When you learn of the suicide of a talented person, the typical reaction is, “How could this happen?” Underlying the question is the idea, “Someone with all this talent, success, wealth and accomplishment could not have done this.” If the most immediate and deepest emotion could speak upon first hearing such news, it probably goes something like: “This can’t be so — not him.”
It’s a good illustration of how success, achievement and fulfillment — crucial as they are — will neither purchase nor guarantee happiness.
Consider people who haven’t yet accomplished all that they’d wish to, like or might. They sometimes assume, “Once I have this wealth, fame or achievement — then I will feel good about myself, and about life.”
Robin Williams offers eloquent proof, as have others of high accomplishment, that it ain’t necessarily so.
Consider Williams’ own struggles with substance abuse, long after his early success and as recently as this past summer, when he checked himself into rehab in Minnesota. Some refer to substance abuse as “slow suicide,” particularly when knowingly done with drugs such as cocaine or heroin.
Robin Williams’ true thinking and feelings will probably never be known. At most, those closest to him will have insights, but even that might not be the whole story. Suicide, if you think about it, is the ultimate and most lonely of acts. Whatever its rationality or lack thereof, by the standard of life as the value, it’s sometimes the person’s final and — in his or her own mind — only act of being able to have control over something. Depressed people typically have unrealistic or unfounded desires to have control over everything. When they don’t attain that control, they become very anxious or upset, and this creates the problems — substance abuse, even suicide — that we witness.
And then there’s the issue of self-esteem. Did Williams have self-esteem? It’s impossible to know from public actions and statements alone. He probably did, in many key respects. But that’s not the whole package, and self-esteem is a package.
Remember that self-esteem refers to both self-efficacy and self-worth. It’s necessary not only to know and feel that you possess competence and efficacy, but that you deserve the rewards of your efforts — the celebrity, the acclaim, the applause. If you don’t possess self-worth — a sense of “I did this, I made this, and I’m proud and satisfied for it” — then you’ll never truly and personally benefit from what you have to offer. Others might, but you will not. This, more than anything else, and with justification, will make people cry or feel sad at the thought of Williams’ passing in this way.
In the minds of people who enjoyed Williams’ spectacular range of efforts and talents — humor, advanced slapstick, drama — this is inconceivable. But lacking self-worth and self-esteem can have real, life-or-death consequences. In a way, the greater the accomplishments, the more desperately the sense of self-worth is needed. You can quite literally perish without it.
When people survive suicide attempts, we have the opportunity to talk with them about what their thinking was, at the time, and how their thinking later changed about wishing to die (assuming it did). With a completed or “successful” suicide, we’ll never know. Was it impulsive? Was it the product of thought and effort over a long period of time? Was his very last thought in life, “Oh my God, what have I done?” Nobody will ever know, of course.
Suicide is thought to be the product of depression, and it undoubtedly is, at least in part. Williams’ significant others spoke of a battle with depression in recent months, not to mention much of his lifetime. But suicide can also be an act of anger, even rage. It might be anger in the sense of injustice experienced by others. “I’ll show you,” is the fantasy suicidal people sometimes express in counseling, to themselves, or elsewhere. But it can also be anger arising out of a long-standing sense of frustration.
Frustration over what? Robin Williams was accomplished, probably beyond even his own wildest dreams. Maybe that was it. Maybe he felt there was nothing left to do. Perhaps he felt that he had peaked, and he had raised the bar so high because of his many accomplishments in entertainment, there was nowhere else to go. Maybe he felt it was time to take his final bow. Maybe he wasn’t the kind of person to grow old, sit in his rocking chair, and savor all he had accomplished. The kind of person he showed himself to be arguably proves he wasn’t capable of that.
Presuming Williams’ death is officially ruled a suicide, much will be made about the need to battle depression. But depression is simply a name given to a cluster of symptoms with unspecified causes. We human beings are much more than the sum total of our neurobiological brain chemistry. We possess — or lack — such things as self-confidence, love of life, sense of life as a benevolent or wonderful place.
“It’s the same voice thought that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump,’” Williams told interviewer Diane Sawyer back in 2006. “The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’ … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”
Like most people who complete suicide, the question of “Do I do it — or not?” obviously entered his mind, on and off, throughout his life. Most will label Williams’ death a tragedy, but I doubt anyone will label his life a tragedy. In the end, it’s not how you die that matters at all; it’s how you live.
Dr Michael Hurd
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