Robin Williams, Suicide, and Faith: Why we need to stand on our desks

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.

Mrs. Doubtfire - Das stachelige KindermŠdchen

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.

Like me.

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.”

dead-poets-society-04

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

Can They Come In After They Come Out?

locked-door

I picked up the water pitcher and began refilling glasses in our candlelit dining room. Our guests were laughing and enjoying each other’s company as they sipped coffee and savored the last bites of dessert. As I rounded the table, the conversation shifted toward spiritual things, and we chatted about changes in the local church.

“Well, one thing I CAN’T understand,” said Grant (not his real name). “There’s that one church on the west side of town. They’re just welcoming gay people to come on in and sit with them in the pews! Why would a church welcome THEM?”

I froze. My husband’s dark eyes met  mine, wordlessly providing reassurance and understanding. As I slowly reached for Grant’s water glass, Tom gently, deftly turned the conversation toward a broader discussion.

After our guests departed, Tom and I cleared the remains of the meal and began washing dishes. He put his tray down and wrapped his arms around me. “Thanks for a great dinner party,” he began.  “I’m just so proud of you…I thought you were going to pour that whole pitcher of water right on Grant’s lap…”

I’m not proud of it, but the thought HAD crossed my mind.

The issue that Grant raised is, for me, an issue with a face. A dear friend had written to me not long before that dinner party to tell me that he is gay. What was once fodder for a dinner party debate had turned the corner into something personal and urgent.

In my friend’s letter, he stated that he would understand if I never wanted to speak to him again. This statement crushed me. In our ensuing phone conversation, he said that the reason for this was to protect himself: “Once you tell this kind of news,” he said, “you  have to prepare yourself to lose a lot of friends.” I couldn’t imagine the fear or heartache he felt, and I reassured him that has been, and  always will be, a best friend.

And he is. This is the guy who stuck up for me when high school boyfriends turned out to be jerks. He was the one who reassured me that life would go on when I didn’t get a part in the musical. We went on college visits, endured AP exams, prayed together and laughed ourselves silly. He celebrated with us when Tom and I got married, and drove seven long hours to be with us at the hospital when our daughter almost died.

My friend’s revelation forced me to examine my own attitudes and language.  As I read articles and listened to the rhetoric on Christian radio, it didn’t take long for me to realize that we, as the Church, have made some mistakes in handling this issue. And believe me…in my journey to figure it out, my words have been, at times, tacky and very hurtful as well.  I need only to look in the mirror to confirm that Christians need to do better when it comes to welcoming non-traditional families. My friend’s concern about losing relationships after coming out is a very real fear; it breaks my heart to know that this fear and hurt is also experienced when dealing with the Church…it seems that for too many people, “coming out” means they can’t come in with “the rest of us.”

I’m one of the “rest of us:”  those of us who are broken and hurting and imperfect and stumbling in darkness…and desperately in need of the Light. The truth is, when it comes to the Church, there’s no “us” and “them…”

 There’s Jesus, and there’s the rest of us.

This Sunday, it’s our family’s turn to be greeters. We’ll stand at the front door of the church and open the doors for members and visitors. It’s not in our job description to choose for whom we’ll open the doors. We’ll open them to everyone…not just families with two parents, or to people who have never been divorced. Not just physically fit people or those who have never gossiped or lied. And not just people who are straight.

And we’ll say “Welcome…we’re glad you’re here….
Come in.”

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Photo credits: discountcollegethings.com

“Nobody’s Looking:” Michelle Knight’s Message for Me

I browsed through a local consignment store, hoping to find an armchair that would fit my family room (and my budget.) My mind was focused on the floor plan of that space and mentally calculating the family members who will gather to watch the Ohio State- Michigan game in a  few weeks.

As I wandered toward the back of the store, two of the ladies who worked there began chatting. Their conversation focused on Dr. Phil’s recent interview with kidnapping survivor Michelle Knight…

hollywoodreporter.com

hollywoodreporter.com

“She said that he tied her up on the bed. She was naked,” one woman said.
“Really?” replied the other. “That’s horrible!”
“I know. And he chained her. He assaulted her and he left her in a room with spoiled food, full of flies…she never got to take a shower…”
“She didn’t? That’s awful!”

Their conversation was punctuated by groans of disbelief. I understood their incredulity. I had seen portions of the interview and was horrified to learn of the unspeakable humiliation and heinous physical abuse endured by the women in that horrible home.

But a different part of the interview stabbed my heart. I stood, motionless, next to secondhand upholstery, recalling her description…

Knight said that her captor used words in an attempt to break her spirit: “Where’s your family? Why don’t you have any? They must not really love you. Your family don’t care about you. You never had a family that loves you. And that’s the reason why I hate you, because I can abuse you and nobody would care.”

And then this crushing blow: “Nobody’s looking — you won’t even be missed when you do die.”

Nobody’s looking.

The gravity of that statement crushed and convicted me at that moment, as I stood in a store full of surplus…searching for extra chairs.

I should be searching for extra people.

Too many people are missing from our neighborhood barbecues, our churches, our dinner tables. They may not be chained to beds in cold rooms, but perhaps they’re bound by loneliness or disability or addiction. Maybe they’re slaves to work, or immobilized by the grief from death or divorce. Whatever has captured them… they’re missing.

I want them to hear us..

Hang on! We’re going to find you….

We’re looking.

We have a chair for you.

theguardian.com

theguardian.com