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The Kairos of Robin Williams

Robin Williams hamming it up

US Department of Defense/Public Domain

Mark Gordon - published on 08/12/14

Suicide, depression, Church teaching and the chance for redemption.

The death of a celebrity, especially one whose body of work was genuinely compelling, can offer important lessons for the rest of us. The death last February of Philip Seymour Hoffman has become a cautionary tale about the profound profligacy of addiction. The passing last month of the Catholic theologian and writer Stratford Caldecott, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 60, reminded us yet again that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and that life and death are finally mysteries known only to God.

The death of the comedian and actor Robin Williams [pictured entertaining US troops in Iraq in 2004] will offer lessons, too. Here was a man most of us associated with joy and certainly with laughter. Yet Williams’ relentlessly manic persona masked a lifelong struggle with depression, one that drove him to alcohol and drug abuse, and finally to suicide. Those who watched closely could detect the sadness at the core of Williams’ life and art, from the desperate longing of Chris in “What Dreams May Come,” to the heartbroken psychologist Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting,” to the claustrophobic pathos of Sy Parrish in “One Hour Photo,” and the grief-driven fantasist Parry in “The Fisher King.”

If nothing else, the death of Robin Williams is an object lesson in the destructive power of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that one in ten Americans will suffer from clinically diagnosable depression at some point in their lives. And while scientists suspect that there is a genetic component – likely linked to lower levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin – there is no doubt that environmental factors play a part, especially unemployment, divorce, poverty and other illnesses. Among age groups, people 45 to 64 are the most likely to be depressed, but women are twice as likely as men at any age.

The link between depression and suicide is well known. An estimated 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from depression, addiction or both at the time of their deaths. Recently, the United States has seen a dramatic spike in the rate of suicide among returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. According to VA records, 1,900 veterans – 22 per day – committed suicide during the first three months of 2014 alone. According to the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, nearly 40,000 Americans committed suicide in 2011, the last year for which there are complete statistics. Heart disease and cancer may be the leading causes of death in the United States, but there is something uniquely tragic about suicide, especially when committed by a young person suffering from a condition beyond his or her control.  

It is important for Catholics to know that as the Church’s understanding of depression has evolved along with advances in psychology and medicine, so has her understanding of the moral implications of suicide. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) makes clear that, objectively, suicide is still a serious sin: “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.” (CCC #2281)  What has changed is our understanding of the effects of depression and addiction on mental competence.

We know that for a sin to be mortal, three things are required: the matter must be objectively grave, the act must be freely chosen, and it must be chosen with full knowledge. Suicide is obviously grave matter, but depression and addiction can have profound effects on free choice and knowledge. It is likely that many people who commit suicide were not mentally competent at the time and therefore not morally culpable for their acts of self-destruction. The Catechism alludes to this where it says, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.” (CCC #2282, 2283)

There is also the question of kairos, a Greek word for time that means “the time when change is possible.” Kairos is not metered by the clock like its sister chronos; it may last for a moment or a season. Whether someone has died from suicide, accident, murder, heart attack or any other sudden interruption of life, we can always hope that his last moments were a kairos in which he encountered and turned toward our loving God. Kairos is God’s time and we should never presume to know its conditions or limits. After all, as Scripture says “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

This truth is illustrated in a delightful story about St. John Vianney. There was a woman whose husband had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. This woman worried all the time about the fate of her husband’s soul, so she finally decided to go see the Cure d’Ars. Though he did not know her, upon seeing the woman enter, the saint walked up and said, “He is saved.” She was confused, so he said again:

“I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition. Our Blessed Lady obtained that grace for him. Remember the shrine that you put up in your room during the month of May. Though your husband professed to have no religion, he sometimes joined in your prayer. This merited for him the grace of repentance and pardon at the last moment.”

Robin Williams was a baptized Christian, a member of the Episcopal Church (which he joked was “Catholic-lite: same religion but half the guilt”).  It is likely that he wasn’t mentally competent, and therefore not morally culpable, at the moment he chose to take his own life sometime Monday.

But whether culpable or not, we can have confidence that in the midst of his despair, God carved out a kairos for Williams. And we can pray that in the waning moments of his life, Williams reached out toward the only One who could lead him to true joy.

Mark Gordon
is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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