I see so many people posting heartfelt pieces of wisdom on the social media sites that I frequent. It goes something like, “Treat everyone with kindness because you never know what burdens they are carrying.”
That cliché has taken on new meaning in the wake of Robin Williams’ death last week.
First, let me say that it is not my purpose here to comment from a strictly theological or psychological perspective. My colleague Scott Lennox has already written an important essay focused on Wlliams’ suicide as a mental health crisis, detailing much-needed information about how we can all respond helpfully.
And just for the record, I don’t believe that suicide automatically qualifies a person for an eternity in hell. I would not presume to make such a rash judgment, especially in commenting on the life and death of an individual whose fame obscured as much of his inner life as it revealed.
This caution was just reinforced by the revelation that Williams had also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an illness that has significant implications for his state of mind at the time of his death. That bit of news rightly cautions all of us to err in our judgments on the side of God’s intimate knowledge of every human circumstance and in the depth of God’s mercy for each of us.
On the day of Williams’ death, my wife, Linda, and I talked about it near bedtime.
“I’m not sure why, but when I heard the news, I stopped the car and just wept,” she told me. My experience was much the same, I replied.
Relatives and those we have counseled or worked with have gone through similar kinds of suffering. Each death and each session with a grieving family member has left its mark on us. I dare say that very few people in the helping professions are not anguished by news about the self-harm and harm to loved-ones that results from suicide.
I suppose we could feel betrayed by Williams’ desperate choice. And as is becoming tediously familiar, some people have used the occasion to thoughtlessly criticize and even taunt his family members with cruelty.
However, in the wake of this tragedy, my respect and affection for Robin Williams has only increased. That a human being could carry the load he did for as long as he did with as much intelligence, humor and outright compassion as he managed is, at least for me, one more sign that the world is still full of miracles.
It makes me regret the times when I have responded to my own troubles by looking for someone else to blame and making my world that much smaller, narrower and more tawdry.
It is true that we never really know what burdens people are carrying. But when we find out, we can stop for a moment and pay them the respect that they are due.
No life can be summed up by its final act. So many people, like Williams, manage to share love and laughter with a world of other struggling people even in the midst of their suffering. My prayer is that honoring the life and grieving the loss of Williams will increase our determination to reach out to people who need us.
Instead of wagging our heads over the scandal, let’s look for ways to help with the burdens. Then, perhaps these lonely deaths will result in hope for others carrying burdens they should not bear alone.