It’s happened again. Another suicide, fueled by depression, that pitiless stone in the soul. This time, depression claimed Robin Williams, a stand-up comic who would risk anything for the outrageous, full-force belly laugh.
Right after the shock wore off, the line people say about suicide started to float up: suicide is selfish. It is anything but. Suicide is a choice, the hardest choice of all–to end a pain without bottom, without limits. Suicide crushes families, fans, friends. An easy connection to selfish—the lives plundered of joy and left behind. Still, it’s not selfish. It is the way to make pain give up its grip. No doubt it causes pain for those left behind, but it is a choice that requires some courage to choose. Harder still to commit to because there is no other choice that ends the soul-deep suffering.
Robin Williams was brilliant in a lot of movies–Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Popeye, Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp, Good Will Hunting, The Birdcage, Hook, Insomnia, and the one that may have perfectly captured his mercurial and boundless acting ability, Aladdin.
I loved them all, but the one that sticks in my memory is The Fisher King. In it, Williams play a former professor, driven mad by the memory of his wife’s murder, committed by a man who was spurred on by a shock jock’s comment.
What struck me this afternoon was the fit of The Fisher King story and Williams’ life. The story is ancient, because it is a Holy Grail story, part of the Arthurian legend. In the tale, the Fisher King is a wounded man, alive but unable to continue the dynasty, either through impotence or a groin wound. His castle is home to the Holy Grail, although no one knows where the king keeps it. The King’s job is to protect the Grail, but wounded, he cannot protect or defend his home, his family, or the Grail. He spends his day fishing–the only way he can survive the blow of his unfulfilled life or provide for his family.
He is visited by Percival, once as a child, and once as an adult. When the adult Percival comes to the castle, he asks the question that will heal the Fisher King. In heroic quests there is always a question that has to be asked, an impossible task performed, an action on which the entire outcome of the story depends.
In the German epic poet Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Perzival, the question is: “Sir, why do you suffer so?”
None of us knew Robin William’s suffering, but we know that silence is a killer. Our culture doesn’t approve of any perceived mental weakness, and the more the secret of depression is kept, the bigger the horror of it grows.
Allow the pain in your life to speak. Give your friend, your relative, your lover, your partner the gift of the question that heals: Why do you suffer so?
If you know someone who needs to talk, or if you do, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255). The group is a series of 163 crisis centers in 49 states. Your call is confidential.
––Quinn McDonald cherishes the laughter that Robin Williams brought to the world.