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Catholic in America: How Catholics should process the death of Robin Williams

The Michigan Catholic

August 22, 2014

Al Kresta

After Robin Williams’ suicide, I interviewed a film critic and an aspiring filmmaker about Williams’ often troubled life. The interviews were respectful, even charitable, but not gushing or whitewashing.

Nevertheless, emails objecting to the favorable comments started almost immediately. Every time a public figure dies, some Christians complain that good things are being said about sinners. Didn’t I know he was pro-abortion? (Yes). Didn’t I know that he was a blasphemer and a crude, dirty old man? (Perhaps). Didn’t I know suicide was a mortal sin? (Yes). Didn’t I know depression was a choice? (Hardly). Didn’t I know that if he had just called on Jesus he would have been healed of despair? (Perhaps but no ironclad promise).

Image and reality? Someone even wrote: “Good riddance.” Hell was now his home. How ugly, especially when we realize that entertainers and politicians present themselves to us through staged performances and their well-crafted images. We don’t even really know them! These images are designed to be more vivid and far simpler than personal reality, and these images are intended to bear an ambiguous relationship to reality. Are we judging a person, a product or a brand? God alone can look on the heart.

Faith? Some report that Williams remained an Episcopalian. Atheist blogs deny it. Williams’ faith, if any, was probably unorthodox and strained. But since God’s grace is not restricted to the sacraments, neither is he bound by creedal precision. God can honor our slightest turn toward him no matter how odd, immature or misshapen the faith. In those final hours, alone, literally at the end of his rope, a weeping, howling or whispering “Lord help me” would not have been unnatural or implausible given his religious background.

Values? In booking Williams, Brian Lord recalled the personal and technical requirements performers list for an event: limousine transports, sound requirements, soft avocados, green M&Ms, whatever. Williams required every company hiring him to also hire a certain number of homeless people to do appropriate work for the event. This was never publicized until Lord blogged about it after his death.

Alcoholism and depression? Williams’ 20 years of sobriety while struggling with depression strikes me as heroic. I confess a “preferential option” for the depressed. In February 1982, depression suddenly descended on me with a misery and horror far more painful than when I approached death’s door in 2003 with the “flesh-eating bacteria.” Amputation of my left leg saved my life. But losing one’s leg is nothing compared with losing one’s soul.

After a routine 1982 surgery, my faith in Christ, the core of my existence, suddenly melted down. I tried deliverance, prayer, spiritual counseling, anything that was offered to me in the name of Christ except medical help, which I refused for a full six months. Finally, in August of 1982, a book by a Christian psychiatrist forced to reconsider whether I was facing a spiritual or a biochemical crisis. My brain was as much a physical organ as my pancreas or liver. If I had a heart condition, I wouldn’t resist medication.

With some misgivings I was hospitalized and started a regimen of anti-depressants. The results were mixed. Anyone who thinks anti-depressants are mood elevators or happy pills doing for the depressed what two glasses of wine might do for the healthy person, is to medical experience what the racist is to social: an ignoramus. The prescription merely got my head above water and I spotted a distant shore. Was that hope emerging that I might one day get there? Yes, I was on a slow, meandering course. It would be nearly three more years, in May 1985, when at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Christ restored me to wholeness. The sun came out; I could pray again. Within months, a congregation called me to pastor their church, and I began ministering to others in ways that would have been impossible without that baptism of suffering.

Was Robin Williams’ suffering tied to his comedic success? Were his the tears of the clown? In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Lester played by Alan Alda says: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

For a man whose entire life was so exquisitely tuned to the presence of others, to the mood of an audience, and delighting them with perfect timing of wit and drama, how awful to feel that sensitivity so evaporate that he no longer cared enough even for his final earthly audience, his family, to hold his hand from this wicked deed.

One writer guaranteed that had Robin turned to Jesus, his depression would have lifted. Overpromising doesn’t honor the Gospel. I’ve known believers, even Christian leaders, who have committed suicide. As a pastor, I buried a new member of our congregation who had grown so irrational that he sucked carbon monoxide unto death to more quickly see Jesus. Was he wicked, dumb, or sick?

Depressive illness simply got the better of these Christians, just like end-stage lung cancer or leukemia. Because one’s will is imprisoned by depression, one’s culpability for the objectively evil act of suicide is greatly diminished:

“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (See CCC, 2280-83). Reading the Catechism makes it easier to say good things about sinners because we hear more about good news and less about celebrity shenanigans.

Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.



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