Bill’s Sunday Sermon: It’s Not About Strength

categories: Cocktail Hour / Sunday Sermon


So many posts and articles and op-eds and letters and emails about Robin Williams’s sad death, and yet another picture of the media at work, with assumptions run as facts (Williams was back on the sauce? Not true according to his wife, who says he was battling Parkinson’s, and had always battled depression).  A lot of moving paeans and memories, too, lovely and sad and instructive.  But also a thread of blame: Suicide is selfish.  And anger: How could he do this to his family? (Subtext being: How could he do this to me?).  And no doubt awakened trauma, as nearly all of us have been through some version of this very public death in our own lives…  How could Mr. Williams, or anyone, make such a dire choice?Here’s one FB post, but there were many along the same lines:

“People should be angry when people kill themselves. It’s selfish, passive aggressive and violent. If Robin Williams had shot Michael J. Fox we wouldn’t be writing about his awesome achievements. Suicide is what assholes do.”

But of course, suicide is the result of mental illness.  It’s not a choice.  We don’t get angry at people with cancer. Or I guess sometimes we do… I knew people who were sure pot caused Bob Marley’s brain cancer, for instance…  But compassion makes more sense in either case…

In one discussion, my interlocutor said I insulted those battling cancer by such a comparison, that cancer couldn’t be helped, that suicide was a choice.

I would say illness is illness… Mr. Williams put up a great fight against his for many years, and in the end he lost.

On FB, the wonderful comic brain and fiction writer (and Bill and Dave’s contributor) Meg Pokrass posted the following very helpful quote from novelist David Foster Wallace, who also hanged himself, and who also battled depression for decades before his death:

David Foster Wallace

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

In Victorian times, mental illness was seen as a character issue. Now we know it’s a health issue, as divorced from character as any other health issue. As is addiction. There’s no logic involved–there’s just terrible, terrible pain and the wish to end it. I agree wholeheartedly that suicide is preventable… But our healthcare system isn’t set up to do so reliably. No help until you’ve hurt yourself or others, and denial in every corner… To blame a suicide for her actions is to blame the victim, I’m sorry, and such blame is a huge part of the problem…

I’m not saying being angry doesn’t make sense! It’s just where to aim it. My grandmother would always say she was angry at God. He could handle it, in her estimation…

I guess this suicide as criminal or sinner nonsense comes from old Catholic and other religious ideas? That it’s a sin? Or insurance companies, who want to make sure it’s viewed as a crime?

To those still feeling justified in anger: do you find that your anger helps those left behind or helps anyone?

Anger, of course, is one of the stages of grieving. I give you that!

I see that the Westboro Baptist Church people (of “God Hates Fags” fame) is set to protest Mr. Williams’s funeral… And there does seem a connection between seeing sexuality and mental health as character issues, or religious… As if genetics had never been available to the discussion… Anger isn’t far from hate, seems to me. And interesting that depression is sometimes characterized as anger turned inward… As if depression or even anger could be helped! I’m sorry for your losses, and all of our losses…

A friend wished aloud that Mr. Williams had had the strength to fight his demons, that he could have gone on to help so many others in his predicament, been a champion in the fight against depression, and therefore mental illness.

But again, it’s not about strength. And of course he was a champion, and lived a life in public that takes more strength and more character than we can imagine–or else we’d all do it… He was very, very strong, is what I’m saying, but he had an illness that made that strength beside the point…


Today marks the advent of a new feature: Bill’s Sunday Sermon (There may be a Dave’s Sunday Sermon from time to time, too!). My chance to rant. I come from a long line of Congregational ministers, but have turned out to be a mystical atheist.

  1. Brad Watson writes:

    This is all good. Thank you, Bill. I agree with what you wrote about (some of) our ambivalent relationship with RW’s public persona and projected character (that Patch whatever movie, for instance). But one thing that struck me in all the coverage was how they did manage to clarify the way a seriously, chronically depressed person habitually projects (except, in RW’s case [typical, in a way] in a few candid interviews) “normalcy.” I’ve had my own rasslin’ matches with it over the years, and i’ve always been (stupidly) amazed at how easily people accept the mask, when really they know what’s going on. I don’t blame them. No one really wants to deal with it. Because no one really knows how to deal with it. Not the friends. Not family. And certainly, mostly, not the one going through it.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Brad… It’s true, we’re all actors in this big drama. Some it costs very little, others it costs everything…

  2. Tommy writes:

    In our culture we tend to view people who come in second as losers. Robin Williams won this battle over depression so many times over so many years that he was able to give us, through sweat and blood and determination, and perseverance,and self-sacrifice, a body of work that literally changed the world. We feel cheated because we look at a prerson the way we want to look at them, and feel hurt when their reality doesn’t match our projected one. But look at all he gave, and all that we got . He won this battle for so long that in the end we forget, or don’t tecognize that his victory was Herculean.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Tommy… I always remember an Olympic skater getting a silver medal a couple of Games back. They cut to her mother at home and she said, “I’m so disappointed.”

  3. cynthia kling writes:

    Pastor Bill: Very happy to see that you are doing this. The other hugely assumptive subtext to the coverage in places like the Washington Post, etc, is the very Christo-centric understanding of death, as if there is only one way to think about this.

    Everyone has the right to choose when to leave their bodies. I am very, very sorry that Williams was in so much pain, but he has the right to leave this place of earthly pain.

    Thank you Pastor Bill,
    your old student, Cindy Kling

    • Bill writes:

      What fresh horror, to be called pastor! But great to hear from you, Cindy… I wonder how the Williams story (he’s a worldwide icon, of course) played in other cultures…

  4. monica wood writes:

    Amen, brother. xoxoxo

  5. kate randall writes:

    Thank you for this Bill!
    With all this talk about forgiveness, I find it increasingly difficult to forgive us as a society for tolerating a lack of funding and research into mental illness. Of all the horrible possibilities out there this kind of pain is beyond comprehension and we continue to find ways to deny our culpability. Perhaps we could have saved his life. Perhaps we can save others.
    Here’s to hoping we try harder to do better.

    • Bill writes:

      Totally with you, Kate! Our spending is so skewed! Let’s keep fighting for improvements to Obamacare, which has been a great start…

  6. Rena writes:

    What doesn’t seem to get discussed much is how a belief system can influence your decision about ending your life. This has nothing whatsoever to do with morality but as a practicing Buddhist, it would be hard to imagine doing that. If you believe your life is a sacred thing and that whatever you are suffering is part of your karmic condition, then you accept it and suffer and know that it is part of your path. You make friends with the suffering, like you make friends with all parts of your existence. Taking your life, in this belief system, pretty well guarantees a step down the ladder of spiritual evolution next time around and makes one think deeply before taking that on. Having said that, I’ve found the actual practices associated with being a Buddhist to be so mind changing, so completely transforming, that my depression is something I look at objectively and decide whether I want to engage with it or not. It’s given me choices. I would like everyone to have choices about their emotional state.

    Your posting allows an important conversation. I hope I’ve added to it.

    • Bill writes:

      Yes, fascinating, the various religious mythologies and religious practices offer varying and various degrees of comfort and reflection, but mental illness occurs, like lefthandedness, in a like proportion of all populations… You’re right that the compassionate view probably provides a net that the sin and crime view does not, and that’s beautiful, and saves lives… But the peaceful acceptance of suffering is one thing, and mental illness another…

  7. Paul Pastorini writes:

    “But of course, suicide is the result of mental illness. It’s not a choice.”

    I agree with pretty much everything in this post, except for the quote above, which is essentially stating that suicide is not a choice. Of course, suicide is *A* result of mental illness, but not the result. Yes: whether one has mental illness (which in Robin William’s case was depression) is not a choice.

    But suicide is a choice, just as David Foster Wallace explains in his burning room analogy: suicide becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.

    An oncologist might diagnose a patient with cancer, just as a psychiatrist might diagnose a patient with depression, but depression doesn’t absolutely result in suicide. And sometimes suicide is not committed by someone with depression.

    • Bill writes:

      Very true. And most often cancer does not cause death… But when it does, we don’t blame the victim, is my point… If the only choice is the fall or the fire, is that a choice?

  8. Weslea writes:

    Thank you. I have lost several people, family and friends, young and older to mental illness related suicide. Severe depression, bi-polar and psychotic states are often terminal illnesses. The pain that makes death seem like relief is real and unimagineable to others. I hope there is peace for Robin and all who have sought it in death.

  9. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Amen. I appreciate this. Like many others, I was hit hard by his death. So many of us grew up with him. He lived his young life in my father’s town, and I found out they went to the same elementary school, both lonely little boys, much tended by servants in vast mansions.

    Everyone does want to impose a meaning, and you can see mine forming, but the only person who knows what he suffered is dead. Probably what kept him alive so long was his art.

    • Bill writes:

      I sometimes found him overbearing, overly manic, other times too saccharine (in parts he didn’t write)… but mostly winning, especially his stand-up comedy, jesus… Anyway, what a shock…

  10. Leigh Gilmore writes:

    Amen, Brother Bill.

  11. Mark Ancker writes:

    This is the best commentary I’ve read on the tragic loss of Robin Williams. Thank you Bill for putting such a somber topic so eloquently

  12. Peter peteet writes:

    Amen,brother.I’m with you on the flames analogy.True tragedies exist in the world,there are moments of no good choice that come to some of us.Denial,anger,guilt and recrimination are what’s left behind when and if we can move beyond.A friend lost his young daughter to a freak attack by wild dogs;years later he lost the battle with depression and took his own life.Thirty years on I’ve forgiven him,and myself,our mutual friends and even the dogs.Rilke wrote”Whoever looks seriously at it finds that neither for death,which is difficult,nor for love has any explanation,any solution,any hint or way yet been discerned;and for these two problems that we carry around wrapped up and hand on without opening,it will not be possible to discover any general rule resting in agreement.”he was wrong of course about everyone keeping such things always wrapped up-some peek at Medusa,or Sodom.The rest of us must use the mirror to fight,try to follow in the footsteps of angels,and forgive ourselves our humanity.

  13. Linda Johnson writes:

    Very well said, Bill.
    I have been in that building. Fortunately for me, someone else saw the flames that I saw, so that I’m here today to love my husband and son. I was never going to do it “to them.” It was FOR me. The only way I could think to stop the hurt.
    I had a brother who took his life when he was 16. We were raised Catholic. I was concerned about my brother’s soul since we had always been taught that suicide was a mortal sin and could prevent him from receiving burial through the church. Fortunately we did not end up with a condemning priest saying the funeral, but rather a family friend who put my brother’s death in a a respectable perspective for those left to grieve.

  14. kate sidwell writes:

    David this is so beautiful, I had to read it twice with a few tears in my eyes. I dont know if I share with you that the young man who used to live in the yellow barn as come down to Slough, beautiful Andrew Murphy, who framed all my large work, a talented and noted finish carpenter, who Dad and Mom own the Main House with the horse barn, committed suicide two winters ago while we were gone to the West Coast. He was so handsome, funny, talented and loved beyond your imagination. He just suffered from and illness that couldnt be treated, He self medicated with alcohol but nothing made his pain or rage stay away long. When I returned to the wake and service, he looked like he was asleep and handsome and quiet. He Dad hugged me and said he is a handsome lad no? I still have his voice on my answering machine and cant erase it. None of us who knew and loved him would ever blame him for being ill, My god alcoholism and depression are killers devasting treated or untreated the often take people just as so many illnesses do. Often the best among us. Lets never had pain to pain by blaming them for the illness, Thanks for taking time to remind and help us through this. Take care, Kate

    • Dave writes:

      It is beautiful and Bill wrote it!

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Kate! You aren’t the first to call me Dave… That’s a terrible and beautiful story you tell, as well… Love that your friend’s Dad was able to stay with the handsome part…

  15. George de Gramont writes:

    A realistic appraisal of a sad event!

    • rcrawford writes:

      The analogy of jumping out of the window to avoid the flames just clarified that terror.
      I haven’t been able to understand how someone makes “that leap”.
      This article has given me a way to understand. Thank You

      • Bill writes:

        I know–that analogy finally gives me a way to think and talk about it…

        • kate sidwell writes:

          sorry to call you David but that is a compliment, ha. You know my grandfather who was the doctors without borders who developed the cleffpalate surgery, killed himself. I never knew it for 30 years I watched my mother grow more distant and closed. She told us he had died in surgery, she use to weep at church and I never knew why. Later after years of therapy for my twin sister and others, we unearthed that she had never recovered from his suicide from bi polar and onset of Parkinsons and Rheumatoid Arthritis. It covered our childhood with a sadness and questioning our senses, Something was wrong but no one would admit it? Very tough for kids to be children of bipolar or parents who suffer from alcoholism You grow up thinking you are the cause of everyones rage and dissapointment,, you try to be perfect. Writers are little miracles because they open up all sorts of doors by revealing their own wounds. When I first met David and Nina, through a writer Dona Scaglione, I bought every book he had written, His openess about his own amazing life, was miraculous to Steve who grew up in the stiff upper lip world of sports. We read them in a marathon and talked about them. Imagine that 60 couple married 40 years finding and writer and reading and reading in a marathon. Writers probably dont realise how many people they help open to lifes real stories. I love that you all write about the tough things, and allow us all to look at them. Keep writing , keep helping us all to really and see life and not hide from the sorrow and risk it requires of us. Robins death is like a huge lightening strike into the psyche of our times. Writers need to keep helping us mourn it and learn to find some peace with it. Its not just Robin its who and what he was and the sadness that often we cant help a person from the dark depths of depression. We can only love what they gave us of themselves. Keep writing our collective sanity depends on it. ha. Now thats heavy sorry..