Suicide and Man’s Search for Meaning

Occasionally, I’ll come across a movie on TV that features Robin Williams in one of his many famous and brilliant roles. I’m a huge fan of so many of his movies (from his family comedies to his more serious pieces), and it’s always great to catch one unexpectedly on a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, now when I see one of his films, I’m instantly reminded that he is no longer with us—that the magic he could muster on the silver screen will never again be new or original.

I didn’t know Robin Williams personally, yet I was really upset when I heard about his death last summer. By all accounts, this tremendously funny and talented man was a kind and generous one as well. I grew up watching his movies as a kid, and some of my favorites—Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji—conjure a fond, pleasant nostalgia for my childhood.

But I’m not only upset because he can no longer excite, amuse, and entertain us with his gifts for comedy and drama, but because he had reached such a dark and awful place that he saw death as the only remedy. It’s tragic enough when someone dies, but there are no words to describe the sadness that surrounds one who ends his or her own life.

Williams struggled with depression, addiction, and supposedly early-onset Parkinson’s disease. My heart goes out to those who struggle with these or similar conditions. I’ve struggled myself with serious bouts of depression and anxiety, and know many friends and family members who struggle as well.

Of course, I can’t claim to know the pain and suffering he experienced, which was uniquely and personally his own—especially at those last moments of his life—but I can understand the sense of despair and purposelessness that can blanket one’s thoughts, tugging one down to a place no one should ever go.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 39,500 suicides occurred in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), which comes out to someone committing suicide every 13.3 minutes. This is simply shocking and horrible. So many people in this country are suffering secretly, silently, and alone.

We hear in the Gospel that Christ healed the sick and those suffering from all types of maladies. I think we can assume that though we only explicitly hear about Christ healing those with physical, and of course spiritual, ailments, Christ also healed many who suffered from mental illness, addiction, and other unseen conditions.

In addition to the miraculous healings that Christ and His Church did then—and still do—Jesus offers us one other possible remedy: a message of hope, meaning, and joy.

I’m eternally grateful for a faith that gives me a sense of meaning—a call for living. The darkest aspect of depression, the illogic of it, is the thought that life is meaningless: that we are simply the result of chance, and therefore anything outside the realm of the material (as scientism professes) isn’t objectively real.

When a culture or person believes this to be true, there is a great danger of becoming depressed and despairing. If things are going great in someone’s life, then it’s easier to believe this idea that life, at its core, has no meaning and to keep moving forward in life. But if life becomes difficult and challenging, it can seem perfectly reasonable to assume that ending this useless stint in the universe is a valid option. The question can easily become, why not just flip off the light switch?

Victor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, which is an account of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl, a trained psychiatrist, recounts that the prisoners who found a way to survive despite the unfathomable misery of the situation often did so through finding meaning for their existence. They were able to transcend the hell of their reality by fixating their heart and will on something purposeful, such as their family, a loved one, or God.

Frankl called this theory Logotherapy, which “is founded upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that those who suffer from depression or some other condition just need faith. We all suffer. People are broken and sick. And we should seek out professional help if necessary to address our sickness; God uses us—His people—to be instruments of His healing grace.

I’m also not suggesting that Robin William’s suicide, or anyone else’s, occurs because they failed to see meaning in their lives. The reasons and theories surrounding suicide and its causes are vast, complicated, and not fully understood.

I’m simply suggesting that we need a culture that enfleshes hope, joy, and meaning at its core—one that promotes the inherent dignity and worth of every life. A culture that proposes the existence of a God who loves us and has created us for some purpose and calling, a God who breathes meaning and joy into our lives, even when we’re beset by pain, suffering, and mourning.

And with God, we can help build and sustain such a culture. We can proclaim the Good News and set captives free by pointing others to God.

We may not have the power to heal others or remove their suffering completely, but with God, we can offer the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” In those moments we all have, those moments that tempt us to despair and send us into an abyss of darkness, we can hold firm to the promises of our God. We can contemplate His beauty in a world often tarnished by ugliness.

For Robin Williams and all those who have lost their lives to suicide, may God, in His infinite compassion and mercy, gather these children of His into His tender arms. May he give them rest and peace and show them continually how beautiful and loved they are in His eyes for all eternity.

Chris Hazell is the founder of The Call Collective, a blog exploring the intersection of faith, culture, and creativity, which looks to provide insights, reflections, thoughts, and advice on how to discern God’s presence and call (and how to respond with courage and faith). You can find him on Twitter @chrisjhazell and follow the blog’s latest posts on Facebook.