“People rarely joke about suicide.”
~ Dr. Aaron Kheriaty
The whole world is mourning Robin Williams. He was a gifted comic; he made people laugh and smile, think and squirm; he shared his talents with the world and the world is better as a result.
Williams’ gift for comedy makes it all the more startling and tragic that he died by his own hand. So, even as we all mourn his death, we’re also talking a lot about suicide, and that’s good because there’s lots to talk about.
Here’s two affirmations of what’s already been said, followed by a somewhat quirky observation.
1. We can’t judge persons who attempt suicide. Many have made this point, including Williams himself. “We all eventually reach the end of our march,” he wrote in a foreword to Lt. Col. Mark Weber’s Tell My Sons. “If you discovered disease was about to cut your life short, no one could rightfully judge you for dropping out of line.”
The pain, the anguish, the hopelessness that drive people to suicide are impossible for others to grasp fully. Only God can, and we can be confident that he does so with infinite tenderness and compassion—it’s the teaching of the Church after all. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives,” the Catechism teaches. “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”
This is the idea captured so well by Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter. After it’s revealed that Henry Scobie’s death was actually suicide, his widow doubts his salvation and her pastor sets her straight.
Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, “For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you—or I—know a thing about God’s mercy…. It may seem an odd thing to say—when a man’s as wrong as he was—but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.”
2. The act of suicide is always bad. While we surely can’t judge those who attempt it, we should avoid any confusion as to suicide as an objective evil. This used to be an obvious, commonsense idea, but we no longer have a cultural—or even legal—consensus regarding the act’s repugnance.
Consider the disjointed moralizing that NPR dished out earlier this summer on the subject. It was a story by Alix Spiegel several weeks back about a woman in Oregon who opted for legally sanctioned suicide and got her loved ones involved in the planning. “It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit,” the woman’s daughter commented at one point. “This was not a bad way to go.”
“Human exit.” “Way to go.” This is the language of intentionality, and intentionality is precisely the problem with suicide. Certainly dying is inevitable, but it’s still a curse. To choose it—embrace it even, orchestrate and choreograph it—is not a victory, but rather a surrender. Opting for intentional death may relieve ones suffering in the moment, but it is always a permanent defeat, never a triumph.
Emily Esfahani Smith makes this case in “The Catastrophe of Suicide,” where she points to G.K. Chesterton as being an especially important opponent of the practice:
Chesterton was one of our last full-throated critics of suicide. His insistence that suicide is immoral sounds strange to our individualistic ears: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” Chesterton wrote: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.”
Suicide is truly horrible—so horrible, in fact, that some kind of madness invariably accompanies it. No truly sane person will end his own life, and mental health professionals are on high alert when their clients even bring up the idea.
That’s part of the reason why there’s no room for personal condemnation: Those who kill themselves are rarely in their right minds when they actually do the deed. They often have untreated depression or mental illness of some kind, or uncontrolled, unbearable pain, and what they really need is aggressive treatment for relief, not “assistance” (physician or otherwise) in accomplishing their own demise.
In fact, when it comes to suicide, what really deserves censure is our society’s widespread moral amnesia that increasingly makes room for sanctioned self-destruction. Physician assisted suicide, now legal in five states, sounds both clinically tidy and profoundly merciful, but, let’s face it: It’s just really another way dispensing with suffering by dispensing with the one who suffers.
3. There is a lighter side to suicide. Believe it or not. You can treat it as an existential companion and gadfly instead of a dire threat, and, oddly enough, we can turn here again to Chesterton for guidance and insight.
One of G.K.’s lesser known poems is “A Ballade of Suicide.” Despite its title, it’s a bouncy, optimistic meditation that reveals both a profound sympathy with those driven to desperate acts and a resilient hope that such desperation can indeed be surmounted.
The “Ballade” starts off disarmingly with the narrator’s glib description of his morbid plan. “I tie the noose on in a knowing way,” he remarks nonchalantly. “As one that knots his necktie for a ball.” Chesterton even includes a chorus of onlookers who cheer him on in his goal, but then he holds back at the last minute:
The strangest whim has seized me…. After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
Chesterton then proceeds to tick off an evocative list of activities and attitudes that have contributed to his change of heart—the prospect of payday, for example, and a novel approach to cooking mushrooms. Also, he sees “a little cloud all pink and grey,” and he remembers that he has never read “the works of Juvenal”—who has? These and other considerations have the cumulative effect of prompting the would-be suicide to change course, at least for that day.
And the “to-day” dimension of Chesterton’s poem is key. Like Alcoholics Anonymous’ well-known prescription of “one day at a time,” G.K.’s vision of suicide avoidance and prevention entails a valiant daily struggle against the temptation to give in to oblivion—something that Robin Williams also affirmed in that book foreword I mentioned earlier: “For those who refuse to let an incurable illness keep them from doing their duty, for those who keep fighting, for those who live life vigorously and joyfully to the very end, we have names for those people. We call them heroes.”
Heroes, yes, and “ex-suicides”—a term coined by Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos. Ex-suicides are those of us, like Chesterton apparently, who have had reason to contemplate suicide, but have turned it down:
The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.
Percy and Chesterton aren’t talking about once-in-a-lifetime, Damascus Road mental health conversions. Instead, the habit of rejecting suicide—that is, the project of remaining an ex-suicide instead of an actual one—is a daily slog, and there’s no letting up. Ever. Heroism doesn’t come cheap.
It’s the kind of heroism on display in the “The Fisher King,” my favorite Robin Williams movie which features him along with Jeff Bridges as especially memorable ex-suicides. Even better, however, is the cult classic “Harold and Maude.” For most of the film, the two titular characters are exuberant ex-suicides who seem to be well on their way to inner healing and emotional stability. At the very end of the movie, however, after Maude regrettably ends her life, Harold’s intense grief seems likely to overwhelm his tenuous hold on living. He could follow Maude’s lead, but he doesn’t—an ex-suicide if there ever was one.
No, we don’t judge those who choose suicide, but we surely ought to judge the act and strongly urge the vulnerable to spurn it. The world needs more self-conscious ex-suicides, and Robin Williams was an especially heroic one for years, decades even. Sure, we’ll miss his knack for eliciting smiles, but I for one will especially miss his example of persevering ex-suicide heroism.
To honor him, I think I’ll locate a copy of “The Fisher King” and watch it with my teens. And, following G.K.’s lead, maybe I’ll track down a copy of Juvenal to keep by my bedside. You know, just in case.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared August 17, 2014 on the author’s blog “God-Haunted Lunatic” and is reprinted with permission. The image of Robin Williams above is taken from Christopher Nolan’s film “Insomnia” (2002).