Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Loss of Robin Williams


Appropriately, most of the Western world today is mourning the loss of Robin Williams.

His death is a loss not only for those of us who enjoyed his incredible portfolio of work, but his represents an even more profound loss for his own self.

Hardly any of us knew him personally, but he was one of those celebrities who made an indelible mark on our culture.  (At which, Williams would likely interject, "I'm sorry - have you tried Clorox?")

Almost all of us can recite our favorite Robin Williams line, or movie, or episode of Mork & Mindy.  Yet as popular as he was, he was rare in many ways.  We enjoyed his singular brand of intensely brilliant comedy, but he oozed a genius so unique that we recognized it couldn't be taught or learned, or even mimicked.  Plus, he was one of those few bona-fide Hollywood A-listers who didn't seem to have any enemies.  Sometimes he could get vulgar in his humor, but it was still hard not to laugh, and he could be even funnier with tame family-oriented material that in anybody else's schtick would be merely ordinary.

Sometime between the late hours of this past Sunday night and noon on Monday, he hung himself in a bedroom at his Marin County home, at age 63.  Four feature films he'd completed are still being prepped for release.

His co-workers and friends today are describing him with every accolade and beneficent adjective they can think of.  President Obama has expressed his public condolences, and social media is overflowing with everybody from lesser celebrities to everyday fans posting their shock and dismay at Williams' passing.

Some people are angry.  I saw somebody on Facebook last night lash out in rage, asking nobody in particular why Williams didn't reach out to somebody for help this past Sunday night.

Mostly, however, people are simply stunned.  Some of his closest friends knew he was battling depression and addiction, but apparently they didn't realize his mental anguish was so utterly desperate.  Others are wondering if his brilliant wit and rapid-fire performances weren't signs of a mental condition that is commonly intolerable among people of Williams' extraordinarily creative personality.

Part of the dismay being so publicly aired from Japan to England and beyond stems from our common assumptions about famous people.  They're famous because we think we know more about them than we really do.  And celebrities like Williams, while never hiding his psychological problems, would usually couch them with humor, such as his reputedly joking that one of his rehab stints was in California's wine country so he could "keep his options open."

But nobody being interviewed today likely knew the private Robin Williams, which is why we're shocked.  His family obviously knew him well, but none of them are talking to the media today.  They're not just shocked; they're grieving.

Just like most families that suffer a suicide.

I can't make any estimation about Williams' faith, but even if he was an evangelical Christian, who trusted in Christ Jesus' sacrifice alone for his eternal salvation, suicide still happens.  I've known several professing believers who've taken their own lives, and it always seems that the faith we're told can save us from ourselves... somehow... couldn't.

Not in a mortal sense, at least.

Within Christianity, suicide has been erroneously called an unpardonable sin, because it involves the willful destruction of God's creation of life by the very benefactor of that creation.  But although suicide is bad, and is definitely a sin, it's not unpardonable.  The Bible tells us that the only unpardonable sin is denying what the Holy Spirit teaches about Christ.

In other words, when a person dies without ever professing that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior, they've committed the unpardonable sin.  For believers, however, everything else in which we fail Christ - including suicide - is pardonable through God's grace.

That doesn't necessarily take away the pain of loss, though, does it?  Or the confusing aftermath of suicide?  Loved ones are usually left with so many unanswered questions and guilt.  Couldn't we have worked this out somehow?  Surely alternatives existed!

I once attended the funeral of a college student who killed himself, ostensibly after an argument with his girlfriend.  Some cryptic messages were discovered later, but nothing definitive regarding the victim's precise reasoning.  As I sat in the church sanctuary that day, I stared at the overflow crowd numbering close to 1,200 and wondered how somebody with this many friends and family members could feel so utterly alone and destitute.

A few years ago, I attended the funeral of a bubbly, energetic older man who had become a millionaire through his own entrepreneurship.  He'd had an eye for seeing the untapped potential in offbeat products and obscure industries.  Speaking of untapped potential, he had once offered me a job in one of his businesses.  A couple of years after that, however, some final engineering tests determined his latest and greatest product would not work the way he'd hoped it would.

He was already rich, influential, well-loved, and respected.  A longtime believer, he was a church elder, Bible Study Fellowship leader, and Prison Fellowship volunteer.  But it wasn't enough.  He was so distraught that what he'd hoped would be his grand legacy had been deemed unworkable, he gave up.  Literally.

His funeral was standing-room-only, too, only not with fellow college students, but with business executives and local politicians; a crowd just as unused to suicide in their accomplished ranks as young adults so full of anticipation for the future.

While I don't remember much from the funeral homily for my college student friend, I distinctly remember the sermon at my older friend's funeral.  Grappling with how to summarize the profound discrepancy between a life and faith so apparently well-lived and such deep discouragement despite it all, the pastor came to a remarkable conclusion.

This suicide victim had won the war, but lost the battle.

Indeed, our friend was now in Heaven with Christ, but his own demons that had been so well-hidden from most of us were more powerful than he realized.

Which begs the question:  in a moment of weakness, who among us can say with complete confidence that we could spurn our darkest enemy?  Who doesn't have a so-called Achilles heel, whether it's hereditary, an acquired habit, a chemical dependency or deficiency - but something that we learn to hide exceptionally well from just about everybody?  Maybe, even, sometimes... ourselves?

We cloak it with tenacity, hard work, or a cheerful disposition, no matter how forced.  We train ourselves to be amazingly productive and even self-sacrificing.  We tell ourselves that people with a stronger faith conquer these foes.  Or, we blatantly ignore them.

And yes, maybe a stronger faith proves victorious for many folks.  But what about those folks who science suggests have a chemical imbalance that undermines even the staunchest faith or the most determined will?  Those who may not even realize their vulnerability, because no doctor has ever diagnosed it?

Yes, for those of us who trust in Christ, our faith surely will save us.  Which is an eternally good thing, because sometimes, our bodies won't.

I wouldn't be so crass as to hazard a guess regarding the type of conversation Robin Williams had with his Maker yesterday, but if any of us are tempted to look with contempt at the last decision Williams felt forced to make, don't.

Don't try to understand Williams' decision, either.  Don't try to explain it, or excuse it.

And certainly don't ignore it.

Why not?  Because even though we weren't alone with Williams two nights ago to know what he was going through, and even though we don't know for certainty where his soul is today, we all can treat his passing as a sober reminder.

A lot of frightful baggage can be hidden behind laughter.  And money, and charisma, and success, and whatever you're striving for right now.  And certainly, religion.

So remember:  what we see in each other and ourselves isn't all that there is.

Or could be.


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