Like many other people, when we heard about Robin Williams’ death yesterday, my wife and I heard it differently than we usually hear celebrity news, even news of celebrity deaths. This news came as the kind of sadness that feels like something just left the room once you’ve heard it. And a day later it still feels sad, even though he wasn’t someone we actually knew, however much we think we do.
It isn’t sad just because we believe we “get to know” certain public figures. I can remember sitting in my friend Colin’s rec room as a ten year-old while he regaled me with impressions of some of the great scenes from Good Morning, Vietnam, but it isn’t sad just because Robin Williams has made us laugh many, many times. It isn’t sad just because Robin Williams has inspired us with characters like the mentor figures in Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting or touched us in Awakenings or Patch Adams. Sure, those things are part of why this feels so personal to so many people. But they’re not the real reason that when we went to bed last night I prayed the words, “Lord, you know the news about Robin Williams makes us sad.”
The real reason is that for a long time we’ve known his killer.
Depression, and Dee’s own history with it, has been part of our story through the years we’ve spent in two churches I’ve served as pastor, as well as in our home church before that.
As we’ve told our story in both churches, we’ve grown to expect a certain response: “Me, too.” As we’ve seen in the flood of responses to Robin Williams’ death, talking about depression seems to liberate people to tell their own story.
As we’ve heard other people’s stories, a certain metaphor seems to crop up again and again. The story of depression is almost always told as a story of a conflict. We talk about “struggles” with depression, about “battling” it, about being “powerless” against it. And as we saw with yesterday’s news, the story of depression all too often ends in death.
So when we heard yesterday about Robin Williams’ suicide, it was a reminder that a dangerous enemy has been part of our lives in the past, and likely will not completely leave us alone in the future. And not only ours, but the lives of many others, both those we know and those we don’t.
To think that any words could be written or said to ease the pain or lessen the struggle brought on by depression is worse than presumptuous. To think that way is to be insensitive and oblivious to the tenacity with which depression attacks. But saying nothing only gives depression that much more power. Robin Williams’ death has already encouraged a few more people to break their silence.
I’m grateful that most of the time our life now is not troubled by depression to nearly the extent it was a few years ago. Day to day it isn’t the fearsome enemy it used to be when it was constantly troubling Dee’s emotions. But I doubt it will ever be completely absent. Last week I was stung a couple of times by a wasp. The pain lasted a few minutes, then let up. But five minutes later I saw the wasp crawling on the floor, still alive, and still nearby. However much I was overreacting, I physically trembled when I saw it. Hearing the news about Robin Williams’ death yesterday was a bit like that. The struggle with depression hasn’t been quite so close to our family lately, but we’re still shaken to see what it can do, and to know that it’s never far away.
As Christians, we might wish that there was an answer to depression in Scripture. Sadly, it seems like we have to deal with its presence, the wicked persistence with which it wants to wreck lives. But we also know the way it will end. 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 says that death itself will one day die, as God brings to completion the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, the victory of life over death. In that day, we will join in the song, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” In that day, depression too will be put to death.