Robin Williams was a warrior. A brave warrior on a field of battle. He was one of many–soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, stretching out towards the horizon–and yet, he was so very alone.
Yes, he was also a husband, father, and friend. A beloved actor and comedian. An innovator. A visionary. An unassuming funnyman whose dyed-in-the-wool dedication to his craft made us laugh, made us cry, and made us think.
Yes, the characters he played helped us experience life through the eyes of modern day pioneers: teachers, mentors, doctors, fathers–real people–trying to make a difference as they worked to shape the world while navigating life’s complexities.
And yes, all of these things aside, he was a warrior. Ultimately, this war-weary soldier put his weapons down on the field of battle, raised a tattered white flag as far as his arms could lift it in the heat of a scorching sun, and surrendered to a crushing battle with depression, in an apparent suicide.
When a precious life ends in this way, there are so many questions, with an infinite combination of possible answers. In that endless loop of hypotheses we form, we sometimes allow ourselves to come to overly simplistic conclusions. We focus on one battle lost, ignoring the preceding years, months, days, even hours, where so very many battles were valiantly won.
Williams’s life was not perfect. No person’s life is. He struggled mightily with his demons. So do we all, at one time or another. As millions of others do, I desperately wish he had continued his fight. I wish his journey had ended differently, peacefully, in some faraway future. It didn’t.
Even so, Robin Williams is more than one battle lost. This final fall on the field does not mean his life has been somehow stripped of dignity. It is not suddenly void of eloquent meaning. The medals he earned are not tarnished and unrecognizable. His life mattered. His life still matters. He gave it his all.
O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Depression, suicide, and mental illness as a whole, is something we fail to fully understand. Sometimes, it is something we choose to fail to understand, which is a far more serious thing. We understand breast cancer. We understand diabetes. We understand heart disease and high blood pressure. We pin on our awareness ribbons, as we don appropriately colored attire for support walks, taking part in an honorable wave of community awareness.
But depression? Depression is another thing altogether. It is sometimes dismissed as a weakness, or a flaw in character, rather than the illness it truly is. And rather than colorful ribbons and community events, we sometimes draw into ourselves, hoping an ounce of compassion shown from an arm’s length away will somehow be enough.
It is not enough.
We can do more. We can take away the stigma. We can stretch forth our hands. We can offer a shoulder. We can seek to better understand.
I think Jeffrey R. Holland expressed it well when he said, “While God is at work…the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.
“Whatever your struggle…do not vote against the preciousness of life by ending it! Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter.”
For those still on the field of battle: shoulder to shoulder, the march goes on. In other words, Carpe Diem. Live. Live one minute, one hour, one day at a time. But live!