This week, a great actor who had formed a foundational part of many lives and brought laughter to people across the world, especially to our troops abroad, committed suicide. People rightly mourned Robin Williams’ death. Others castigated his suicide, repeating theories that suicide is inherently selfish and rejecting depression as a disease. Still others willingly admitted that his death is a tragedy but argued that there are far greater tragedies today and bemoaned that people seem to mourn his loss more than those of children of color in war-torn areas, insinuating racism or self-centeredness or callousness.
Many have responded to the rejection of depression as a disease and suggestion that suicide is inherently selfish, so I won’t do that here. It should go without saying that his death is tragic, as is any suicide, so I won’t address that here, either. I would like instead to address that third opinion or insinuation, that it is somehow wrong or shameful for us to mourn one famous person’s death (ostensibly) more than we mourn the deaths of genocide victims.
First, why do we mourn Robin Williams’ death? For one thing, it is always tragic when someone commits suicide, when an otherwise kind and loving person chooses death over remaining with those who love and support him. It’s such a tragedy that children of parents who commit suicide spend most of the rest of their lives wondering, why did my parent(s) chose to die, why did (s)he not see fit to remain with me, did (s)he really love me? I believe spouses also go through similar thought processes and have to work through the guilt of falsely believing his/her death might have been at least a little bit the spouse’s fault. The tragedy of his death alone is sufficient to make many people talk about it.
For another thing, Robin Williams was a huge part of our lives. People of my generation grew up on his performances in Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Hook, Flubber, Happy Feet, Night at the Museum, and others. Then we grew up and watched him in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, Jakob the Liar, and others. As kids, my brothers and I had a Dan Fogelberg CD that we listened to ALL THE TIME. Without us realizing it, Dan Fogelberg, and especially certain of his songs, became such a foundational part of our collective childhood that he and his music was practically indecipherable from the rest of our childhood. He WAS our childhood. When he died, a piece of my childhood went with him. When I heard the lines “I was a kid when Elvis died./An’ my momma cried” from the song “19 Something” by Mark Wills at my first job when I was about 16, I couldn’t understand why people would cry for a famous person they didn’t know personally. Now, thanks to Dan Fogelberg, I do. Likewise, Robin Williams is such a foundational part of and so intertwined with so many people’s childhoods and adult lives that, whether or not they realize it, he took a piece of their childhood, a huge chunk of their memories, and part of their identity when he died. “When he killed himself, a part of me died, a part of me that I didn’t even know was there and didn’t miss until it was gone.” The fact that he chose* to do so makes it so much worse.
Second, why don’t we grieve the losses of victims of genocide the world over? Many, many, many people have written on compassion fatigue. It’s so plastered over the internet—there’s even a Wikipedia article on it—that I would have thought everyone would know about it by now, so seeing people comment on these victims and bemoan people’s grief over Robin Williams’ loss should remind me that not everyone (including people working in that area) is aware of this. Wikipedia’s article defines compassion fatigue as “a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders.” It goes on to say: “Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering.” The term “compassion fatigue” is usually applied to people dealing directly with the suffering, but it applies just as well to people receiving news of distant suffering.
In essence, our human minds are incapable of dealing constantly with others’ suffering. At some point, your mind needs to take a break from it. Initially, you’re outraged and you may even do something about it, if you’re able. But then, to protect yourself, your brain shuts off. You don’t quit caring, you just can’t keep up the outrage, the tears, the bleeding heart. It’s a protective mechanism, and it’s not a sin†.
The reason why we can seem indifferent toward genocide the world over but cry over Robin Williams’ death is because: (1) we’ve already mourned the genocides; (2) we falsely seem indifferent to the genocides because of compassion fatigue; (3) the genocides are ongoing, whereas Robin Williams’ death is a single event that we can briefly mourn and then move on; (4) he is part of our collective identity and so losing him means losing a part of ourselves; (5) his death, and therefore our loss of identity and childhood, is a reminder of our own mortality; (6) suicide is always deeply tragic; and (7) his death touches those of us suffering with depression and suicidal ideation on a deeply personal level.
None of this is wrong. None of this is bad. And in my opinion, it’s cheap to use his death to further your own causes, even if that cause involves care for victims of genocidal regimes.
Your thoughts below!
*Some argue that suicide, when coupled with depression, is not a choice because depression is a disease. I won’t go into that, but I just wanted to recognize that theory so as not to offend people who ascribe to that theory. Although I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation as a teen, I never thought of it as choiceless. I disagree somewhat with the theory based on my own experiences, but I recognize that (a) doing so requires leaning on the logical fallacy known as “anecdotal fallacy” and (b) many people smarter than I agree with it, and so I wanted to give it a nod. Nevertheless, survivors usually view someone’s suicide as a choice on that person’s part not to be with them, so that statement was more an examination of how survivors feel than how the victim acted.
†Some would argue that if you’re capable of doing something and you choose not to, that is sinful. But consider that there are many worthy causes, many awesome charities, and only so much money to go around. You do more good by donating a large sum to one or two charities than you do donating small sums to numerous charities. One of the hardest things for me was choosing which two of the many charities I love would get my money and/or time. My view is that as long as you’re doing what you can within your means, that’s enough—you don’t need to feel guilty about your lack of support for the literally millions of worthy charities out there so long as you’re doing or donating toward some form of worthy charity somewhere.