On Hereos and Suicide

What’s wrong with death sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humor. Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference.

~ Robin Williams, as Patch Adams, Patch Adams.

Last night I learned Robin Williams died. As of right now, everything indicates he took his own life. A colleague tweeted that, whenever he learns of a Celebrity’s death he admired he stops and asks “So, where do we go from here?” I won’t presume to speak for what Robin Williams would or would not have wanted his death to mean, but I think this is an excellent time to pause, and consider what Robin Williams chose to teach us about the world.

At the beginning of Patch Adams, Williams’ portrayal of a depressed man, turned physician begins with a few words, not from the historical Patch Adams, but from Dante’s epic tale of decent into hell:

In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path.

~Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Canto 1, 1-3)

The movie goes on to show us how Patch found the right path, though arguably not before treking though the underworld. Importantly, and perhaps most poignantly, Williams’ portrayal of Patch teaches us two key lessons.

  1. Though the right path is lost, it can be regained. This has always been hopeful news for me. As a friend of mine once told me, you have to have hope to get up in the morning. Hope, however fleeting, must not be forgotten. The right path can, and will be found. Some may find this ironic given the circumstances of Williams’ death. Williams’ may have taken his own life, but until that fatal decision was enacted there was always hope.
  2. Hope comes in many forms and in the weirdest of places. Humor, as Patch taught us, can be found even in the most hopless of situations. Asking the catatonic man whose arm is forever pointed up where Heaven is makes light of a condition many would find hopless, and in so doing lightens the mood, lifted the spirits and brought hope to the others in his group theapy session. Hope that their condition wasn’t nearly as easy to make fun of.

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for… That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Robin Williams, as John Keating, Dead Poets Society.

This morning, I heard a demagouge run their mouth on Williams’ apparent suicide, characiterizing it as a deeply selfish act to be condemned. I heard another person say he lost the fight to Depression. I find it hard to be charitable to either of these statements. Depression isn’t a battle to be won or lost, but a disease to be treated. A really shitty disease we’re all susceptible to. One we’ve all faced to some degree or another. Additionally, to call this a deeply selfish act is, in my opinion to wash ones hands from the responsibilities we have to our friends and family with this disease. Williams is often quoted as saying:

I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.

~Robin Williams

I am not saying that those around him made him feel alone. Far be it from me to presume such a thing. I am, however, saying that when we find friends and family struggling with Depression, we –unconciously– treat them in ways that often feel isolating, and judgemental. Ever told someone to “just cheer up?” Ever been told to “Just cheer up?” Intentions don’t match up with what’s heard. We mean well, but we end up marginalizing or deligitimizing their struggles, or worse, leaving them feeling like they’re not understood. Alone.

I’m writing this down, not just out of regret and loss for a man who has influenced my life in a mryiad of subtle ways, but also because Depression is one of those things where the casualties are more than just friends and family to suicide, but also our hearts and souls. No one wants to get the call that someone we love has committed suicide. No one wants to relentlessly interrogate every phrase and action of every interaction they had with that loved one.

If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance you work in the high-tech industry. There’s a good chance you’ve known coworkers or friend with depression. There are simple things we can do to help. To show hope, to refuse their urge to isolate, and our urge to allow it. To walk with them through hell and back. I’m not therapist, and I don’t want anyone to confuse this advice as “professional advice” but here’s what I think we can do, for each other to help:

  1. Stop. We lead busy lives, often artifically busy lives. One of the most powerful things we can do for anyone is just stop, and spend time with them. Coffee. Dinner. A walk after lunch. Time well spent. As friends we have many responsibilities, but chief amongst them is always to provide truth and prospective to our friends.
  2. Listen. Listen to understand, but more importantly, to show understanding. This isn’t listening while driving, or listening while writing an email. I mean actively listening. Ask questions. Some struggle not make sense? Ask a clarifying question.
  3. Validate. This isn’t to say you should tell them they’re 100% right in feeling a given way about a given situation. What I mean here, is remind them that their struggles aren’t unique to them. Are they having relationship probles? “You know X, that was really shitty of Y”.
  4. Question. Help question assumptions. Here in lies the hope. So much of our lives is spent communicating; how much of that communication seeks to fix miscommunication? Often the assumptions we make about the world arround us are founded on miscommunication. Having friends who question those assumptions helps us find hope in what otherwise might seem a hopeless situation.
  5. Encourage them to seek professional help. Don’t stigmatize it, and don’t let others stigmatize it either. Never forget, that if you feel your friend is in danger, that the better part of vallor, the better part of humanity is to risk a friendship by reporting them to professionals, than to risk a friend.
  6. Write this number down on a card, and put it in your wallet for emergencies: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. It’s hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow; you don’t even know you’re walking in circles. The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place.

~ Robin Williams, as Patch Adams in Patch Adams.

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