A few months ago, I wrote here about our society’s inclination toward hero-worship, especially when it comes to celebrities. A fine line exists between admiration and deification these days, and nowhere is that line more apparent than in the countless acknowledgments this past week of Robin Williams’ death. For my part, I can admit that it hit me like a ton of bricks when I read the news on Twitter: RIP, Robin WIlliams, in black and white and fewer than 140 characters. I think I even shook my head, standing there alone, and called out to my husband as I hoped for a hoax.

The indelible print left by a larger-than-life entertainer deserves tribute. Perhaps my favorite, so far (besides the one at the end of this post) was from my father–a staunch conservative who would contend that the only heroes worthy of the praise we typically and easily dole out for actors are appropriate only for the soldiers who fight for our freedom (and fair point, that). When he called me the day after the news broke to wish me a happy birthday, I said, “So. Robin Williams.” I heard him sigh, heard the sarcasm that sourced my own reflected next: “Let the glorification process begin.” I smiled over the phone, not surprised a bit until he continued: “Although…there was something about him…”

There were a lot of things about him. There was the work he did with the USO, half a dozen tours over a decade. There are the stories of mentorship and encouragement now glowing from the memories of his young costars. There are the tales of a kindness rare among celebrities of his stature, the signing of autographs and working of crowds long after the cameras shut off. He was famous. He was funny. He was kind.

3fc15596-a665-4a2e-805b-780afa0147ceAnd he was tortured. You can count on the public to come forward after an event like this and represent every possible viewpoint: good, bad, and ugly. When I take stock of my own journey, I can only imagine what my reaction to the news would have been a few short years ago: initial sadness, followed by a frantic search for a loophole through which I could judge Mr. Williams. So when I read words like coward and selfish, I can only issue so much anger toward their speakers before I remember that I would be saying the same thing, but for grace. I would have looked at the privileged life of an American white man with three children and wondered aloud why it all wasn’t enough; how he could possibly be depressed with so much going for him.

One of the gifts of grace is that we learn how little we know. But here is one thing I do know: those aren’t the right questions.

I’ve never tried to kill myself. I romanticized the notion in a teen-angsty way during my formative years; I even made an ugly threat one particularly rough night to my husband when we were living with a newborn. But I’ve never personally wandered the dark corners of depression, felt a suffocating blanket of hopelessness defeat me at regular intervals. I know people who have, though. And I know that, when they described their difficulties to me, when they expressed their fears, I searched for something encouraging to say. Something to fix it. I also know that this desire to help was far less than solely altruistic, because what I really wanted to confirm was that something as terrifying as they described didn’t really exist. They just needed to be talked out of believing it–distracted from it. So I would wave some cheap, needlepoint version of the Gospel in front of their faces, reduce a Bible verse to some shallow (mis)interpretation, and hope that my effort would pay off in their recovery and the confirmation that no such weakness would ever touch me.

Such is the luxury of those who have never descended to those depths: we can glower at these tortured souls behind our hands and whisper to each other about “the coward’s way out” because we’ve never truly known their pain. We can’t learn from them anything we can’t read in some…book. We can indulge in long-distance judgment because we are blessed beyond our own ability to recognize it with a mental health that hasn’t been suffered that degree of brokenness. But make no mistake–we are, each of us, broken. And I would propose, knowing that and what I’ve learned of grace, an alternative to the cowardice theory.

“I think it’s very courageous for someone to be that generous of spirit in the face of that kind of depression,” Conan O’Brien said during his tribute to Williams a few nights ago, and the truth of the statement is a humbling one. Williams, and millions like him who struggle to stay afloat when the hopelessness threatens to sweep them away, was a warrior in an invisible siege. And the fact that he faced such depths, then emerged from them whenever he could to give the gift of laughter to the world, is a soldier’s offering from the battlefield. We can rue the fact that the darkness eventually took over, but we can’t judge him for having scars we don’t understand. And we can only pray for the ability and gratitude to hear and see the grace that speaks louder, burns brighter, than any darkness can–and will one day swallow up all sadness in its wake.