quickly past the horror of Williams’ suicide to celebrations of Williams’ talent and cries for better depression awareness that we miss talking about the most important thing in this situation: the need to understand depression, as with every human suffering, in light of Christ’s suffering. We may never understand or be able to control all of the organic causes of depression, but we can do our best to place that suffering, and help others place that suffering, into the very wounds of Christ and join it to his suffering in love and reparation. I’m not saying that taking this supernatural outlook will cure depression, or that the depressed person should not pursue every available human means of healing. I’m saying that only in the Cross does suffering make ultimate sense. Only in the Cross do we find a lasting hope. Our task as Christians is to bring this message of hope to the world, both through advocating appropriate human means of healing and by spreading the Good News that depression and other evils never have the final word.
It is because our culture is losing faith in this hope that it is becoming so sentimental about death. Walsh criticizes the tweet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that under an image of Disney’s Genie from Aladdin, a character voiced by Williams, said “Genie, you’re free.” Death is freedom for those who die in the love of Christ, but it is doubtful that the Academy meant the tweet to be taken in this context. Again, no one should presume to judge the subjective state of Williams’ soul. We should be praying for his repose and for the consolation of his family and friends. But neither should we construct sentimental heavens that can be entered without cost. This diminishes the dignity of the human person, who can either find his fulfillment and freedom in God or waste himself seeking himself. The sadness of Williams’ untimely death naturally impels us to seek comfort, but let us seek it in that which truly comforts, and not in sweet imaginings.
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The photograph of Robin Williams above is reproduced courtesy of 20th Century Fox.