A Butterfly Effect of the Life and Death of Robin Williams: Compassion as a New Christian Response to Suicide

As the public conversation intensifies among the many people who are confused and grieving both the suicide of Robin Williams and the unfeeling responses of some of his critics, we seem to be paying much-needed attention to life with chronic mental illness and long-term struggles to remain in recovery from addiction. The tragic death gives birth to compassionate understanding among those willing to learn about the causes of suicide and perhaps prevent it for some other struggling individual in the future. His death was not in vain. The impact of his loss on so many people reminds me of what scientists sometimes call "the butterfly effect" or "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," (e.g., a butterfly flapping its wings in South America eventually affecting the weather in Central Park). Perhaps this one man's struggle and his critics' reactions have captured international attention because so many of us can relate to his battle. After all, he did not (as some critics claim) suddenly have a "cowardly" moment out of the blue, making a sudden "choice" unconnected with the rest of his life. For many decades he had courageously shared his struggle with addiction and his attempt to live sober, in recovery, one day at a time (including relapse and trying again). Like so very many of us, for years he managed to survive suicidal depression and addiction, one day at a time. So the butterfly effect here is that this later-life suicide of one struggling person set in motion a public response including character attacks that, in turn, by extension, feel like an attack on all of us who struggle to stay sober and alive each day, and a failure to recognize the importance and monumental difficulty of the daily victories achieved over years of surviving this struggle.

In addition, we can learn compassion for the way that other neurological illnesses may impact depression and its outcomes, as Williams is now reported to have begun to experience the effects of Parkinson's. My own friends with Parkinson's tell me it can sometimes manifest as chronic depression -- not situational alone but as a neurological aspect of Parkinson's itself. Some of those who have battled depression before also tell me that therapies and medications that were previously effective for their depression no longer are effective for them after the onset of Parkinson's. When we learn to listen with love to others who struggle with suicidal ideation, we learn that we can't fully understand or judge another's ongoing battles -- or how they may end.

Even as his family and friends mourn his death, some people add to their pain by implying that he lacked gratitude for his gifts, questioning why his well-known sense of humor and many admirers around the world weren't enough consolation to prevent him from committing suicide. At one time in my own youth, a coworker gave me the nickname "Sunny," remarking that I had such a sunny smile that its radiance was contagious. Yet that brief period of sunny stability came after and before bouts of suicidal depression that nearly took my life. For those of us who battle life-threatening depression, there is no contradiction in being a person who works very hard every day to maintain serenity, even joy and humor. Indeed, the deeper and more enduring one's battle with depression, the more effort one must make to share and maintain one's own sense of joy, wonder and humor, as Williams' life and work so well attests.

Christians who are prone to criticizing the suicidal need particular reminding that their Bible teaches that those with spiritual gifts for speaking truth and encouraging the community are often privately plagued by deep emotional and spiritual pain, grief, and fear (the Psalmists and prophets especially). Christianity teaches that it isn't by our own human strength that we survive the pain of despair that all humans experience but only by the Spirit of God, which empowers us at such moments to do more than we can naturally do, over a lifetime, perhaps, to become more than we could have been. In spite of faith in the ability of God's Spirit to provide, as a free gift, some moments of superhuman strength when we're in pain, we are overall and enduringly still human, frail, mortal, vulnerable -- especially when isolated, for example by notoriety or fame. (As many of us have found, widespread public admiration is not a substitute for the intimacy of enduring, personal, loving relationships.) Those of us who are people of faith, then, cannot criticize human frailty, which is merely a fact of the human condition; we can only pray with gratitude for the moments we don't succumb to this weakness, and for the people in our lives and the Spirit of God who strengthen us to endure it. It's pointless to criticize those who are already suffering and powerless -- especially one who is dead by suicide. Such negativity only deepens the suffering of his family and dehumanizes those choosing to express hate rather than compassion. I believe, based on experience, that the best hope that we who have suicidal depression can find to survive the low moments can be found in remembering not to stay alone in those moments. The times that a suicide-crisis counselor told me I was wrong to feel suicidal and had "so much to live for" never helped but only deepened my sense of isolation and despair. The only reason I lived through those moments myself is that a very few close friends listened without judgment when I held a noose in my hand or was about to drive to a bridge, acknowledging rather than dismissing the reality and depth of the pain. if we are willing to learn from the pain of a suicide such as this one, this death (though tragic) need not be in vain. Williams' whole life -- as the context in which we must understand his death -- consistently demonstrates and encourages compassion for human suffering.

As a fellow recovering alcoholic/addict and one who shares the experience of having depression that has brought me to the brink of suicide several times, I praise Robin Williams' 63 years of lived courage. A close friend of mine, also a recovering alcoholic with lifelong severe depression, also committed suicide at about the same age two years ago. As someone who expected to die by suicide by the time I was 40 and still am not yet 50, I insist (as a fellow sufferer) that anyone who endures decades of suicidal depression into their 60s is a hero to me. In only one sense, the self-righteous critics who judge suicides so harshly may be right: Perhaps that one moment, finally, when the pain is too much and a lifetime of courage finally fails, is a weak moment. But in this case, the man endured for 63 years, one day at a time, fighting valiantly through the unbearable pain of chronic depression. Every day is a victory for those of us who struggle with this kind of pain. To survive to an age that near the end of a natural course of life (usually about 72 for men) is heroic. So let's stop scrutinizing the one moment of weakness in this life of such deep and wide human kindness and instead praise him and all who struggle like him for all those moments, all those days, all those years, fought and won.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.