The Death of Robin Williams and the Tragic Sense of Life

Many of us received the news of the (presumed) suicide of Robin Williams this week as a great tragedy. It stands as a landmark for the tragedies that surround us everyday. To live is to witness tragedy. There are the extreme daily tragedies of countries at war. Then there are the smaller tragedies of hopes dashed, of friendships won and then lost, of the breakdown of families, of children cut down or abused before they have a chance to live to majority.

How many can identify with the desire, the powerful urge, to end it all, to go out of this world by personal choice?  Some ancient philosophers argued that suicide is a legitimate choice, and should be honored. William James was concerned enough about such talk at Harvard  that he delivered a lecture arguing against it. Though Jews and Christians have generally rejected suicide as an immoral act, and even argued about whether it is forgivable, the Bible actually does not directly address the subject. Most interpret the sixth commandment so as to imply its prohibition.

But when a popular figure known for spreading laughter among others, feels so sad that life had lost its luster we cannot but feel that this is a great and tragic loss to us all. Who can fathom the loss of hope in a person that brings them to such a state? How far (or close) are any of us from such a state of mind? I for one am not at all inclined to judge another for such an act. All I can think and feel for them is sadness and empathy. Let God be judge. I want no part in that. I am a man, and all other men are in some way familiar to me.

Even people of faith sometimes fail to draw on the resources of their faith to overcome the hopelessness that leads to death.  One would hope that belief in the loving God of the Bible would inspire hope. But the Bible can be a source of discouragement when it is used as an impossible standard of perfection, rather than a means of grace.  That grace must be embodied in the flesh of real people who can give it freely to the world around them. The incarnational message of the New Testament is particularly clear about the need for its faithful ones to incarnate the love of God in Christ to a tragically needy world. But here again the burden can be overwhelming. The extent of pain and tragic lives is more than we mortals can bear. So some sincere disciples have removed themselves from the world to pray, and pray we must.  Jesus modeled a life of both prayer and labor. We can do no better than to imitate the Master.

The suicide of Robin Williams seems unreasonable to us. This is partly because we think of men as reasoning beings. So let me finish with the insightful words of Miguel de Unamuno: “Man, they say, is a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. And yet what differentiates him from other animals is perhaps feeling rather than reason. I have seen a cat reason more often than laugh or weep. Perhaps it laughs or weeps within itself—but then perhaps within itself a crab solves equations of the second degree.” (The Tragic Sense of Life.)