Reflections on the death of Robin Williams
“You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends,” writes Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking. She captures what feels most punishing and cruel about our existence: that it might end without notice.
I saw Robin Williams in 1980 at a small comedy club in Denver: He gave me a stomach ache. Let me explain. I woke up the next morning stiff with pain in my abdomen from laughing so hard and for so long. I have never experienced anything quite like it. News of his death shook and perplexed me. I thought about the natural impulse of locating blame. My guess is that it goes something like this: If I only paid closer attention. Which chess piece should I have moved? When? Where?
What does depression feel like? Does it have texture and composition? Does it hurt?
“But of all the signs that depression has a neck-down presence, none is more insistent than physical pain. For a substantial number of people, possibly up to half of depression sufferers, bodily pain is the way depression presents itself.” http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200308/when-depression-hurts
Suicide in Jewish law is a serious offense.
“For him who takes his own life with full knowledge of his action no rites are to be observed… There is to be no rending of clothes and no eulogy. But people should line up for him and the mourner’s blessing should be recited out of respect for the living. The general rule is: Whatever rites are performed for the benefit of the survivors should be observed; whatever is done out of respect for the dead should not be observed.” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/talmud_&_mishna.html
Jewish law does not, however, place all suicides in the same category. One category of suicide, as stated above, includes those who are in full possession of their physical and mental facilities when they take their lives. A second category includes those who act on impulse or who are under severe mental strain or physical pain when committing suicide. Jewish law speaks of an individual in this second category of being an anuss, meaning a “person under compulsion,” and hence not responsible for his actions. All burial and mourning rites are observed for him.
The first anuss in Jewish history was King Saul, who, after being defeated by the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, realized what would have happened to him if he were taken alive. He therefore impaled himself on his sword (I Samuel 31:4). This action gave rise to the expression anuss K’Shaul, meaning “as distressed as Saul.” Joseph Caro in his “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 345:3) and most authorities of subsequent generations, have ruled similarly.
There are extensive philosophical debates about suicide in Greek and Roman antiquity. Suicide was regularly practiced and was justified by many as an obvious means of deliverance from affliction and oppression. In general, ancient society did not discriminate against suicide, nor did it attach any particular disgrace to it, provided there was sufficient justification for the act.
Some would say the act is cowardly, selfish and disobedient. God has given life to humans; God alone has the right to take it away. Voluntary death is usurping God’s powers. God has ordered us to be ready for death at every moment, but it is not up to us to determine when we leave.
Over the years, I heard Williams speak in interviews about having a relationship with a loving God. I heard those who knew him characterize their personal friendship with him as “being alone in an elevator with a stranger.” I am sure he was in pain and he wanted relief. The relationship between the act and context seems to be central to our view. Some place the act itself in principal position. Others will give context the primary position.
Williams was both gifted and tormented. The torment fed his gift and his gift could not release his torment. I don’t think that suicide is noble nor do I regard it a mortal sin.
Perhaps Williams felt God’s silence in the midst of his pain. Perhaps he was so consumed with his depression that thoughts of God one way or the other were not even in the mix. None of us can know. Nor can we really go there. We can only speak for ourselves. As for me, no matter how bleak this life may get, I pray I hold fast to the hope that is in me because I belong to Him.
Andrew Barron is the Director of Jews for Jesus Canada. He and his wife Laura live in Toronto with their children Rafael, Ketzia and Simona. Andrew first heard the Gospel while a science student at Florida Institute of Technology. A friend shared a Gideon’s New Testament with him and challenged him to read it. Andrew used to work as a crew activity planner and orbit designer on the early Space Shuttle Missions.