After forty-eight hours, I began abstaining from the Internet. My brain could no longer assimilate or respond sanely to the storm of emotion, judgment, anger, defensiveness, and fear that has been triggered by the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.

One of the hardest themes to handle has been the vociferous denouncement of those who take their own lives as “cowards.” This has, of course, been met with many replies urging compassion and denouncing the accusers as being clueless about the realities of mental illness.

It probably comes as no surprise to my readers that I don’t belong to the “cowards” faction. When I hear people talk about how suicide is a selfish choice, I don’t deny the truth of that–but I’m able to see that it might be one momentary, selfish choice that follows 9,999,999 unselfish ones made at other desperate moments. I believe there’s enough mercy in us to forgive such a thing.

I’m also able to see that a person who commits suicide may not be in possession of their faculties. Those who condemn seem to expect a logical weighing of pros and cons, or an ability to think of consequences–during a severe episode, these may be absent. I myself have shared about times when my grip on reality is tenuous–someone in worse shape might be incapable of considering anything. Those with bipolar disorder have an astronomical suicide rate compared to the general population; some studies say up to one in five will die this way.

Should I ever fall to my illness, I would fully expect anger from those my choice harmed. Blistering anger. But anger is a very different thing from contempt.

Contempt makes people “other.” Contempt is a tool used for convincing oneself that they are different; that this could never happen to them. Contempt is used to make us feel superior. And it hurts to see that someone might look at a person who died in pain and despair and feel a kind of need to assert their own superiority.

Having said all of this, I want to say that I can see another reason people express this attitude. For some people, it doesn’t have to do with judgment or contempt. I think they express it because they are trying to protect others who they fear may be contemplating suicide. That is to say, they worry that a lack of condemnation might send the message that suicide is an okay thing to do. Somewhere in them is a dreadful fear that giving that kind of message might tip a sufferer over into the wrong decision. By stressing one’s duty to others, or the idea of a moral obligation to keep trying, they hope to give someone on the edge a reason to wait.

My heart goes out to these people. I know what it’s like to fear that someone I love is going to harm themselves, and fear that I might be neglecting to do or say something that would change the outcome. I have been with those who live in the aftermath of suicide, and heard their heartbreak and their anger.

But I don’t think shaming those who fall is the way, and I don’t believe shaming them in advance is actually a deterrent. And I can’t help but notice that some of the same people who denounce my brothers and sisters as cowards if they kill themselves are equally quick to denounce us for our lack of productivity or our use of public health resources to try to stay alive. Apparently it is far less acceptable for the rich, successful and well-loved to remove themselves from this planet than for the poor and friendless to do so.

Now, having said what I felt compelled to say as my personal response to this issue, I will let go and give myself permission to move on to different topics. Robin Williams, I love you, and I’m sorry for the pain you endured. I promise I will try my best to remain here and carry the kind of message you might wish.

7 responses to “Cowards

  1. I have to say I’ve met many of those people too. I manage to work but only with some reasonable adjustments. I have had many people who feel if I can’t do the job the same as everyone else I shouldn’t take that job from someone who can do it ‘properly’. The fact that I generally perform very well in my job seems irrelevant. Yet these are the same people who criticism those who are on disability benefits, say they should get a job and stop being a waste of space. I couldn’t win, there are many days that I find dealing with peoples attitudes towards my disabilities harder than dealing with the disabilities themselves.

  2. This was a great post! Thank you.
    I get what you’re saying about people thinking the lack of condemnation will help someone over the edge, because they’re afraid it’ll make them think it’s OK, but no, I never think guilting someone is the right way to make them do or don’t do something. Not with kids, or with teens, or with adult in other ways, and not with depression and suicide.
    I’m glad that you see that for that one moment someone chooses to give up, there are so many more moments where that same someone chooses to keep trying. I wish more people saw it that way.

  3. I also think it’s because some people do not have the courage to face the possibility that anyone can be overcome by despair, that they themselves could lose hope and feel overwhelmed enough to kill themselves to escape the psychic pain. The idea that nothing, not faith, not therapy, not even a loving family can guarantee permanent protection from “enough” bad luck, diseases, accidents etc. is too awful for some to contemplate.

  4. I think it is a cognitive dissonance. I think people are eager to throw up a wall, to use some negative word or label to assist them in creating an Us VS Them explanation. Removing themselves from what they cannot understand or do not want to look at. Insisting they could never do the same, with this removal. I agree with you about creating an ¨other¨.

    You see it when people walk away from established traditions. When they buck their culture. When they do not follow social norms. When they simply do not make the decision that someone else desires them to make.

    We insult, belittle, ridicule, and smear what we are afraid of. Sometimes we react violently towards our fears. I think those of us who have faced such reactions have had our eyes opened, and can recognize it when it plays out in any scenario.

    We are all human. There is more than one way to view every act. The world is big enough to have birthed different cultures, and complexities within each. We can choose to treat people how we like. Other places and times have different views on suicide, and different views on how to speak of those who have gone on before us. Maybe we should remember that before we have knee jerk reactions that betray our fragile and fearful psychology.

    I think, no matter your culture or your personal feelings, you can choose the public reaction that is the most positive, the most beneficial to your wider community. The right path becomes wider and easier to follow, the more that choose it. If only.

  5. It’s often the strongest who fall hardest. I don’t think people generally have a death wish or want to throw life away but sometimes it just starts to present itself as a way out, just to make the pain stop. Those who condemn have probably never had their strength tested to that extent, therefore they are not stronger or more resilient than the person who falls, just untried in the face of particular challenges. Been there myself and thankfully overcome, so I too agree that compassion for self and others is the way.

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