“You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me”: On Robin Williams, Suicide, Ultimate Concern, and Actual Hope for the Rest of Us, Part I

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* suicide, self-harm, depression

Over this past month, prompted by Ramadan, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good person in the world.  It’s way harder than it seems, and I’m still trying to sort out how to do that.  I imagine that this will be an ongoing process throughout my whole life, and I hope to do some reflecting with you all on that.

However, I’m not going to talk about that right now, because last night, I found out that Robin Williams died of asphyxiation as a result of suicide, confirmed here.  As such, the timing isn’t right, I think, for me to be going on introspective diatribes about what it means to be an ethical consumer in today’s world.  Right now, I want to discuss a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and that is mental health.

I did not have the pleasure of meeting or knowing Robin Williams.  Heck, I didn’t even know his third-cousin-twice-removed.  However, his vivacious presence colored my childhood with charm and laughter through his work in movies such as Aladdin, Flubber, and Hook.  In middle school, I was introduced to more profound roles he played, such as in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society.  My best friend since high school’s favorite movie is Mrs. Doubtfire.  While he may not have been physically present in my life, his characterizations were an ever-present reality with me as I stumbled from one life lesson to another, all of my friends and peers in tow, almost as if they were friends themselves.  We all owe a great deal of our understanding of this world to Robin Williams explaining it to us.

And this–THIS–is the crux of the whole issue for me: how we, as individuals and as communities see the world.  I’m not going to go on my usual soapbox regarding understanding depression and other mental health issues.  I don’t think rehashing the arguments surrounding the ontology of mental health conditions for the umpteenth time is going to help anyone make any sense of anything surrounding these issues, although they are definitely conversations worth having, and if you would like to read some of those understandings, you can find some very informative ones here and here.

But for me, there are other issues at stake here.

Robin Williams died as a result of a severe condition that deeply affected his way of looking at the world and his place in it, which somehow led him to the conclusion that death was the only way to stop the intense pain he was in.  I think this sad series of events speaks to questions of our own Ultimate Concern and purpose on this Earth.  “Ultimate Concern” is a phrase used in the study of religion coined by prominent and influential 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, and, in layman’s terms, is the thing by which one’s life, at its core , is most concerned about.  In other words, it’s that one entity, concept, person, or thing that gives someone the most fulfillment in life and provides someone with a sense of purpose, and therefore demands the most attention and concern.  You can read more about it here and here.

Like I’ve stated before in an earlier post, we can have faith in an afterlife, but no one can prove its existence, and for me, this is why we need to be concerned about our lives here and now, as it may well be all we have.  To that end, we can come up with the most effective treatments for every mental illness on the planet, but if the world isn’t giving us any good reason to stick around, what’s the point?  On the flipside, if we come together to support everyone in their quest in discerning and addressing their Ultimate Concern, but don’t address everyday problems and how we, as individuals and as part of a societal whole, understand and work with them, such as mental health conditions, we are also not giving others much hope.

So, how do we begin to wrestle with this concept of Ultimate Concern, especially as it applies to folks with mental health conditions that could potentially distort it?   This is a question that I’ll directly address in Part II, but the first step is to figure out what someone’s Ultimate Concern even is.  Sounds simple, right?  Wrong!  Determining what motivates us, what inspires us, what drives us, is a lifelong process, and nothing I say is going to outline it for anyone (including myself).  I can’t give anyone a map to follow to figure it out, and I can’t say whether one is better or worse than another.  That being said, I think that there are some key criteria here for figuring it out, at least for myself:

1) It must promote the whole of flourishing for myself.   I draw inspiration for this criterion from my Catholic faith and understanding of the theology of creation, but, without getting into heady theology, I think it can be applied to anyone, regardless of faith-tradition, philosophy, or other belief system.  However the Earth was created, through natural or supernatural means, the vast majority of systems characterize it as “good” or neutral, in that they do not assign a value judgment to it, as are humans.  Therefore, there is no logical  reason to believe that we deserve miserable existences.  Whatever motivates us to exist, therefore, cannot cause us harm.

2) It must allow others to experience the whole of flourishing for others.  Again, inspired by Catholicism, but still applicable to other belief or non-belief systems: if we were all created on this earth with no value judgment assigned to us, or one that is “good”, we cannot allow others to be hindered in their journey toward flourishing by basic understandings of equality.  We cannot intentionally cause someone pain or suffering.

Trying to determine a reason for pain ultimately leads to more discomfort, and while a reason is not always present, meaning can be derived from it.  In the words of John Green, “pain demands to be felt,”, and feeling it can be a catalyst for addressing it in a positive way.  If anything can emerge from the death of Robin Williams, I’d like to believe that he would want that.

If you or someone you care about needs help, please reach out to friends, family, psychiatric professionals, or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or go to the IMAlive chat room at www.imalive.org. 

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