Is Suicide Selfish Or Selfless?
Few could have missed the passing of comedic genius Robin Williams earlier this month.
As most people also know, the cause of death was ruled to be asphyxiation, suffocation caused by hanging himself, the capstone of Williams’ ongoing struggle with depression. Williams’s death shocked us all, particularly those of my generation who grew up watching movies like "Popeye," "Hook," "Aladdin," and "Flubber." Many of us saw Williams as a kind, gentle and unbelievably funny father figure in our lives, so his death has hit us hard.
When someone like Robin Williams dies, everyone grieves because we all feel that in some way, he belonged to us. He belonged to our childhoods, he belonged to our fantasy worlds, our Neverlands. We expected Williams to be around for at least another 20 years, to make more films that we could show our children. We expected him to stay around to make us happy, to make us laugh, to put on a red rubber nose and force us to believe that there is still good somewhere in this world. When we realized that Robin Williams not only died, but had done so purposefully, it was easy to become angry at him. In fact, it became the easiest thing in the world to judge and lose respect for and even begin to hate this man that we have never met, this man whose pain we could not comprehend, for leaving us. It became easy to forget our compassion, to forget how much we genuinely cared (and still do care) for Robin Williams, to think only one thing: "How could he possibly do this to us?"
These feelings are only natural; after all, anger is an acknowledged stage of grief, and we are all in our own ways grieving the loss of this incredible man. It is perfectly acceptable to feel angry, or even betrayed, by Robin Williams’s actions. What is not acceptable, however, is to condemn and slander the character of a man simply because of the nature of the disease that took his life.
READ MORE: 7 Best Robin Williams Roles
When a famous man dies from cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s, we choose to reflect on all of the great things he has accomplished in his life and generally abide by the cardinal rule of not speaking poorly of the dead. But, when a famous man dies from depression, it suddenly becomes acceptable to judge his actions and blast his character and make long Facebook posts (or, in the case of musician Henry Rollins, columns in LA Weekly entitled "Fuck Suicide") discussing the selfishness of suicide and how, no matter how bad the pain in your life became, you would never do it because you know how many people it would hurt.
For anyone who has ever written or said or even thought anything like this, I would like to attempt to explain a bit about depression.
Imagine if people were only able to complete their daily activities by first reading them off of a piece of paper. All healthy, functional people would simply read their daily activities from that paper and then go about their lives; because each task is written on the paper, each task is easily followed. Now, put the piece of paper – the one that we all are relying on to complete every single one of our daily tasks – in a tub of water. Watch the paper fill with water, become bloated. Watch every single word on the paper melt and become unrecognizable. Watch the paper itself, in fact, turn into a ball of pulp and then disintegrate totally, until there is nothing at all left.
This is the mind of someone with depression. First, our instructions melt and our daily activities halt, because we do not know what to do anymore. Then, our very ideas and morals warp and we begin to become lost in our own minds, the minds that neither we nor anyone else are able to understand. We try to understand, we try to go about our days as usual, but often we misread the bleeding ink and make mistakes and become frustrated. Then, in a blast of final indignity, we lose our ability to even try to decipher the words as the paper crumbles in our fingers, our minds rapidly disintegrating until all of a sudden we believe that they are gone and it seems to us that there is no way of ever getting them back.
Our minds lie to us. They tell us that we are nothing, they tell us that we are worse than that. They tell us that we are selfish merely for living, they tell us we are burdens on our friends and families. They tell us to end our lives because it ending it would be selfless, not because we are in too much pain to bear anymore. They tell us that by living we are hurting people, they tell us not that death is the way out of our pain, but the way of protecting the ones we love from pain, the pain that we have caused them.
One of the most heart-rending, thoughtful & beautifully humane comments I have read since Robin Williams died pic.twitter.com/qmcYDmj4cn
— Jessie Jessup (@JessieJessup) August 29, 2014
Our minds lie to us, and they tell us that suicide is selfless. Our minds lie to us, and we believe them. We become obsessed with the idea of absolving our friends and families of the burdens we have become. We become dark angels determined to do what we think is right, even if that means ending our own lives. We sacrifice ourselves, and this is a mistake. We are wrong, we are human, we are fragile and sometimes, our mistakes break us into pieces that are so small that we cannot be put back together again. But, we are not selfish. Suicide is not a selfish act. It is a horrible byproduct of disease that says no more about our character than dying from any other disease. You would never tell someone succumbing to other diseases to push through, snap out of it or fight harder, but because depression cannot be touched or seen it somehow becomes nonexistent and we as victims of depression become weak consequences of a world with a Darwinian mentality.
But we are sick, not selfish.
Those who condemn Robin Williams, those who talk about selfishness and write columns stating that those who commit suicide "negate their existence"? They are the selfish ones. When they say these things, they are thinking only of their own feelings. They are thinking of how upset they are that the man who gave them so much – laughter in "Mrs. Doubtfire" and advice in "Good Will Hunting" and hope in "Patch Adams" – has nothing left to give them.
They are upset that he is gone from their lives, and they have the right to be. I cannot even imagine the pain that Robin Williams’s children are going through right now, but in a small way Robin Williams was a father to all of us. In a small way, we were all his goddamn kids too. To those who condemn Williams because they are angry, by all means grieve if Williams' death moves you to grieve. Get angry if Williams’ death makes you angry. But, I beg you to use that anger to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues, not perpetuate it. I challenge you to turn your anger into passion and turn your passion into compassion and use that compassion to help people and end this disease once and for all. I challenge you to step outside of your preconceived notions on suicide, on depression, and I challenge you to become the solution instead of the problem.