“And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ’tis that I may not weep…”. Lord Byron
Had you noticed that the Episcopal Church has had some noted comics as members – Robin Williams, Garrison Keillor, and Jonathan Winters are three that come immediately to mind.
Many in the Episcopal Church join with countless others across the globe to mourn the death of Robin Williams. We mourn because Robin Williams openly and enthusiastically claimed us, and we enthusiastically claimed him. His suicide raises many questions about how much we knew or can know about the depth of an individual by simply observing the exterior. This man of comedy, this acting genius and private humanitarian did not let us in on his private distresses, ailments, the things that haunted him, that filled him with terror or pain. Instead he chose to share joy, laughter, creativity, and zaniness as his public face.
I am appalled by a thread of discussion on a page I frequent which asked “if one commits suicide does it mean one is going to hell?” Over 4 decades of pastoral conversations with a number of people who were thinking fleetingly or at depth about ending their lives have shown there is one common thread. In all of these conversations that I can recall the person contemplating suicide was already in a hell of some sort. It may have been deep physical pain, emotional pain, financial calamity, endless hopelessness, or the pit of personal failure but each had the sense that ending their life would be less painful for them and everyone else than continuing.
I find the speculation suicide engenders by those who have never been to those painful depths, and especially with the addition of pious judgments to the speculation, is more destructive than the act of suicide itself. Rather than to mourn that another felt compelled to end life, or rather than for us to look for ways to support and uphold those who find themselves in the pit of despair, they make pronouncements about the morality of suicide. Is it really our belief that deep excruciating pain of whatever form somehow is moral? Preferable? Tolerable?
If there are to be recriminations about suicide let us take it upon ourselves – that as a society and as individuals we are not able to help those in deep psychic, physical and emotional pain. That we are not willing as a society to devote the dollars it would take to provide adequate community support personnel for those who are so vulnerable. The truth is that most of us are not open and comfortable with these kinds of conversations. We don’t know how to hold the person and the information in sacred ways. Most of us want to avoid the conversation, provide cliché answers or to refer to a pro so we do not have to be in touch with the pain of the other. “Oh don’t talk like that…” only pushes a person more deeply into themselves and into that lonely pit of despair.
We will never truly know the cause of this suicide or any other– there may be hints, but no true knowledge. While it is true that suicide always creates great emotional distress and difficulty for others whose lives are entwined with the deceased it may also be true that the person who did the suicide found it the only route out of a hell we can never fully know.
Let’s not play the head games… Use this as a reminder that we are surrounded by people in all stages of hurt. The answer is not for us to judge but what we think and do and say to others matters deeply. Be open without judgment to the sharing by others of their deep hurts, fears, depressions, and hold them as the sacred conversation that it really is. A burden shared is a burden partially lightened.
So beautifully written, Don, and so deeply true. I’m not sure what says the worst about our society – that we could says these things you have written about, or that we have so little support in place for the wounded and lonely in our communities. Thanks for this article.