And this is why he’s dead.
Robin Williams was masterful in creating elegant, intricate personality masks to wear for the world. Every day, he would wake up and put one on, never showing the world what lay beyond the facade. Why would he? People didn’t love the human behind the mask. In death, his masks are now immortalized in ways that his humanity would never be. He was smart and knew that death is the only way to keep up this charade for all of eternity. You cannot kill an idea… and most of you cared far more about that idea than about the man who gave it life.
We’ve seen this before, in V For Vendetta:
“Who was he really? What was he like? We’re told to remember the idea, not the man. A man can fail. He can be caught; he can be killed and forgotten…. I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of ideas. I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them. But you cannot kiss an idea; you cannot touch it, or hold it. Ideas do not bleed; they do not feel pain; they do not love. It is not an idea that I miss. It is a man.”
When the mask we wear is all anyone can see of us, we are left with no choice but to kill in the name of preserving it, and to die in order to maintain the illusion it creates. When we are invisible behind our masks, there is simply nothing left to lose, nothing left to live for. In this state, we are inanimate, objectified.
So here we are, writing obituaries, memorializing a cardboard cutout of what we liked to pretend Robin Williams was. We say such kind things about his generosity, his humor, and the way he made us feel. We express shock and disappointment that everything he gave us has been ripped away without warning, as though we were ever entitled to it in the first place. We cry out in disbelief that we “didn’t see it coming”, when in all reality, the predictive indicators for this behavior were clear as day.
If this is the first time you’ve thought that Robin Williams may have been suicidal, it’s because you weren’t paying attention.
Now, understand me: I grok the hell that is Survivor’s Guilt. It’s a very real and very messy experience. For those of us who’ve had someone close to us die by their own hand, to be left wondering what we could have done to prevent it is a very special torment itself. But the fact is, suicides (like nearly all behaviors) don’t happen without warning signs. We may not know how to look for them or identify them, but they’re there. If you don’t understand this concept, I recommend reading a book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. All blame and judgment aside, suicide is very predictable.
By and large, as a society, we weren’t paying attention. It’s a way of life for us to ignore our reality. Even as recently as a few months ago when Robin announced that he was re-entering rehab to “fine-tune” his sobriety, I wondered what kind of hell he was going through and whether he would make it out alive. Yet, the media had no reservations at all about cashing in on this very personal journey he was navigating. We had no reservations about buying what they were selling to us. Even in his most vulnerable of moments in a struggle for survival, we objectified him and consumed him even though he had nothing left to give of himself to us.
We didn’t care about the human who was suffering; we cared about our own suffering and what he, as an objectified embodiment of an idea, could do for us to make our lives easier. This is why suicides happen among people who can’t ignore their reality any longer. For them, reality is a place of insufferable loneliness, because so few people are willing to join one another in a place of such intense discomfort. As a society, we would rather let one another die and pretend afterward that we would have stopped it if we’d known how, instead of learning how to stop it and doing the necessary work while we still have the chance. Saturating our interactions with distraction and superficiality is far more palatable than confronting the pain and disappointment of the world in which we live, but that confrontation is the only way to make it better.
Even most of Robin Williams’ memorials are being dedicated to fictional characters rather than to him. They’re largely not dedicated to the man who watched so many of his friends die of AIDS in San Fransisco in the 80’s and 90’s, or to the man who helped bring three spectacular human beings into the world and managed to give them a relatively normal life in spite of their father’s international stardom, or to the man who paid for struggling young people to get through college to have a better chance in life. No, we’re instead memorializing fictional entities, with largely no regard for the man who literally gave his life so that we could pretend this is reality.
And then, going even a step further beyond this into the abyss of culturally-sanctioned narcissism, there are a number of people with the entitled audacity to suggest that his suicide was selfish. Let me tell you what “selfish” looks like:
Selfish looks like taking joy from someone who is suffering, without regard for the pain he’s in, and never acknowledging or mitigating the sacrifice he’s making in order for you to be happier.
Selfish looks like complaining that, after some five-or-so decades of wanting most days to kill himself, this person finally did what he felt he needed to do and didn’t put your desires before his own needs any longer. Instead of being grateful that he stayed alive as long as he did, instead of appreciating the prolific joy he chose to bring to your life, you’re complaining that he didn’t give you more? That is selfish.
Robin Williams didn’t owe you a damn thing. None of you. Not even his children, and they know that. He gave as much as he possibly could to the entire world, until at last there was simply nothing left to give — in no small part because we were draining him without replenishing what we were taking. This happens with celebrities often.
But you know where else it happens? With our own companions. We can talk all day long about the shoulds, coulds, and woulds of a death that’s already finalized, but that’s not nearly as useful to me as asking what we’re doing to prevent it in our daily lives. It’s easy to look at a suicide after the fact and say “If I’d known, I would have…”, but are you making the time to keep it from happening when the potential for effecting change is available to you? Are you paying attention? Are you listening?
For every person in your world who feels depressed, isolated, invisible, and unheard, the words you speak mean more than you know:
“Suicide is selfish,” sounds like “You’re selfish for thinking suicide might be a solution to the despair you feel. How dare you think you can just opt out of giving me what I feel you owe me!”
“People like that should get help.” sounds like “I don’t relate at all to what you’re going through. You should pay a professional to deal with this because it’s too much of an imposition for me to ask how you’re feeling and genuinely listen to your answer without judging you.”
“But you have so much going for you! You have everything! You have so much to live for!” sounds like “I am completely oblivious to how you feel right now, and since I’m unwilling to set aside my own judgment enough to hear your concerns, I’m just going to tell you that your feelings aren’t valid and guilt you into suffering through life for a little while longer instead.”
“Everyone loves you!” sounds like “Everyone is really pleased with the way you present yourself to them, even though there are parts of you that you never show them and that you’re pretty sure would be rejected or even hated if you were ever to be honest with them.”
And the real kicker in all of this? You might not even know that the person you’re talking to feels this way. If you’re not one for paying attention to these behavioral cues in the first place, it’s pretty likely that there are some folks around you who feel judged and lonely.
I don’t know, maybe people think they’re genuinely being helpful when they say these things. Maybe they really have the best of intentions. But from where I sit, saying this stuff just sounds like a half-hearted, meaningless, pre-packaged cop-out to avoid putting effort into figuring out what the real issues are at the heart of someone’s depression and dedicating the energy and work required to improve their circumstances in a meaningful way. Making these remarks to someone who already feels bad about the air they think they’re wasting by being on this planet is a surefire way to make them feel even worse.
It baffles me that people express these oblivious, judgmental assertions with absolutely no recognition of how incredibly self-centered this is.
Part of me just wants to rant about this, with no end in sight, because every day I hear people tell me, in one way or another, that I should die. If I had a dime for every person who has told me to go eat a bullet, I’d have a lot more money than I make from writing. Part of me wants to punch every asshole who dares to suggest that suicide is selfish — with no acknowledgement that they way society generally treats me is even more selfish. Part of me wants you to feel shocked and horrified… and whatever else you have to feel until you just get it.
But I know how useless it is for you to feel that way, and that there’s no point in pushing you toward it. You’re part of a larger society, and that society is broken as hell. That society doesn’t function unless we’re miserable. That society is optimized by escalating injustice against individuals. That society will continue to grow at a rate proportional to the anti-depressants it consumes, and those who refuse to take the pills will kill ourselves, one by one, not because there is anything wrong with us, but because we are too acutely aware of how fucked the world is to ignore it like good little worker bees.
So go now. Do what you’re going to do, and ignore what you’re going to ignore. Nothing I say here today will change that. Even if it did, the results would be temporary and in six months you’ll have fallen back into your same old inattentive patterns again. You’ll only notice that you weren’t paying attention when someone else dies, and you’ll make the same tired excuses about how you couldn’t have known in advance.
Just, for the love of humanity, could you stop pretending you love a person while at the same time, you treat them like an object? Just fucking stop pretending. That’s really all I want.
Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive let us go about our business.
– Henry David Thoreau