The Fisher King’s Question

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 float10583833_10152179250246637_4647984638744432526_n 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’ robin-williams1life. 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.






45 thoughts on “The Fisher King’s Question

  1. I am really behind in reading your blog, but I feel the sun is dimmer now. I have never before lived in a world without Robin Williams.

  2. Pingback: Journaling Current Events | Dana Burrell… Art

  3. I loved him as Popeye and nobody else could ever fill that role as he did. Unfortunately bombed at the box office but a movie i loved and watched many many times on dreary days to lift me out of the doldrums. People often bring their own woes upon themselves and family and friends can’t do anything about it. My very sociable sister did this too and i could see where she was going wrong; living in a small town difficult for family and almost impossible for friends to access but then she was willing to move. I could help with that but then she decided to move to a different small and remote town detached from the rest of the world where it was obvious that she’d suffer even more loneliness. In the end it was her own self inflicted loneliness that got to her.

  4. Thank you for understanding Quinn. I heard a lovely tribute to Robin as I travelled back from Wellington last night . . . I posted it on FB. It is an undertsated tribute from Vincent Ward who directed What Dreams May Come. Robin spent quite a bit of time here in NZ . . . he was very generous to the people of Christchurch after the eathquakes.

  5. Thanks for your insightful post. Someone else mentioned the movie “What Dreams May Come” and my husband and I both thought of this movie when we heard about Robin Williams suicide. You’re so right that we need to ask others about their pain. It’s time to stop pretending that everything is always so wonderful that we never have pain, doubt, fear, depression, etc. then none of us will feel so alone, that we are the only one. I have found that when I share situations and feelings of my own it seems to give others “permission” to do the same. It can be a risk in some ways but the payoff is worth it. I believe the more truthful and open each one of is about our personal pain we can eventually knock down those invisible barriers that keep us from being real with one another. It’s time to stop pretending that everything is always so wonderful that we never have pain, doubt, fear, depression, etc. then none of us will feel so alone, that we are the only one.

  6. What Dreams May Come explores the entire story of suicide. It is the pain we lock ourselves into without allowing anyone else inside our citadels to help us. The circular reasoning which spirals slowly down to the bottomless pit. How hard loved ones have to fight to break through, if they can figure out what is going on.
    I’m sorry for Robin and his family who will be bombarded with the questions one can never answer (why didn’t you do something, how come you didn’t notice, etc.) because there is no answer. People who choose suicide can appear so ‘normal’ within their usual pain.
    It takes strength to reach out from the pain to ask for help; it takes courage for the families to admit they can’t handle it all themselves and seek advice and help. If the worst happens, the proper response is compassion for all of them, not finger pointing or dissection.

  7. If only there had been a way for the happiness and joy that he gave and shared with others to be reflected back to him. Robin Williams would have had a truly joyful heart and mind. He did so much for Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and other charities. Mr Williams also did much for individuals as well. Not to mention the comedy he shared or the heart felt performances.

    There’s a real void in the world going forward, now that Robin Williams is gone.

  8. Thank you for this post Quinn. As usual you are succinct and to the point. I lost a nephew (16 years old…) to suicide. None of his family (including me) will ever be whole, or the same, again.

    Such a loss of a unsurpassed comic who shared his gift as long as he was able…

      Shari Adkisson  aka TXCreatrix aka Wyld Womyn Nrrd

    Work Like You Don’t Need the Money, Dance Like No One Is Looking and Love Like You Have Never Been Hurt!

  9. Once again you have touched the heart of an issue and brought it into focus for many people. I loved The Fisher King and What Dreams May Come. Robin William’s talent was deep and wonderful.

  10. Many people self-medicate their depression. My dad’s second wife was a raging alcoholic who had been in and out of AA, in and out of rehab countless times, and – while there was no love lost between us – I think I can say that she was one of those ‘poor unfortunates’ that AA talks about. Ultimately, she committed suicide.

    • Self-medication rarely works. Depression is a combination of chemical imbalance and deep spiritual pain. AA helps, but depression is tricky. I’m sorry for your Dad’s wife, and sorry for you and the relationship as well.

  11. you hadn’t mentioned his film, “what dreams may come”. his character and his children die in separate accidents. the wife, left behind[ a painter] sinks twice into depression.-first after the children’s deaths and then, afte his. she commits suicide.
    the task for william’s is to retrieve his wife’s soul. i found it to be a beautiful film..the imagery, the paintings and the story. i saw it in both the theater and have a dvd..
    i have a close relative, who,in the depths of despair last year, attempted suicide, and then sought help. it has been a tough year for her and for me., i am pleased to say, there has been progress towards what some may call “normalacy”.

  12. thanks for explaining the story behind the fisher king. I’d never seen the film but now have it on my list.
    As a woman dealing with severe mental illness, suicide has often been on my mind. I’ve been able to resist it – most of the time. Obviously I’m not in Williams’ situation – we are all different – but I can understand well that blackness, that darkness, that keeps you prisoner. And yes, suicide does seem like the only way to break thru that darkness and stop the pain – especially if all the other options have failed. I think that most people don’t realize that suicide is often the last resort for someone in that position. At heart, we don’t WANT to do it, but see no other way out.
    The death of Robin Williams touches everyone, I think, because he was so larger than life, so generous, so giving of himself to everyone – I read somewhere that he cared so much more about others than himself. And like one friend of his said, I wish he had taken better care of himself and left the others behind.
    Great post, Quinn, thank you

    • It’s the not seeing another way out, that I have experienced, that makes every suicide so unutterably sad. That, and the way our culture deals with mental illness. That’s sad as well.

  13. Quinn – thanks for putting it so eloquently. The loss of Robin Williams is such a huge loss for the world. I wish he would have known been able to call upon all the joy he brought to everyone but he took the bravest route out for him. Sometimes there is not other way out of the black hole.

  14. So well said, Quinn. As a suicide prevention educator and crisis-interventionist, I have never found a way to protect my heart from the sadness of it all and just have to remind myself that it is the only/last way for people to end the pain that they feel. Thank you for your excellent words.

  15. Hi Quinn, Thank you for articulating so well an insight that is not the common response to such a devastating loss. Greatly appreciated! Robin Williams is one of my true favorite comedic geniuses (my children and I still quote lines from his movie “RV”). His death has struck me much harder than one would have thought. I hope he is at peace. He will be greatly missed. 😦

  16. Quinn, I love you. Thank you for this discussion and insight. The Fisher King is my favorite Robin Williams movie. So profound. I get his pain and am devastated that he (as have a few other friends) needed to end his life in order to make it go away.

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