The first time I brushed up against suicide, I was fifteen years old. His name was Adam; it was the last day of our sophomore year of high school. Adam was intelligent, funny, well-liked, and deeply sad. And these kind words aren't a reflection of the white-washing that happens after a death -- Adam was in the gifted program, he could make an entire class go off track for five minutes laughing, and he was a member of the group I called "The Actual Popular Kids" in my head because unlike the "Popular Kids" they were actually well-regarded by nearly everyone and not feared.
Adam's death was shocking, and sad. At that point, I couldn't understand how someone could do this to themselves, but as I've gotten older and had more experience, I understand better now. Suicide is not and never has been a logical choice, because when depression gets deep enough, it takes away your ability to choose. Depression gets you in its clutches, and you are no longer your own.
Robin William's death yesterday seems to have everyone talking openly about depression and suicide, and for that, I'm grateful. The more people understand that depression is a disease, and not a moral failing, the more likely they are to seek help before their actions become irrevocable. There's also been an outpouring of love and admiration for a man who deserves this love and admiration, after devoting so much of his life to making others happy.
However, one comment caught my eye, and this is the comment made me feel as though I had to respond. This is the comment: "Not to be completely callous, but if Robin Williams committed suicide, how can he be in heaven?"
It is true that throughout church history, there has been the overwhelming consensus among Christian theologians that suicide will lead to condemnation by God. For the church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Augustine, it seemed to be a mostly cut-and-dry issue. Suicide violates the commandment 'You shall not kill,' is a rejection of God's gift of life and grace, and the act of suicide itself leaves no time for a person to be forgiven for their final act of sin. Dante, writing from a medieval milieu, places those who commit self-murder in the seventh circle of hell.
But the church, especially the Episcopal church, of which Robin Williams was a faithful member, has evolved on this issue. We understand more than we ever have about depression and other mental illnesses, the intense suffering involved and how rational choice is muted or taken away entirely. In our chaotic world, we understand better about how morality is not always cut and dry. The church has humbled itself on many fronts, including the predilection to say how God might judge the actions of a person which were committed in a place of intense pain. In practice, especially by allowing funerals of suicide victims, the church has turned toward the grace of God and away from our own judgment. Thank goodness.
My own view is this: because of the Incarnation, which is the Christian belief that God came to dwell among us as a person, God knows from personal experience the limitation of our brains -- that brains break down, and souls become weary. God knows suffering, and if God knows suffering, then God, who is compassionate, knows what is possible and impossible for humans to bear. I think about Paul's claim that "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ" (Rom. 8:38) and the vision that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Rev. 21) I also am reminded of this stanza, taken from the Episcopal burial rite:
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.
Suicide isn't the answer, and it leaves a wake of despair and desolation. But I refuse to believe that God condemns people because they succumbed to it.
(And this is the place I leave the DC suicide hotline number: 703-527-4077. Also here is Allie Brosh's beautiful and helpful account of depression, part one and two.)