The self-inflicted death of Robin Williams is pushing my buttons. And while I’ve read many commentaries, I have yet to come across one that speaks to the issue I find most affecting, so I feel prompted to chime in.
My take on this tragedy is narcissistic. I realize it’s unseemly to speak personally at such times, but I’m going to do it anyway. I detect an important lesson behind this highly publicized suicide, and the best way for me to articulate it is to speak from my heart.
For over three decades I’ve suffered regular bouts of depression. At times the agony has been nearly unremitting; between 2002 and 2006 I hungered (and sometimes plotted) for death almost daily. More recently the melancholia has been episodic, lasting one to three days but striking with predictable regularity. Thankfully, the frequency has been diminishing, but when I’m in the midst of darkness, annihilation beckons with an ugly but irresistible leer. It’s scary, especially for my wife and others who care about me.
Whenever I get struck low, the same set of thoughts runs through my mind:
“I didn’t live up to my potential. My career plans have all gone bust due to poor choices and worse follow-through. I’ve ended up nearly alone in the world, with no children and few friends. My financial future looks tenuous, and I live in a modest, uninteresting suburb.”
Why share my particular species of negativity? Because when depressed I believe my urge for terminal release—-a desire traceable to mistreatment and maternal suicide during childhood—-would have been dispelled had I proven myself a success, built a reputation, fathered children, attracted friends and admirers, accumulated a fortune, and purchased a villa.
But then Robin Williams hung himself, and I had to look at my assumptions anew. If a man with his gifts could feel so unhappy that death seemed the best option, then I must be wrong about how much talent, family, fame, fortune, and lifestyle can do for a personality.
The notion that success in these terms would lead to happiness was installed in me during childhood, encouraged in countless ways. In particular I remember a popular board game called ‘Life’ that my family played when I was only four-years-old. The objective was to secure a good profession (becoming a doctor was best) and a maximal income. Even before grade school, I was already accustomed to the idea that a successful life is one of material attainment.
Formal education reinforced my competitiveness by making it obvious that some people are destined to be winners and others losers. The grading system lets kids know where they stand in this great winnowing of the better from the worse. For a child who didn’t seem to matter at home, good marks offered an illusion of importance in the world.
Not everyone pursues high grades as a youngster, but in our culture we all try to prove ourselves somehow. Many stake their claim academically (the nerds), but others become class clowns, rebels, teacher’s pets, group leaders, or outcasts. Even the kid who is widely hated achieves a kind of notoriety, a success of sorts. Society raises its young to crave winning at something.
Perhaps this tendency is built into human nature, but it’s hard to deny that our academic and cultural institutions fuel the expression of it. Sadly, the idea that outer achievement leads to inner happiness is misleading, if not an outright lie, as the suicide of Robin Williams proves.
It’s impossible for me to know what the man was thinking as he hung himself, but it seems clear that material success failed to provide lasting protection from despair. Maybe he believed himself a fraud, or maybe he recognized his talents and attainments but found them empty of comfort. Perhaps he was experiencing domestic dissatisfaction, or perhaps he knew he was loved but didn’t find that love sustaining. We don’t know what went wrong in his mind, but we do know that what appeared to be a high degree of accomplishment did not dispel the demons of mental suffering.
We are led to believe that material accumulation will make us happy, but it doesn’t. I am sure a person trapped in one of America’s urban ghettoes–pinned down by discrimination and poor education–might imagine my suburban lifestyle sufficient for happiness, yet it has never been enough to keep the darkness at bay.
If we live in comfortable surroundings we might be contented, but that contentment doesn’t derive from the comfort. And while desperate circumstances make satisfaction harder, occasional souls manage to remain joyful despite appalling conditions.
External success never suffices by itself. Robin Williams and countless other brilliant but self-destructive artists have proven this. On the other hand, internal peace of mind can make even difficult situations tolerable. Think of Nelson Mandela.
In other words, our society raises its children to develop the wrong abilities. Rather than encouraging mental skills supportive of equanimity, it promotes technical skills supportive of industry. This has the effect of keeping most of us preoccupied with endless striving and competition, in the vain hope that if we accumulate enough winnings, we will be free of suffering. And while it isn’t a conscious conspiracy, it also has the effect of making the average person insecure and so less likely to express outrage at a culture built on misery.
The great spiritual paths have always taught that relief does not come from rising above others. Rather, it comes from transcending the concerns of ego, the very concerns exalted by our schools, our leaders, our technologies, and our communities.
It isn’t possible to know what discouraged Robin Williams, or what might have saved him. I don’t know how much childhood adversity the man endured; nor do I know how much effort he exerted toward learning meditative and other mental skills. And depression does have a neurochemical element, so it may be that he would have succumbed to his illness no matter what.
But it seems obvious that if outer success were sufficient to make a person happy, the great comedian would not have killed himself. It seems equally obvious that if he had been able to find inner peace, he would still be with us.
Could our society ever reject the modern formula? Could we encourage inner quality of life instead of outer quantity of achievement?
Robin Williams accomplished as much as anyone can in life, and yet he still found living intolerable at the end. I think he has taught us a lesson worth considering as we admire the man’s genius and mourn his passing.