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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Moving from shock to compassionate action

Just a couple of thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams. 

Being almost the exact same age, and having experienced his work in television and movies over the years, I was as shocked as most people. I don't really follow pop culture much, so I didn't know, beyond a passing awareness, that he had a history with substance abuse and depression. His talent was a distraction to us, I guess, and maybe to his friends and family, even those who were aware of his personal demons.

I confess that as I saw that the cause of death was "suicide by asphyxia," I wondered at the irony of that as I recalled those times when we all laughed at Williams' manic comic performances until we couldn't breathe. That was near-asphyxia by an overdose of life and joy, having the incongruities of the ordinary rubbed in our faces like shaving-cream pies. And on this day, a master-seer of those incongruities with a mouth that could speak them more quickly than many of us could process them, died from asphyxia, choking off the very laughter and life he imparted to millions.

Being in church work, I've been a witness to the grief of many over the years in the wake of suicide. It is a colossal tragedy that rattles the community of those who are friends and family to the deceased. The sadness of it overwhelms everything else for a while. We're cut loose from the moorings of reason, and start to drift in the chaos in which, it has to be said, so many of these ordinary people have invisibly drifted while appearing to live normal or marginally quirky lives right before our eyes.

There is other stuff going on in the world. Other people are dying, too, just not famous people, rich people, people whom we think ought to feel good and people with whom we think, in our myopia, we might like to trade places. Most of them die not by their own hand but by the hand of violence. In the world of social media, there are those voices that are outraged by the focus on the attention to the dead superstar, whether Robin Williams, or Michael Jackson, or Heath Ledger, or whomever. And I understand their perplexity and indignation. But choice between absorbing our sorrow and seeking some new meaning in the loss of someone whom we know in our cultural household and facing into the horror of war, famine, disease, genocide, and natural disaster it's not a choice we have to make. While we might hope for some sense of emotional balance and equivalency of weight between our cultural sphere and the global or human family, there is room, it seems to me, for a search for meaning and engagement in both kinds of events. Some of what we see in the news media and social media is little more than self-indulgence and hyperbole when our individual illusions of life and control are disrupted by these tragedies. But if they can be refocused on the other, in this case, Robin Williams and people like him who suffer from depression and other mental illness, they can be a source of evolution for us, just as global suffering, when it moves beyond morbid fascination and a rush to quasi-religious or nationalistic judgment, and be a catalyst for acts of true compassion, intervention, and national self inventory.

So I suppose my feeling today is that I hope that some of the people who are shocked and saddened by the loss of Robin Williams will look into the state of our national response to mental illness in this country, and make demands of their representatives in government to reverse the decades-long retrenchment that has deprived depressed and mentally-ill people of adequate facilities and health care. I hope they will attempt to see that depression can't be "fixed" with an exhortation to "cheer up" any more than cancer can be cured by M&Ms. Depression isn't "not getting it," whether "it" is religion, or the sunny side of life, or how good we have it. Depression is a disease, and it's a disease for which there are treatments but not a cure. Wishing people would "have a nice day" and then voting for people who want to shrink research, treatment, and advocacy funds to the point where they can be "drowned in the bathtub" is disingenuous at best, calculatedly cruel at worst. And I hope, too, that we will open our hearts to other suffering, and not become hardened to the daily reality of violence, hunger, and disease that rips families apart in this and every land, and which, ignored, will only grow like the cancer it is in the body of the human race.

I saw a version of this story on someone's Facebook post early today, but could not relocate it to credit the person who posted it. I remembered enough of the story to Google it, though, and it's pretty easy to find. This is how it appears on the BBC's History site, with some background there as well as this, which is the crux of the issue.
In the year 1806, a well-dressed man in his twenties visited a doctor who was renowned throughout London for being able to treat what nowadays we'd call depression, but back then was called melancholia.
The patient explained that he felt overcome by a terrible sadness, that he didn't want to get up in the morning. He could not see any point in his existence.
"With your condition I would normally prescribe a course of my patent powders," said the doctor, "but it so happens that I have recently come across something which will alleviate your condition much more quickly.
"You must," he continued, "go to the Covent Garden theatre to see the pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose. This is the happiest thing I have ever seen performed on a stage, tears of laugher ran down my face. Why, sir, I can almost guarantee that watching Grimaldi the clown will cure you completely!"
"Ah, but doctor," said the man sadly, "I am Grimaldi the clown."
While we can trust that Robin Williams may rest in the peace he could not find in life, I hope that those of us who remain for a while might be provoked out of complacency and into action on behalf of others who suffer without the resources to help themselves.

1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline