acceptance of death

robin williamsThe other day, a psychologist on the radio scolded another commentator for suggesting that, following his recent suicide, Robin Williams was at least free of the depression that he had been battling. She said that this comment would present suicide as a valid alternative to other ways of addressing depression (which presumably include mind-numbing and personality-altering drugs), and will give others who suffer from depression, especially adolescents who tend to romanticize death, license to off themselves. She said that talk like this could lead to a lot of copycat behavior.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it that way.

First of all, we have no idea what burdens Robin Williams was dealing with. Yesterday, his wife disclosed that he was dealing with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease on top of whatever else with which he was coping. Maybe he wanted to check out when the world thought he was at the top of his game. Maybe he wanted to spare his family future anguish. No one knows. Just because we don’t know what was in his head doesn’t mean we know better than him what he should have done.

Why can’t we just respect his wishes and his calculation of what he was willing to endure? Why can’t we step out of ourselves and just trust that he knew best for himself?

Second, our view against suicide is colored by a history in the West of religious beliefs in Christian Europe that regarded suicide as a sin and condemned it as the work of the devil.

Attitudes towards suicide slowly began to shift during the Renaissance. John Donne’s work Biathanatos, contained one of the first modern defences of suicide bringing proof from the conduct of Biblical figures such as Jesus, Samson, and Saul, and presenting arguments on grounds of reason and nature to sanction suicide in certain circumstances. Catholic doctrine was not entirely settled on the subject until 1670, when Louis XIV of France issued an extremely severe ruling that a suicide’s body was to be drawn through the streets, face down, and then hung or thrown on a garbage heap. Additionally, all his or her property was to have been confiscated.

The secularization of society that began during The Enlightenment questioned traditional religious attitudes toward suicide and brought a more modern perspective to the issue. David Hume denied that suicide was a crime as it affected no one and was potentially to the advantage of the individual. The Times in 1786 initiated a spirited debate on the motion “Is suicide an act of courage?” By the 19th century, the act of suicide had shifted from being viewed as a sin to being viewed as caused by insanity, and by the mid-20th century, suicide had become legal in much of the western world.

In the United States, suicide is not illegal but may be associated with penalties for those who attempt it. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in the state of Washington. In Oregon people with terminal diseases may request medications to help end their lives.

I am not necessarily an advocate of suicide, but I am an adamant advocate of personal freedom, and I see choosing whether to live or die as the ultimate act of freedom for any rational adult.

Third, consider the source of the admonition: a psychologist, for god’s sake. Yesterday I watched a documentary in which a group of psychologists discussed The Denial of Death, a 1973 work of psychology and philosophy by Ernest Becker, in which Becker argues that fear of death is a root cause of mental illness (including depression and schizophrenia). This is probably why psychologists are more attracted to defending Becker’s ideas rather than refuting them and helping people to see that death is a normal and essential part of life.

Psychologists need people to be fearful of lots of things to explain and sustain their practices and livelihoods. And what better thing to be fearful of than the one event every one of us will have to face eventually?

I am more attracted to the ideas of Harvard-trained theologian and grief counselor Steve Jenkinson, who teaches that death empowers us to live our lives to the fullest.

“The crucible of making human beings is death,” he says. “Every culture worth a damn knows that. It’s not success. It’s not growth. It’s not happiness. It’s death. That’s the cradle of your love of life: the fact that it ends.”

Our consumerist society has spawned the ridiculous notion that ‘he who dies with the most toys wins.’ How materialistic and shallow. So-called primitive societies such as I observed in Africa believe that ‘he who is remembered by name and good deeds is immortal.’ I like this better. It makes immortality accessible to all. And as I suggested in a recent post, every person who endeavors to live a good life can be remembered as a saint.

Yet regardless of how we go out, it is easier to die than to mourn. It is easier to exit this world than to be left behind. I have learned this from my own experience and from my association with parricides.

This is the cruel truth behind the psychologists’ lie that they seek to perpetuate for their own gain. Even for a person dying of an awful illness, the pain and suffering does end. There is nothing to fear from death except the prospect of living on.

I recently learned of the parents of a little girl who was only kept alive by up to three blood transfusions a week. She was living from transfusion to transfusion, with no hope of positive change. “What if there’s a miracle?” her parents asked. “What if there’s a cure?” Finally the parents realized they’d put their daughter through too much, they faced the bitter truth, discontinued the transfusions, and let her die.

Now that was bravery. To face death and let it take their daughter. What true generosity.

Yet their sorrow will end someday. Not through forgetting, for that would dishonor the love they feel for their little girl. One day they will die too, and fear of death will lose its grip on them as well.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Jim Carroll Band performing “People Who Died”


1 Response to “acceptance of death”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    August 17, 2014 at 2:41 am

    Bravo Dan! Totally agree.

    You mention that physician-assisted suicide is legal here in Washington state. We enacted our Death with Dignity Act by voter initiative in 2008. The Catholic, Mormon, and pentecostal hierarchs spoke out loudly against the initiative measure, but their squawkings were in vain. Almost 60% of us voted to enact it. What I like about the way we do it here is that it is all very private, quiet and dignified. There is no media coverage whatsoever. Every year the state issues statistics, and I must say that I’m surpised at the low numbers.

    When my wife told me that Robin Williams had killed himself, the first words out of my mouth were “Did he get a terminal diagnosis?” Many of us suffer from chronic depression–for myriad causes–but few choose to terminate their existence from that alone. But for some there comes that final blow. When Robin’s wife revealed the onset of Parkinson’s it suddenly made sense to me. It still hurts to lose one of the best entertainers we’ve ever had. So sad, yet so understandable.

    I once had the privilege of hearing the Dalai Lama speak at Columbia University. He said he was going to talk about death and rebirth. He then laughed loudly and said “My friends, life is not a panacea!”

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