Robin Williams kept me company during the first six weeks of my baby’s life.
As a brand new mother, I was constantly exhausted and frustrated that I couldn’t soothe my crying, colicky child. Nights were particularly difficult. Often, I paced endlessly in our tiny family room into the wee hours, bouncing and patting and silently begging my little one to rest.
And, during those long nights, I’d pop Mrs. Doubtfire (the only movie we owned!) into our brand new VCR, and Robin Williams’ creativity and gentleness would soothe me as I tried to soothe my child. Somehow, the hilarity and tenderness in that film seemed to ease the uncertainty I felt as a new mom, and helped me to laugh at myself even as the anvil of postpartum depression pressed heavily on my chest.
I wasn’t going to blog about his death. In truth, it’s none of my business, and I cannot imagine the grief and agony that surround these circumstances. I didn’t know Mr. Williams personally, so I can’t speculate on his state of mind. However, I read a piece today entitled “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” The title alone alarmed me, and the paragraphs that followed left me enraged, disappointed, and determined to provide a different perspective .
When people are diagnosed with depression, many of them–especially those who are people of faith–will experience guilt. “If I had more faith, I wouldn’t feel this way….If I prayed more effectively, I would be happy again…The Bible says “count it all joy,” but I feel miserable.”
Therefore, to be told by a prominent Christian writer that “we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression,” creates an ominous sense of failure. The writer intimates that those who ultimately find depression unbearable possess a real weakness in judgment and character:
“The death of Robin Williams is significant not because he was famous, but because he was human, and not just because he left this world, but particularly because he apparently chose to leave it. (Suicide is) The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”
No wonder people with mental health diagnoses stay away from church.
When the Church characterizes mental illness as a weakness in the soul, something that can be prayed away if we have enough faith, we push people away. Good, funny, loving, hard-working, generous people. People like Mr. Williams.
Like my great aunt.
Like my good friend.
Like a colleague.
We need to follow the advice Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, gave his students in Dead Poet’s Society. He challenged those boys to gain new perspective, saying, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Can you imagine saying, “If you prayed harder, your tumor would go away,” or “Your Multiple Sclerosis seems to stem from a lack of faith. You need to get into the Word.” Of course not. Mental illness is real. It’s not a sign of weakness or faulty character. We need to look at it differently… not only learn facts but to understand the loneliness, unpredictability, and exhaustion.
And, when tragedy occurs, we need to stand on our desks again, and try to understand the excruciating pain and utter desperation. It reminds me of what Firefighter Joe Casaliggi pondered as he watched people jump from the World Trade Center: “I kept thinking, ‘How bad is it up there that the better option is to jump?’”
Most of all, we need to look around our neighborhoods and our communities…and yes, within our churches so that we can try to offer encouragement and support to those who are struggling. From a different perspective, we might be able to see who needs a friend, or a lasagna or an afternoon at the movies or help cutting the grass…or just someone to sit with, in silence. And when we speak, we should do so carefully, because, as John Keating told us, “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
It’s time to take a stand.
Everyone…climb up on your desk.
PS As a rule, I do not care for “open letters,” but this one is an exception…please take the time to read this heartfelt, wise post.
Photo credits: pmcvariety;pubtheologian