In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry, a young prep school boy, goes against his father’s wishes and performs in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The father blames the boy’s teacher, John Keating (played by Robin Williams) for Neil’s disobedience, demanding Mr. Keating stay out of the boy’s life. In reaction to the situation, that evening Neil’s father takes him home, telling Neil he plans to enroll him in military school.
Later that night Neil, unable to handle the thoughts of his possible future, takes his own life.
Of course, today this plot holds a bitter irony since one of Robin Williams’ most memorable films would become prophetic of his own eventual death. On August 11, 2014, at 63 years of age, in Marin County, CA, one of the world’s most beloved comedic geniuses and theatrical personas apparently killed himself (the results of a medical examination still pending).
I must say I do not remember another current event, especially an untimely death of a celebrity, ever commanding as much chatter on my Facebook newsfeed. For what it’s worth, this immediate social media response is surely illustrative of how Williams somehow touched each of us in various ways whether through Mork from Ork, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, Popeye, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning, Vietnam, or just plain Robin Williams doing what he did best: high-energy and highly-improvised comedy standing on stages or sitting beside night show desks.
Unfortunately, deep down, as is true with most truly great comics, there were places of serious pain in his life that allowed him to strike such chords of truth with his fellow sufferers. Throughout his successful humorous public life, he also struggled behind the scenes on again and off again with drug and alcohol addiction. Recently Williams even grew a telling depression beard (see photo above). According to his publicist after his death, “He has been battling severe depression of late.” This pain reached a breaking point yesterday.
As an Episcopal minister, I have had several people tell me that they wanted to kill themselves. These have been some of the most difficult instances in my ministry because I feel completely useless in such delicate situations. Even if I get the person help, eventually connecting them with suicide prevention professionals, I know that there is still a chance down the road that they will be at their breaking point once again for another reason. Yet, in each of these situations I have said the same thing. I do not know if it is the right thing, but this is really all I know to say that seems to matter: “There are at least two people who love you and who will be sad if you kill yourself: Jesus loves you, and I do, too.” I once told this to a sixty-something Vietnam War veteran, and then he began to cry tears of both sorrow and gladness.
I wish someone could have intervened yesterday. Maybe they would have read Psalm 88 to Williams, giving him words like these that articulate the perennial human predicament:
I am full of trouble; my life is at the brink of the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I have become like one who has no strength … and darkness is my only companion.
“That is exactly how I feel, too. Are those words really in the Bible?” People have asked me before when in despairing states. Yes, and so are these spoken by Jesus Christ, a man well acquainted with human suffering: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you … God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
These comfortable words might have been well familiar to Robin Williams as he was an Episcopalian, and we read these words in our old Sunday church service immediately following the corporate confession. As a matter of fact, there is a well-known comedic bit in which Williams explained (profanity warning in effect if you click the link):
You see, I’m an Episcopal. That’s Catholic-lite. Same religion, half the guilt. You know, Catholics, you’ve got confession. Episcopals, we’ve got Thanksgiving when dad has a couple of gin and tonics.
This joke always gets laughs, even when frozen-chosen Episcopalians tell it. Although I never agreed (or wanted to agree) with him that we “Episcopals” are Catholic-lite, Williams was an Episcopalian, and as such, I hope this prayer or one similar from the Book of Common Prayer will be said at his burial service soon:
Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Robin. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Before I end here, I want to express that if you are like Robin Williams and Neil Perry and are depressed and perhaps considering taking your own life, if you like the Psalmist feel that darkness is your only companion, I want to assure you that there will be at least two people who will be saddened by your death. Jesus loves you. And even though I probably don’t know you, I love you, too. Also, please seek immediate help. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7/365 by phone or online chat. And if you know someone who is speaking of suicide or even hinting at it, please regard this possibility as if it is a serious reality.
For now, I bid farewell to the captain of comedy, leaving you with this famous scene, which now bears an altogether new sense of meaning: